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Youngsters, Forced Displacement, and Worldlessness

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt (1958) used the term “worldlessness” to define those situations where a person does not belong to a world in which they matter as human beings. Arendt spoke of the “world alienation” that, in her view, characterizes a radical sense of disconnection and alienation from the physical and social world individuals share with others. This theme seems to be equally resonant in describing the plight of contemporary refugees and other forced migrants. For those children and youth who have survived potentially traumatic life events, such as exposure to war-related violence and deprivation, the loss of a home and challenging living conditions in refugee camps, as well as possible separation from family members, the sense of worldlessness and alienation may be more profound.

Advocacy, policymaking, and programming on behalf of displaced children have tended to emphasize their vulnerability, often focusing on the psychological sequelae of uproodtedness (Hassan et al. 2015; UNICEF 2009; UNHCR 2013). Adolescent girls, who account for an increasingly large proportion of displaced persons, indeed maybe at a comparative disadvantage. Additional risks, such as rape and gender-based violence, early marriage, and sometimes abduction, are greater for female adolescents than for other populations (Women’s Refugee Commission 2016). Much of the current research and policy work on gender in forced migration, consequently, focuses on combating sexual and gender-based violence (EPAU and UNHCR 2008; Forced Migration Review 2007; UNHCR 2003). Far less attention is paid to girls’ resiliency and potential contributions, a stance attributed to the prejudicial attitudes prevalent in international development and humanitarian arenas, that privilege the perspectives and agendas of boys. As Nordstrom argued almost 20 years ago, “the lack of political, economic and educational development for girls is a symptom of many societies’ failure ... to see women as political, economic or educated actors” (1999, 44-45). This perception cannot be said to have changed very much in recent years.

Yet, “[e]thnographic research ... suggests that child migrants, [both girls and boys] often play an active role in assessing their own situation, making decisions about their life trajectories, and negotiating the challenges and opportunities posed by displacement” (Ensor and Gozdziak 2010, 3). Child rights advocates also have progressively embraced a more positive recognition of the constructive roles that young people in general, and girls in particular, can play as social actors, not just as passive recipients of others’ provisions (Ensor 2010). This book provides additional evidence of the agentic capacities of children and youth of both genders as they confront and navigate the dramatic changes brought about by humanitarian crises, armed conflict, and forced migration in a variety of circumstances across the globe.

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