Working in small groups and overseen by a Yale faculty member, global affairs seniors complete a public policy project on behalf of a client. In Fall 2021, the “Forever Refugee” capstone project was selected for the Capstone Prize for Excellence.

For our Global Affairs Capstone project, we worked for two clients, UNHCR and Alight, learning how to navigate two different institutions working within refugee settlements to provide humanitarian aid. This experience gave us a nuanced and applied understanding of the humanitarian world, as well as the objectives of various institutional actors within it. It was a challenging and rewarding experience to learn to communicate with both these organizations. For us, it was really important to place the narratives of those in protracted refugee situations at the center of our policy recommendations to the UNHCR and Alight. So, we structured our project around two questionnaires on youth empowerment and on peace building, which we used in interviews with 71 people. 

The UNHCR defines a protracted refugee situation as one in which 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five or more years in a given asylum country.1 Despite the fact that ~60% of the 26.4 million refugees globally are living in protracted situations,2 media coverage and the aid world largely focus on the immediate aftermath of refugee crises without recognizing the possibility of these situations becoming protracted. There is also a lack of sustainable infrastructure and funding beyond emergency-based responses. Our work took us beyond the classroom and tasked us to grapple with a central question humanitarian actors face: given the boundaries of structural barriers and political limitations, what can be done to enable sustainable, long-term development in protracted refugee situations? 

Our work was conducted with the understanding that certain structural barriers make the lives of protracted refugees incredibly difficult. Those who spend their entire lives as protracted refugees face strict restrictions on freedom of movement and the right to work, factors that are outside even the scope of the UN’s capacity. In light of these realities, we designed our research and advocated for policy adjustments with the hope that despite the vast structural hardships refugees face in empowering themselves, there are some matters, from education to mental health, in which small changes may help improve the quality of life for protracted refugees. 

When we began our capstone project, we established the following major themes as key areas of focus; education, language, extracurricular activities, entrepreneurship, sexual violence, employment, peace building workshops and awareness, spiritual wellbeing and mental health. The following are some of the key takeaways. 

  • There needs to be improved language instruction to ensure that those in protracted refugee situations aren’t held behind in school due to changes in the main language of instruction.
  • There needs to be improved contact between humanitarian organizations and grassroots refugee-led organizations, with clear points of contact available.
  • One way to improve empowerment among refugees is to train refugee teachers to be mentors for younger generations.
  • In an effort to empower refugees in the face of corruption, the UNHCR should engage in outreach with local community members, specifically community leaders and elders, to expand informal rights-based education around systemic corruption and bribery.
  • As the current graduates of most vocational programs receive tools to use during training but not to start their own businesses nor to provide services, there should be more accessible ways for refugees to acquire their own equipment which would allow refugees the chance to start their own businesses in the face of limited financial resources.
  • Although many of the refugees we spoke with are Christian, we found that religious centers are often overlooked by organizations like the UNHCR and Alight, who admitted that they choose not to focus on religious centers within their projects. However, churches should not be ignored as a potential center for social capital and empowerment.
  • Integrating peace into informal education, such as workshops and sports games, may be effective in reaching marginalized, out-of-school youth, but in the long run, the goal should be to formalize peace education within formal education available to all youth.
  • Inclusive peace processes are most significant when the included actors have meaningful influence over policy decisions. Aid organizations should work on advocating for these opportunities and mobilizing those already engaged in peace building workshops by training them as potential youth delegates.
  • Conversations on sexual violence need to be expanded to include male survivors. Support groups within refugee settlements that encourage community and trust-building for survivors of sexual assault decrease stigma and isolation for both men and women.

Moving from interviews to developing policy recommendations challenged us to think from the perspectives of UNHCR and Alight. We had to distinguish between intractable limitations from the perspective of a multilateral organization or nonprofit (funding, jurisdiction, mandate) and areas of potential improvement. Many members of the team hope to continue working on these issues moving forward, and it was a unique learning experience within the Global Affairs curriculum.