Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Migration: a double-edged sword for youth

Imagine a 16 year old Ukrainian girl sitting on a bench outside of her school, waiting for a bus. She doesn’t speak much English. She doesn’t have friends yet. A young man sits down next to her on the bench and smiles at her. She tentatively smiles back. He eventually tells her that his sister’s nail salon has a new opening, and she has very nice nails, and would she be interested in working there? She eventually accepts the job.  

"Youth migrants are placed into positions that
could lead to greater vulnerability and empowerment"
Maybe this man has done this girl a great service. Maybe they will end up being great friends, and she will support her family’s menial income. It’s also possible that he is taking advantage of her. Maybe she will end up working overtime without pay. Maybe he will hit her if she asks for a day off. 

The fact is that this migrant adolescent, having no social support in this country and desperate for a way out of poverty, is in no position to make this type of judgment. 

35 million adolescent and youth international migrants exist today. Youth are increasingly mobile, whether that is because of need, pressure, or choice. Here are three primary reasons for (as taken from this report)
  1. Refuge – Natural disaster and conflict have led to 35 million refugees, a significant portion of whom are adolescents.
  2. Opportunity – studies have identified a “culture of migration” among youth, where adolescents migrate in search of education, employment, and the hope for a better life. It has been estimated that between 1970 and 2025, the number of urban youth will increase by 600 percent.
  3. Coercion – An estimated 250,000 children around the world serve as soldiers for government forces and rebel groups in armed conflict. Many are kidnapped and coerced. Others join out of desperation, including poverty. Youth often migrate to escape this fate.
Young migrants have the same needs as all other immigrants, but their needs are often particularly affected by displacement from their homes and separation from family. They often find themselves in high stress, high violence environments and struggle to find their way out. Attempts to gain independence often result in pressure to enter trafficking scenes and engage in survival sex.

The increased vulnerability of adolescents also implies that they must be treated differently when it comes to public health. The teenage years are seen as gateways to health because behavioral patterns adopted during this time tend to last through adulthood. Studies show that about 70% of premature deaths among adults are due to behaviors developed during adolescents. So where do we need to focus our efforts?
  • Youth must be noticed. Specialized programs must be developed tailored to young people in refugee camps, immigrant communities, urban slums, and other displacement settings.
  • Youth must be understood. Any programming developed needs to be culturally appropriate. Services must be aware of family circumstances, age, gender, and cultural norms.
  • Youth need mentors. Adolescent immigrants are often living alone or with unstable social support systems. They need people who they can look up to be a positive force in their lives.
  • Youth need access. Often living in poor areas, these youth need access to education, jobs, and information. They need proper health care and health education to support their reproductive and mental health.
  • Youth must remain involved. Engaging in community not only builds a social network for these adolescents, but allows them to take ownership for systemic changes relevant to their lives.
For youth, migration is a double-edged sword. Young individuals are placed in positions that could lead to both greater vulnerability and empowerment. Whether the latter prevails is dependent on the attention communities devote to recognizing the problems of adolescent migrants and actively striving to solve them. As communities build supportive systems, it is imperative to keep adolescents at the forefront of solutions. 

IOFA’s work is dedicated to addressing this very issue. In 2003, IOFA helped develop Smooth Flight, a training film that shares the experiences of youth from Latvia as they go abroad in search of work, adventure, and opportunity. Just last week, we launched Project Prepare in Ethiopia, a program designed to empower youth aging out of care to make informed decisions about evaluating job opportunities and educate them on the risks they face as a new adults entering the world. 

Migration is often the last option for young people  who live in parts of the world  where it is virtually impossible to achieve economic stability. Immigration can be an incredible opportunity to experience a new culture, support family back home, and thrive as an independent adult. This is why it is important for IOFA to continue its work. Equipped with decision-making knowledge and confidence, there’s nothing that can stop these young souls.

Nikhitha Murali, Intern

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