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Book Review: Adolescents in Humanitarian Crisis: Displacement, Gender and Social Inequalities

22 Nov 2021
Reviewed by Jacqueline Bhabha

Adolescents in Humanitarian Crisis offers an insight into issues facing adolescents in crisis situations. It spans multiple regions and issues, covering adolescents who are internally displaced, living in refugee camps, or living under occupation.

The needs and voices of adolescents have long been an afterthought in the organisation of humanitarian interventions in crisis situations.

Families usually occupy centre stage as the primary spokespeople for the younger generation, resulting in intervention agendas driven by adult priorities. Where families are harmonious and travel together to flee danger and seek protection, parents generally advocate for the best interests of their children and seek resources to advance their safety and well-being. However, as is increasingly apparent in humanitarian contexts, families are not always havens of security and support. Family separation, oppressive anti-migrant policies, statelessness, destitution, and health challenges contribute to situations of child abuse and neglect, and to diffusion of exploitative practices that severely harm young people. Racism, xenophobia, acute resource scarcity, deficient safety provisions, and generational disparities militate against access to appropriate protection for adolescents. The complexities associated with adolescent parenthood are largely ignored.

Fortunately, the myopic, adult-centred approach to protecting young people in humanitarian context is no longer unchallenged, as more vigorous and high-quality engagement with child and youth-specific issues in the forced migration and displacement context increases. Growing recognition of the scale of unaccompanied child and youth displacement is partly responsible for this change in focus, as is an expanded acknowledgement of the legal and ethical importance of according children and young people a voice.  Recognition that protracted displacement, insecurity, and impermanence impact human development also contributes to growing interest in the protection of younger generations.

Adolescents in Humanitarian Crisis: Displacement, Gender and Social Inequalities is a valuable addition to a growing literature, a resource that will be of significant use to policy makers, practitioners, teachers, and students.  The collection assembles documentation of empirical work largely supported by Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE), a nine-year global research project on gender, adolescents, and social inclusion funded by the United Kingdom’s Overseas Development Institute.  The chapters span multiple regions and issues, covering the circumstances of adolescents who are internally displaced, living in refugee camps, or living under occupation. They probe the challenging outcomes of constrained choices made under serious duress, discuss the multifaceted impacts of statelessness, and examine how humanitarian interventions can bridge sectional divides to generate holistic and integrated service delivery and support adolescent agency.

The research papers are linked by a common conceptual framework developed through the GAGE consortium, which enables the reader to situate abstractions such as “capability” or “change” and their impact on program development and population outcomes in concrete operational settings or “contexts.” We learn, for example, how to disentangle the differentiated drivers of adolescent risk and resilience among Syrian adolescents in Jordanian refugee camps, with girls choosing early marriage as an escape strategy from increasingly curtailed mobility and educational opportunity, and boys experiencing exploitative working conditions, bullying, and exposure to substance abuse as they navigate profound familial impoverishment. By contrast with some of the generalities articulated about child marriage in the human rights literature, we learn that married Syrian girls in Jordanian refugee camps are less likely to express negative feelings of sadness and hopelessness than their unmarried counterparts. Early marriage, in this particular setting, seems to act as a permissible strategy for alleviating extreme social isolation, boredom, and a sense of personal futility. This finding poses an interesting challenge to human rights practitioners and policymakers who are developing appropriate gender-differentiated tools for protecting and enhancing adolescents’ rights and well-being.

Some of the qualitative data on the young women’s suffering are quite painful to read, and illustrates the sharp disconnect between progressive policies on the books and actual practice. The authors explain this disconnect as a “paradox.” More simply, it reflects the work needed to implement progressive policies at odds with well-established local norms. The convincing conclusion is that much more publicly funded engagement with these issues is essential.

Discriminatory donor policies linked to geopolitical priorities, such as refugee support as a quid-pro-quo for migration control, have a direct impact on communities not seen as acute migration “threats”. Adolescent Palestinian refugees in Jordan, thus, are at a severe disadvantage in terms of employment and educational opportunity compared to their Syrian counterparts. This is exacerbated by the obstacles to social inclusion generated by statelessness. Meanwhile Palestinian adolescents living under occupation in Gaza face other challenges, particularly ongoing and acute violence. In a powerful chapter on the experiences of these adolescents, the author explores mechanisms for preventing or ending endemic and multi-layered violence (mainly physical in the case of boys, mainly psychological in the case of girls) in the face of enduring political oppression, compromised humanitarian support, and deficient basic services. Surveying the complex spin-offs generated by occupation and enduring conflict, including pervasive intra-familial and school-based violence, the author calls for holistic and concerted efforts to strengthen both institutional resources as well as the proactive demands for protection from within the adolescent community.  A more daunting set of challenges to ensure adolescent well-being in the near future is hard to imagine.

In the Rohingya refugee context in Bangladesh, the evidence presented also suggests a need for fresh perspectives and more nuanced policy development for strengthening adolescents’ rights. Enhancing educational opportunity in the face of family concerns about girls’ safety generates challenges for providers to explore innovative strategies – the use of chaperones or mobile learning, for example. The reader is forced to interrogate a simplistic account of families’ “conservatism” or “oppressive social norms” in favour of a more critical and forward-looking inquiry into mechanisms that might be responsive to community needs rather than judgmental or imposed by “international norms” never approved by local actors.

Despite the somewhat mechanistic presentation of individual papers, where the GAGE conceptual framework is repeated chapter by chapter, novel insights that inform and stimulate appear repeatedly. The notion of “generationing,” for example, provides a useful tool for interrogating the social construction of age and highlights the ways the structural violence of displacement (rather than familial “culture” alone) impinge on changing coping strategies. In Ethiopia, internally displaced adolescents exposed to extreme poverty find gendered differences neutralised by an environment in which educational opportunity is elusive for all.  The chapter addressing this important and neglected topic rightly calls for more attention to a range of foundational issues – the absence of registration documents, the lack of humanitarian support – which exacerbate already grave economic and psychological vulnerabilities of adolescents. Services that are supposedly universal in practice exclude many populations who, despite being nationals of the relevant state, are not “locals” – an important but neglected social protection lacuna.

Finally, the integrated focus on multi-dimensional vectors of both risk and protective capacity, provides a rich canvas from which policy insights and practical intervention strategies targeted at adolescents can be culled. Despite the varied settings for the studies included in the volume, several useful and consistent messages emerge across the chapters: about the urgency of combining international programming with localised supportive structures; about attending to the particular manifestations of gendered outcomes in discrete settings; about eliciting adolescents’ own evaluations of  the content and impact of well-intentioned programs; and above all, of relentlessly insisting on the inclusion of young people in policymaking, priority setting, and programming in situations where their quality of life and well-being are at stake.

This is a review of Nicola Jones, Kate Pincock and Bassam Abu Hamad, Adolescents in Humanitarian Crisis: Displacement, Gender and Social Inequalities (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, New York: Routledge. 2021) ISBN: 9780367764616.

Jacqueline Bhabha, JD, MsC is a Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She is also the Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Lecturer in Law at Harvard Law School, and  Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the Director of Research at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard’s only university wide Human Rights research center.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.