International Youth Day 2012 - Something to talk about...

Luigi Fabbri

The 12th of August was International Youth Day. Of course, with so many official dates for almost everything (from the very serious 1st May or Women’s day, to the less relevant Ice Cream Month), it is certainly difficult to remember all of them. In addition, a lot of people were probably very busy taking advantage of a Sunday off or trying to escape the heat that August brings in some countries. Nevertheless, there’s more than one reason to pay certain attention to it.

This last year has been marked by some particularly important events. Well, there’s not really many years where nothing happens, but there are some years that can be considered to be the “desaparecidos” of contemporary history books where not a trace can be found. One imagines, rightly or not, that there’s nothing to write about but I certainly haven’t had the impression that 2011-2012 could be considered as such. Many important events have happened and in many of which young people have played a key role.

Let’s take, for example, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries where the Arab Spring was sprung. On the 4th of January, 2011 Mohamed Bouazizi died in the hospital of Ben Arous, in Tunisia. At the time of his death, Mohamed is less than thirty years old. He comes from a family of seven children that he has abandoned his studies to take care of. He has other dreams, however, due to the lack of money, he works in the fields and he sells his products in the markets. However, he never earns enough money to bribe the administration in order to have the license to do so and frequently, the goods are confiscated and he has to pay the fine to have his scales and cart returned to him until the day when, as it happens again, Mohamed protests and a municipal officer slaps him. What happened afterwards is known all over: Mohamed sets himself on fire in front of the government palace in a sign of indignant protest, kick-starting the Tunisia riots that will later spread to other Arabic countries. A large number of the demonstrators are young people who, like Mohamed, are under thirty. With Mohamed they share the same frustration and the feeling that their life is a bad trade-off, as they are giving up their youth and getting nothing in return.

Many of these young people have also decided to leave their country of origin in an attempt to fight for this future. According to a study carried out by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the UN in 2011, in many European countries (Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden), the average age of migrants is between 23 and 27 years old. An IOM report from last year strove to trace the profile of the young Egyptian emigrants after the 25th of January Revolution. According to the report, the most important issues which have pushed them to emigrate are: 1) jobs and employment (79%); 2) corruption in their country (67%); 3) security (56%); 4) wages/salaries (43%) and; 5) constitutional reform (40%). As can be observed, these reasons are a perfectly balanced mix between aspirations of subjective emancipation (to have a job, a better salary) and a broader desire for social change (corruption, constitutional reform). When change becomes impossible in their country of origin and also hinders personal emancipation, the only solution left for many young people is to emigrate. And for the majority of them, this act is not about fleeing permanently or admitting defeat: 80% of the young people interviewed affirmed that they would like to go back to their country at some point. Is this not a clear clue that what they really want is to share what they have acquired abroad with their fellow countrymen and, maybe, that the real meaning of taking the path towards personal emancipation is to also lead the way to a common destiny of social emancipation?

I recently came across an interesting documentary made by the Migrants Right Centre in Ireland. The title of the documentary is “Making Ireland Home”. The MRCI is a centre which deals with migrant workers and their family in order to help them to integrate into the economic and social life of their host country. The documentary asks a fundamental question: do these migrants see Ireland as their “Home”? If the answer is no, this means that integration policies are failing. The MRCI has decided to get young migrants to answer. Beyond the obvious vulnerability of young people to every form of exclusion shown in the documentary, a deeper and more complex issue of youth identity comes to the fore. In this sense, one of the interviewees affirms that for him “It's kind of difficult to know my place. Am I equal or am I an outsider?” Sure, everyone asks themselves the same question when they find themselves in that awkward grey area verging on adulthood when they are only beginning to understand themselves and construct their own identity and for a young person who comes from the other side of the globe, this question has a completely different intensity. Thus, the forms of exclusions are tenfold: from remarks on the color of their skin to the permanent fear of expulsion if their visa is not renewed. These young people can be stopped in their path to adulthood and have the contradictory feeling of being both an insider and an outsider at the same time.

However, the difficulties faced by young migrants don’t stop there. According to ILO’s Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012, young people face growing instability where part-time or temporary work are the only options and on top of this the economic crisis has drastically reduced the possibilities of employment in general, especially for young people, for whom entry into the labour market is becoming increasingly difficult and insecure. Indeed, according to the OECD, in 2011 youth unemployment reached 22.1% in France (compared to an average of 9.3% for the working population), 29.1% in Italy (8.5% for the entire working population), 44.4% in Greece (compared to 17.9%) and 46.4% in Spain (compared to 21.8%)! This clearly demonstrates that if the life of the general European population has been dramatically affected, young people are among those who have paid most dearly for being twenty-odd in a time of crisis! The demonstrations of the “indignant” and of young people that spread all over Europe in the last year have shown us the feeling and atmosphere that is circulating in many countries – not to mention the other demonstrations in which young people participate, or the discouraged and resigned young people whose story goes untold in official statistics because they finally lose hope and stop looking for a job…This situation is even more serious for young immigrants. According to a Forum study, a Dutch Institute which deals with multicultural affairs, in the first three months of this year 29% of the immigrants in the Netherlands aged between 15 and 25 were looking for a job (+7% compared to the same period of the previous year), while unemployment for young Dutch people had reached 10%.

For me, there is indeed something deeply disturbing in all of this. People frequently say that youth is the future of any country (and of the planet). But that’s not all. The Greek writer Stratis Haviaris called the moment of transition towards adulthood “The heroic age” – a malleable moment of identity-building where the idea of being able to contribute to a social transformation seems possible. In today’s world, we are in dire need of this. The economic crisis has demonstrated that, even what we call developed countries, have to rethink some things. At the same time, as a defining moment, this age happens only once in life, although its effects are long-standing. Once the opportunities our youth offer us are lost, there will be no going back and we will be forced to depend on adults whose education has occurred for the most part in conditions of exclusion. This is particularly more evident for young people leaving their country of origin. Since they don’t feel they can evolve and grow in their countries, they start travelling in search of an education elsewhere (whether they find it, at university or through work-experience…). Very frequently migration is carried out with the idea to one day be able to go back and share what they have acquired in a bid to foster social change. Young migrants also have a lot to offer to their host countries, precisely thanks to their youth and their willingness to grow and learn and make positive changes. Yet today they are among the most vulnerable groups, forced into a position where they are not able to give us what they have to offer and we are all becoming poorer because of it. At least, dear friends, Youth Day is for you!