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Transforming attitudes in humanitarian aid organisations

A boy prepares to leave a voluntary repatriation centre in Dogharoun, Iran, and start the journey home to Afghanistan © UNHCR / M H Salehiara / 2012
A boy prepares to leave a voluntary repatriation centre in Dogharoun, Iran, and start the journey home to Afghanistan

Today, the notion of agency among refugee youth is almost taken for granted but this attitudinal shift and its consequent impact on policy and practice have only recently come about.

This participatory programme of research, led by Professor Dawn Chatty and focussing on Palestinian, Saharawi and Afghan refugees, has resulted in significant changes in the attitude and engagement of humanitarian organisations regarding this issue. It has led to the revision of policies and strategies related to refugee youth within the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Challenging prevailing norms

The project set out to examine refugee youth in the context of their households and community; to look into ways that youth are changed by past and current episodes of forced migrations; to study the change of status from childhood to adulthood, as well as transformations in family and community cohesion. Interviews were conducted with more than 500 refugee youth and their care-givers over a six-year period between 1999 and 2005. The semi-formal interviews were supplemented with participant observations and oral history collection.

The research challenged two prevailing conceptualisations widely held by humanitarian and aid agencies regarding refugee youth: firstly, that ego-centric, Western models of child development were appropriate models to apply globally; and secondly, that refugee youth are vulnerable victims. In contrast, our research was able to show that a community-centric focus, expressed in early political engagement and by burden-sharing of common household requirements, was widespread among the youth; they rejected a ‘trauma’ labelling and were active agents supporting their families and communities and involved in political processes.

Working with UNICEF, UNRWA and UNHCR

Policymakers and practitioners from UNICEF (Dr Adnan Abdul-Rahman) and the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (Dr Abdul Aziz Thabet) were directly involved in the project from a very early stage in order to facilitate knowledge transfer and training of practitioners.

Thanks to the substantial body of research, Professor Chatty has been asked to present summaries of findings throughout the last decade to various units of UNRWA, playing a major role in refocusing attention on refugee youth within the organisation. In 2009, the RSC became a key founding member of a small international group of senior scholars and practitioners which provides regular confidential policy advice to the office of the UNRWA Commissioner-General regarding refugee youth.

Over the past decade, UNICEF missions in Amman and Jerusalem have requested RSC research findings in the form of ‘Lessons Learned Reports’ so as to improve their own youth-focussed programming. As a result of this close collaboration, in 2009, Professor Chatty was invited by the UNICEF Head of External Affairs to take part in an internal policy review process with regard to children and youth in the MENA region. At the grassroots level, UNICEF has engaged Palestinian youth in life skills training since 2009 as a result of long-standing research-based recommendations by the project.

During the past decade the RSC has worked with UNHCR Resident Representatives in South West Asia and North Africa. Engagement and advocacy through ‘Lesson Learned Reports’ and briefing notes have strengthened the role of youth and youth participation in UNHCR programming and policy, particularly in Iran, Syria and Algeria. Senior UNHCR youth participation evaluation officers at UNHCR headquarters have referred to the value of the RSC’s work in transforming their attitude and approach to refugee youth.


  • Dawn Chatty
    Dawn Chatty

    Emerita Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration; former Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, 2011-2014

Selected publications