Refugee Summits: Did they listen to the women?

Two Yazidi women, refugees from persecution in Iraq, photographed in Serbia in July 2016

In the run-up to the global Refugee Summits held in New York this week, CARE has been urging world leaders to listen to the women. And ahead of the Summits, more than 21,000 CARE supporters wrote to Theresa May calling on her to do more to protect refugees. So, did world leaders listen?

What happened at the Summits?

CARE thinks the first Summit, hosted by the United Nations on Monday, was a positive step of goodwill, but fell well short on action to protect refugees. During the day, CARE co-organised, together with a UN department responsible for liaising with civil society, a high-level roundtable at which over 30 refugees and migrants got their message across to diplomats, including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Amongst the refugees there, Yusra Mardini – the Syrian girl and Olympic swimmer who saved a boat full of refugees crossing to Greece – said refugees felt they had “no home, no safety, not even the feeling that they belonged somewhere”:

Following the second Summit on Tuesday, hosted by US President Barack Obama, CARE welcomed commitments including an increase in funding for humanitarian aid by 30 per cent, but said more action is needed to address the root causes of displacement and to prioritise the needs of women and girls. On the morning of the Obama summit, we hosted an event focused on the specific challenges facing women refugees and migrants. This is what they said.

What refugee women said

Zrinka Bralo, activist with Migrants Organise in the UK and refugee from Bosnia:

Who feels safer by locking up pregnant women? Surely nobody? Detention of vulnerable women who have fled a crisis and are seeking asylum should never happen.

“Governments and other relevant institutions should also make the prevention of sexual violence against women as automatic as the delivery of food aid in an emergency. They should fear the consequences of getting this wrong. Then things will change.”

Mina Jaf, Kurdish refugee and volunteer interpreter for other refugees in Europe:

“Right now in Europe there are refugee camps where there is no separation between male and female refugees, no locks on the shower stalls, poor lighting.”

Imagine what this means for a lone women refugee and her sense of safety? She lives in fear.

“Just recently in Brussels, I met a Yazidi woman [from Iraq] with a baby boy in a queue at the immigration office. She spoke no French, Flemish or English. She had been raped on her journey from Iraq. She had repeatedly failed to access the help she needed, and if I hadn’t been there as a volunteer, the office had nobody to help her.”

This is the reality that vulnerable refugee women face every day.

Deborah Valencia, Filipino migrant activist and co-founder of the Melissa Women’s Centre in Athens:

“From our daily encounters with the refugee women and girls we come to know not only of their grief and sufferings, but most importantly their resilience and strength.”

These incredibly strong young women are running away in order to get their freedom and an education for themselves.

“They feel that their voices are not heard. Let us not keep those voices unheard, let us not make them feel that their future is removed from them.”

Sabah Al-Hallak, Syrian refugee and women’s rights activist in Lebanon:

“Until governments establish a fair, effective and affordable process for refugees to register themselves legally, then they will live in fear, confusion and isolation.”

They live in legal limbo in fear of detention or forced return. That creates negative consequences shaped differently for women and men.

“If they cannot get legal documents and a honest job, then some young refugee men have to work in the informal economy or even criminal activities to provide for their families. Likewise, when they are unable to turn to governments for legal protection, then refugee women and girls are at risk of exploitation and trafficking.”

What needs to happen now?

Some of the commitments made at the UN Summit offer some hope that people fleeing crisis might be offered better assistance and protection. For example, some governments offered to increase funding to the frontline aid effort.

Others described ways in which they will work harder to integrate those refugees they accept into their society – to challenge xenophobia and overcome the challenges faced in getting refugee children into school, and offering adult refugees a ‘hand up’ to get into work and putting their lives back together.

So progress has been made – but as ever, the challenge it to see governments actually follow through on their commitments.

After the Summits, Zrinka Bralo – who fled to London from Sarajevo in 1992 at the age of 25 – told us:

“How sad is it that I should feel lucky not to have been raped and killed in Bosnia, and should feel lucky not have been detained and denied rights in Britain?”

If I was 25 and a refugee today, would I be able to survive with all these obstacles in my way?

“I feel recharged by all the goodwill in the declarations at this Summit. But now we have to take action.

“Every refugee child should get an education; all refugees should have somewhere safe to live, work or learn new skills, so that those seeking asylum can work and make a positive contribution to their community; and refugee women everywhere should be safe from sexual violence and exploitation.”

Human rights and protection should not be about luck. It should be automatic.

“Governments should fear the consequences of failing to protect people, rather than the opposite. Now – after the Summit – let’s make it happen.”

Thank you to the 21,328 CARE supporters who wrote to Theresa May calling on her to do more to protect refugees. Every pledge of support for the CARE petition meant that the Prime Minister heard from one more citizen calling for a more humane approach.

At this time when some in the media and in politics spread such vitriolic hatred and misinformation about refugees, this is hugely important.

CARE will continue to campaign for a more humane approach to protecting people fleeing violence and persecution, as well as to address the specific threats faced by refugee women and girls.

We will be working with Zrinka, Mina, Debbie and Sabah to support their efforts to get the positive commitments made at the Summits implemented on the ground.

In the words of Mina Jaf, one of the brilliant young women refugees who raised her voice at the UN:

“Displaced women and girls need protection from abuse and exploitation. They need access to basic services, including education, employment opportunities, and reproductive health care.”

We are past the time for promises and talk. The refugee women and girls I work with every day just can’t wait any longer.

Donate now

CARE's picture

News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.