Humanitarian crisis and the youth bulge in Middle East

A chance encounter with a humanitarian professional working for Syrian refugees unravels a phenomenon that is going largely unnoticed in the region

Ehtesham Shahid

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Arjimand Hussain Talib is more than just a humanitarian and international development professional. An engineer by training and a poet by temperament, he can easily don several hats at the same time. Born and raised in India’s troubled zone of Kashmir, a quirk of fate has brought this widely-travelled man to another conflict zone, the Middle East.

Based in Cairo, Arjimand has been working on the Syrian Regional Refugee Response, which has undertaken refugee-related projects from the war torn country in several parts of the region. Close encounter with this conflict has made him a humanist to the core.

My chance encounter with Arjimand – currently on a visit to Dubai – triggered several freewheeling conversations. It started with our shared home turf of Kashmir, primarily because Arjimand’s most recent book – Averting the Catastrophic India-Pakistan War: 11-Step Framework Towards Kashmir Dispute Resolution and Peace in South Asia – addresses the subject.

After trying to comprehend his understanding of the future of Kashmir, especially in the increasingly complex India-Pakistan context, and discussing the economic rise of China, where Arjimand has spent several years working, we eventually veered toward his current work station. After all, this is where he is literally in the eye of the storm.

The youth bulge

Put simply, youth bulge is a measure of the relative abundance of youth in a country. Syria’s conflict has left the youth among the most affected. “With significant educational attainment in the pre-war era, especially in Syria, they have found themselves in foreign lands and in very difficult circumstances,” remarks Arjimand.

While the host countries, the UN system and the international development/humanitarian community have largely taken care of the basic educational needs of the displaced populations, access to affordable higher education and jobs continue to be mired in deep difficulties.

A strong correlation has always existed between countries prone to civil conflicts and those with burgeoning youth populations. One study suggests that countries with a youth bulge are at high risk of civil conflict

Ehtesham Shahid

“Host countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are already reeling under domestic challenges in providing decent jobs to their young educated populations. The surge of Syrian and Iraqi refugees into these countries has put them under additional stress,” says Arjimand.

A strong correlation has always existed between countries prone to civil conflicts and those with burgeoning youth populations. One such study suggests that countries with a youth bulge – proportion of 15-29 population at 41 percent or greater – are at high risk of civil conflict.

Recipe for disaster

With this age group comprising more than 30 percent of the Arab population, we are witnessing the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history. This isn’t a region-specific challenge as more than half of the world population today is also under 30. However, rampant conflict definitely adds fuel to fire in this part of the world.

So what could be done to tackle this situation? While designing self-employment and wage employment interventions for UNHCR in Egypt, Arjimand has come to realize that countries in the region would need to radically restructure their education systems to make them more market relevant. He stresses the need to encourage critical learning and innovation to address the challenge posed by youth bulge.

However, all this must start with dialogue and reconciliation and dignified return of refugee and displaced populations to their homeland. After all, there is a limit to the tolerance levels of the social and economic systems of the hosting countries.

“A solution has to be found before we reach that threshold. We have the example of Pakistan’s transformation in the process of hosting a large number of Afghan refugees. Pakistani society is still grappling with the after effects of that phenomenon,” says Arjimand.

It was time for us to return to the Indo-Pak conflict, over Arjimand’s birthplace of Kashmir.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.