Foreign Relations & International Law Lawfare News

Dignity and the Needs of Young Syrian Refugees in the Middle East

Maira Seeley
Sunday, February 10, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Programs to counter violent extremism (CVE) are often focused on established communities in the United States, Europe, and the Muslim world. However, refugees are among the most at-risk communities, often trapped in a world of violence and despair. Maira Seeley of Princeton University examines the risk of radicalization for refugee populations and finds that they have different needs for CVE programs than their host communities. She lays out a series of recommendations on how to design CVE better for the millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war.

Photo Credit: via Brookings Institution

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Editor’s Note: Programs to counter violent extremism (CVE) are often focused on established communities in the United States, Europe, and the Muslim world. However, refugees are among the most at-risk communities, often trapped in a world of violence and despair. Maira Seeley of Princeton University examines the risk of radicalization for refugee populations and finds that they have different needs for CVE programs than their host communities. She lays out a series of recommendations on how to design CVE better for the millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war.

Daniel Byman


The Syrian refugee populations living long-term in Jordan and Lebanon will likely prove one of the Syrian conflict’s most enduring—and possibly most destabilizing—consequences. Although extremist groups’ capacity and territorial control in Syria has now fallen sharply, the risk of recruitment of refugee children and youth (ages 12-24) will remain. While Jordan’s Nasib crossing reopened in 2018 and some refugees have returned from both Lebanon and Jordan, conditions inside Syria make protracted displacement likely for many others. As a July 2018 START study reported, Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan and Lebanon can be receptive to extremist ideas, though refugees’ precarious status in host countries and the nature of refugees’ experiences can also discourage extremist activity. Historical examples, such as the experience of Palestinian refugees, suggest that the risk of radicalization and violence increases in the decades following displacement, rather than within the first few years. Conditions of persistent poverty and alienation among large Syrian refugee populations are likely to contribute to the threat of youth extremism in coming decades, whether violent extremist groups exert significant territorial control or not.

New programs have been developed to counter violent extremism (CVE) as a response to the immediate problem of terrorism in the region, but this response has not focused on refugee-specific risk factors for extremist recruitment. U.S.-funded CVE approaches (around $200 million of the State Department’s 2018 budget) have included supporting communities’ resilience, promoting cooperation and dialogue, building tolerance, strategic communications support, and conflict mitigation. Examples include support for improved dialogue between governments and citizens, support for educational reform, programs to build youth leadership skills, support for non-violent approaches to problem solving, programs to mitigate extremist groups’ online messaging, people-to-people and public diplomacy, and new police-community engagement.

These activities seek to address ideological and social factors in recruitment by violent extremist organizations, and they tend to target either host-country citizens alone or refugees and host-country citizens simultaneously. However, factors in recruitment differ significantly between young refugees and host-country youth. While valuable, existing CVE programs do not adequately address fundamental factors in young Syrian refugees’ participation in violent extremism, particularly their need to retain dignity (including the satisfaction of basic needs) and autonomy and their desire for redress of grievances. Syrians’ welfare and mental health needs, inability to access basic education, and exclusion from formal labor markets increase young peoples’ sense of indignity and their vulnerability to extremist recruitment. Reducing the threat of violent extremism among Syrian refugee youth will require the international community to focus on measures that address young refugees’ specific needs and risk factors, instead of a primary focus on the challenges that citizen and refugee youth share.

Overall, risk factors for extremist recruitment among host-country citizens are different from risk factors for refugees. While data on extremists’ recruitment of Jordanians is sparse, a Mercy Corps study of returned extremist militants in Jordan revealed that the vast majority were employed prior to recruitment, many as doctors or engineers, and economic and educational needs did not contribute to their decision to join extremist groups. Instead, young men viewed participation in extremism as a means of achieving legitimacy and a meaningful personal mission. As elsewhere in the region, addressing these issues would require significantly different approaches than those needed to address Syrian refugees’ risk factors for extremist recruitment.

A Levant7 study further suggests that factors associated with Syrians’ and Lebanese citizens’ attitudes toward extremism differ between the two groups. The study indicates that neutrality toward Jabhat al-Nusra (interpreted by the researchers as indicating tolerance of the group’s activities, indifference, or “simple disapproval” rather than active opposition) is linked to employment below respondents’ expectations and qualifications. The authors also noted that a broadly defined “sense of vulnerability and disenfranchisement” is associated with neutrality toward extremist groups among both Syrians and Lebanese. For Syrians only, however, dissatisfaction with basic service provision was associated with neutrality (or tolerance) toward Jabhat al-Nusra. Syrians expressing this neutrality fell within the lowest-income group surveyed, while Lebanese citizens neutral to Jabhat al-Nusra occupied many income brackets.

In contrast to host-country citizens’ risk factors, International Alert’s research on Syrian refugee recruitment by violent extremist groups points to economic pressure, disruptive social contexts, and traumatic experiences, the desire for revenge for losses during the Syrian conflict, a lack of personal purpose, and a lack of educational opportunities as factors. The evidence suggested that while economic deprivation alone does not directly cause refugees to engage in extremism, lack of economic means fueled the sense of hopelessness and loss of agency that contributed to refugees’ decision to join extremist groups. Unlike host-country citizens, Syrians were also motivated by deep personal grievances against the Syrian government and the desire for revenge and the recovery of personal honor. Data from Lebanon also indicate that, unlike Lebanese children, Syrian refugee boys as young as 12 are vulnerable to extremist recruitment. Belief in extreme religious ideologies does not appear to be the primary driver of participation in violent extremist groups, though young people cite religious ideologies as justification for their actions.

Justice and reconciliation processes are unlikely to resolve Syrians’ grievances. However, providing education, livelihoods, and treatment for psychological trauma may enable refugees to seek other paths to retain dignity and autonomy and mitigate perceptions of continued injustice—all major risk factors for extremist recruitment. U.S. CVE policy and international organizations’ support efforts should focus directly on Syrian refugee youth, particularly in host countries, in addition to citizens. These efforts should target educational gaps, material needs, and mental health needs in ways specifically designed to reduce Syrians’ vulnerability to extremist recruitment, as well as address humanitarian and development challenges.

Prioritizing Education

Supporting young Syrian refugees’ access to basic education and viable futures must remain a priority as a means for youth to maintain dignity and achieve autonomy. In addition to education and social links with peers, schools provide opportunities for refugees and host-country citizens to interact in ways that affect CVE outcomes. Young Syrians’ personal interactions with local students and teachers in school can have a crucial impact on their perceptions and their relationship with their broader host communities, and RAND’s comparative study has illustrated the link between refugees’ treatment in host countries and the likelihood of their radicalization. International Alert’s research provides further evidence of the connection between refugee students’ interactions with Lebanese classmates and the refugees’ reduced perceptions of discrimination, as well as the link between refugees’ sense of discrimination in host communities and their vulnerability to extremist recruitment.

Existing schools in Lebanon and Jordan are overcrowded and many use double shifts to accommodate Syrian students, while lacking basic amenities such as adequate sanitation, ventilation, and heating. Approximately 238 Lebanese and 209 Jordanian schools are used in double shifts, reducing both groups of students’ access to school facilities and the quality of instruction. Increasing the number of adequately trained teachers in schools in Lebanon and Jordan would significantly improve refugee students’ access to basic education. Teachers’ lack of preparation to teach classes that include refugee children, as well as the overall shortage of qualified teachers, leads to large class sizes (as many as 50 students per class), physical and verbal conflict in mixed refugee-host community classrooms, and poor educational outcomes. Perceptions of unequal welfare provision for refugees and citizens have also provoked conflict in both Lebanon and Jordan and impeded young Syrians’ access to education.

In addition to existing U.S. support for education in Jordan, improvements to school infrastructure and support to train and employ additional teachers would help reduce class sizes, improve educational outcomes, and provide immediate and tangible benefits to both host community families and refugees. Such support would also help to mitigate citizens’ perceptions that refugees receive preferential treatment at the expense of local communities and build positive refugee-host community relations, particularly as Syrians’ stays in host countries extend into the longer term.

Addressing the nexus between income generation and refugees’ access to education is also key. UNICEF reported that, as of a year ago, over 40 percent of registered Syrian refugee children remained out of school, and 29 percent of youth ages 15-24 were not receiving education or training, or otherwise employed. A U.S.- and EU-funded conditional cash transfer program linking livelihood support to children’s school attendance has attracted 180,000 refugee students in Turkey, where low school attendance rates are linked to refugee child labor. This approach could be expanded significantly to address the same persistent problem in Lebanon and Jordan. While such programs are hardly a permanent solution, they would help to reduce economic pressures contributing to some young Syrians’ decision to join violent groups, particularly as refugees’ savings dry up and families become more reliant on local income generation and child labor. Over 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan and around 70 percent in Lebanon live below the poverty line. A cash-for-education program would significantly increase refugee students’ access to education, providing a means of investing in a future beyond the conflict.

The lack of higher education opportunities for refugees and the challenges to formal employment in Jordan and Lebanon will remain problematic in the longer term. However, failure to ensure that refugee students are in school and that their basic needs are met will only worsen the threat of extremist recruitment in coming decades. This is particularly true given the young ages at which extremist groups have recruited Syrian children and youth. RAND’s study of refugee radicalization reveals that a lack of educational opportunities beyond the primary level increases the likelihood of refugees’ radicalization before age 15. A cash-for-education program would effectively buy time to solve longer-term challenges, including vocational and higher-education opportunities.

Identifying and Addressing Refugee Youth Trauma

Schools are an ideal space to address Syrian refugee students’ mental health needs, especially if more refugees are able to enroll in basic education. Program approaches should focus on preparing first responders within the school system to identify issues so that they can be addressed in an effective and culturally appropriate way. As mentioned above, International Alert’s research has identified the mental health consequences of trauma and a lack of psychosocial support as risk factors for extremist recruitment among young Syrians, including both refugees and internally-displaced populations. In Turkey, approximately 45 percent of Syrian children sampled in a single camp had symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), and 44 percent showed symptoms of depression. PTSD and depression worsen Syrian children’s educational outcomes and can lead to dropping out and conflict with local students, and school staff are often unequipped to handle children’s mental health needs. The vast majority of refugees have no access to mental health resources. Ensuring that students are in education will increase the likelihood that students with symptoms of PTSD and other disorders receive treatment, if school staff are trained to recognize and manage such symptoms. USAID’s Cultivating Inclusive and Supportive Learning Environments program in Jordan trained over 4,700 educators to provide psychosocial support and detect psychosocial problems, adopt interactive pedagogies, and manage classrooms including Syrian refugee students. Drawing on lessons from this approach, a similar program should be created and expanded to reach a larger share of educators in Jordan and Lebanon, focusing on identifying symptoms of PTSD and other disorders and developing referral and treatment systems within schools.

Currently, mental health resources are sparse and mostly available outside of schools, and users usually self-refer. Strong social taboos around mental health challenges bar many refugees (and citizens) from accessing even these existing resources. Referring refugee students for treatment through the educational system would avoid stigmatizing students by framing treatment within schools’ existing but overburdened counselling systems. The development and implementation of culturally appropriate methodologies for the treatment of PTSD and other disorders should be a priority, drawing on cooperation with Syrian refugee medical and psychiatric professionals. Locating resources in government schools would avoid political sensitivities regarding Syrians’ preferential access to resources in host communities, and would simultaneously improve educational experiences for all students in government schools. A school-based approach would also avoid singling out and stigmatizing young Syrians as prone to extremism.

Dignity through Employment

The importance of integrating young Syrians into formal labor markets is already well understood. Without work opportunities, education measures may prepare young Syrians for a greater sense of indignity, frustration, and mistreatment if no jobs and no viable futures are achievable following graduation. However, high unemployment rates among citizens in host countries—particularly youth—and concerns about the length of refugees’ stay have generated resistance from host states and publics to opening formal labor markets to refugees. Support for host countries to strengthen the enforcement of labor laws and combat exploitation would improve refugees’ access to legal employment, though opportunities remain limited. Subsidizing the cost of work permits for Syrians would also reduce obstacles to formalization and increase legal Syrian employment. Targeted investment in small- and medium-size enterprises in Jordan and Lebanon conditional on employing Syrians would boost employment for both refugees and host-country citizens. Jordan has committed to providing up to 200,000 work permits for Syrians following the 2016 Jordan Compact, but significant political sensitivities can obstruct any long-term plans for refugee integration into host countries’ labor markets. The most feasible employment opportunities for Syrians are those currently held by non-Syrian foreign nationals. Southeast Asian migrant workers currently meet labor needs in Jordan’s Special Economic Zones, but the poor working conditions, significant distance from refugees’ homes, and lack of childcare discourage Syrian refugees from accessing jobs. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees may legally work only in agriculture, cleaning, and construction, but work permits are costly and the vast majority of refugees who work do so informally.

Support for young Syrian refugees’ basic needs should not be contingent on the threat of violent extremism. However, the real risk of radicalization among vulnerable populations poses both development challenges and an urgent threat to regional stability that, left unaddressed, will erode the security of Syria’s neighbors. As the Syrian government consolidates its control over the country, returning to Syria remains impossible for the vast majority of the region’s 5.4 million refugees. Increasing investment in young refugees’ education, mental healthcare, and productive futures will be costly but essential for the future of the region. As of 2018, more than 680,000 school-aged Syrian refugees in regional host countries remained out of school, facing futures of poverty, precarious employment, and exploitation. Whether young Syrians have opportunities to bridge this dignity deficit by building productive futures—or whether they turn to more violent means of finding purpose and autonomy—will shape the security landscape of Syria’s neighbors for decades. CVE today should focus on the risk factors for extremist recruitment that are specific to refugees. For young Syrians in host countries, dialogue, alternative narratives, and better governance for citizens will not be enough.

Maira Seeley is a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She previously worked on conflict mitigation during the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan and received her MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre.

Subscribe to Lawfare