The reconstruction of Iraq needs the commitment and resources of its entire people. Yet the Iraqi government and the international community have neglected the current generation of Iraqi youth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of young Iraqi refugees who have the potential to transform their homeland.
Youth, not oil, is Iraq's most precious asset in building a stable and prosperous future. In 2002, before the US invasion, around 60% of Iraq's population was under the age of 30 – many with high school and university education. Today, too many of those young people are among the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees living in countries such as Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
As Iraq takes important steps towards national reconciliation and economic development, no one is paying attention to young Iraqi refugees. Their plight is largely portrayed through a sectarian lens. But when the focus shifts to the age of those uprooted, it is clear that a large number are young men and women, struggling with displacement at the prime of their life. Rather than building their future careers and families, their plans are on hold and their hopes are in limbo.
Omar al-Rawi, a 26-year-old Iraqi refugee, arrived in Syria in 2006 after receiving a letter that threatened his life and his family. "One night, 70 young men [including myself] received a threatening letter. Like my peers I had to leave in two days. I believe it was an attempt to empty Iraq of its educated youth," Omar says.
Like Omar, more than a million of other young Iraqis now live in exile. Unable to return to Iraq, they face limited opportunities in host countries to continue their education or earn a living. Many do not attend school, even when education is free, due to lack of documentation, overcrowding in classrooms and financial difficulties. Faced with poverty, they are compelled to work in the informal sector to support their families. Some become vulnerable to extreme measures: some young women are forced into prostitution and young men feel pressure to join insurgent groups because they offer a steady income.
While some Iraqis have returned from neighbouring countries in recent months and while most displaced Iraqis say they want to return to their communities when it is safe to do so, the returnees so far account for less than 1% of the total displaced. Most Iraqis, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, do not feel that security conditions have improved sufficiently for large-scale refugee return. But returns depend on more than improved security; until public services are restored and there is confidence in the government's capacity and impartiality, most Iraqis will choose to stay where they are. And some Iraqis, particularly minorities, may never return to Iraq.
While the goal must be to support young Iraqis to return to Iraq, much more needs to be done to support them during their displacement. The Iraqi government is brimming with oil money but so far it has only allocated $200 million out of a $70 billion budget for refugees and displaced. Additional funds should be used to urgently foster hope in the form of scholarships for study, vocational training tailored to market conditions, and support to marry and build families. And it is in the interests of the international community, including the host countries, to support these efforts.
With forthcoming local elections, there are new possibilities for political reconciliation, but provisions should be made to ensure that those living outside the country have the opportunity to participate. This is where Iraqi youth will have much to contribute to their country's future. Once promised democracy, they must now be given the means to exercise their rights.
Iraq cannot afford to lose this generation. Exiled communities and especially the young can be a positive force for change. In South Africa and Namibia, hundreds of thousands of refugees from the apartheid regimes were able to receive education and acquire skills that positioned them well when they were eventually able to return to their countries. Today in southern India, some Tamil organisations are supporting young refugees to acquire university degrees in areas where Sri Lanka needs particular expertise.
Testing times lie ahead for Iraq. The government is struggling to bring economic prosperity for ordinary citizens. Political stability hinges on local election turnout. The youth of Iraq must be mobilised to participate in the reconstruction and reconciliation of their country.