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Five Questions About the Historic UN Summits on Refugees and Migrants

by Jamille Bigio
October 5, 2016

Syria women woman refugee displaced Idlib children Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside the refugees camp near the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern city of Yayladagi February 16, 2012. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra


The Five Questions Series is a forum for scholars, government officials, civil society leaders, and foreign policy practitioners to provide timely analysis of new developments related to the advancement of women and girls worldwide. This interview is with Sarah Costa, executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC). Costa reflects on women and girls in the Syrian conflict and European migration crisis, as well as on the outcomes from the two historic summits on refugees and migrants at the United Nations General Assembly last month.

The number of people displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015 was a record high at 63.5 million people—that’s one person in every 113. What are some of the unique challenges faced by displaced women and girls around the world?

Women make up approximately half of the people displaced by humanitarian crises worldwide. These crises result in enormous risks to women and girls in the form of rape, assault, intimate partner violence, an increase in early marriage, and all forms of exploitation. With displacement, there’s a breakdown of traditional family and community protection systems, leading to greater violence, and there’s a breakdown in law and order, leading to impunity for perpetrators. Women often travel alone, which makes them particularly vulnerable to trafficking and to exploitation by smugglers. We’ve seen this in the Syrian crisis, as women and girls move through Europe.

Among migrants and refugees, the gender inequality that women and girls face in society follows them into displacement and exacerbates these challenges. Factors like age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation can further exacerbate risks for women and girls. For example, adolescent girls are often invisible—isolated in their homes or forced into early marriages. The humanitarian community hasn’t done enough to identify them, and doesn’t understand their specific needs. This is something that the Women’s Refugee Commission cares deeply about and is trying to remedy.

The situation for displaced women and girls is compounded by the lack of resources for humanitarian needs, in general, and the significant gaps in addressing the needs of women and girls in emergency responses from the beginning of crises.

Focusing on the European migration crisis, how does the current EU-Turkey deal uniquely affect displaced women and girls? How can these risks be better addressed?

Many of the refugees who arrived in Greece this year are women and children seeking to reunite with family members in European countries. The EU-Turkey deal has profound and distressing ramifications for these women and children, including prolonged displacement, family separation, and unacceptable hurdles to accessing legal protection.

After the EU-Turkey agreement, refugees who had recently arrived in Greece were stuck, living in deplorable circumstances. When we recently traveled to Greece to assess the situation, women and girls reported feeling unsafe and were unable to access basic protection and services. Pregnant women did not have access to medical care, and families did not have diapers or milk for babies. Women were often forced to share spaces with strangers, and reported being raped at night. So many of these women suffered sexual violence and abuse en route; and yet, when they reach what should be a place of relative safety, they’re still threatened.

Our primary recommendation is that the EU and Greek government do more to protect refugee women and children stuck in Greece, and provide them with the information they need to access asylum. The Greek government should work closely with humanitarian partners to ensure that refugee women and girls have access to safe gender-segregated spaces and critical reproductive health services, and that they are not detained. We also must pay close attention if women and girls are returned to Turkey to help make sure that they receive adequate protection or asylum there.

Shifting attention to the recent events in New York, what do the outcomes from the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants and the U.S.-hosted High-Level Leaders’ Summit on Refugees mean for displaced women and girls around the world? They laid out plans for the adoption of two Global Compacts in 2018—one focused on refugees and one on safe, orderly, and regular migration. How should these compacts address the needs and experiences of displaced women and girls?

The summits provided a good opportunity to highlight what’s going on, but we were disappointed that there were not more concrete, tangible commitments made that would make a real difference on the ground for refugees and migrants.

The New York Declaration includes good points on gender equality, gender-responsive humanitarian action, gender-based violence, and the full and equal participation of women and girls in creating solutions. Now it’s absolutely critical to ensure that the compacts that are developed over the next few years for refugees and migrants include specific actions regarding the rights, protection, and empowerment of women and girls, to which states will be held accountable.

We’re also trying to push for recommendations that would expand access to legal and safe livelihood opportunities that leverage women and older girls’ capacity to sustain and protect themselves and their families. The humanitarian community often views livelihoods as long-term interventions when, in fact, if women and girls do not have access to income, it puts them at great physical risk. Of the large number of women trying to make their way to Europe, how many of them are selling their bodies to pay for a ticket and passage, or selling their bodies to pay for food? We know if basic needs are not met, women are vulnerable. There is an opportunity for the compacts to address this gap in a new and meaningful way.

As part of the Grand Bargain at the May 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, aid organizations and donors committed to provide more humanitarian funding to local and national responders to improve outcomes for affected people and reduce transactional costs. An additional commitment was made to provide better funding and training for local women around the world. Why is this a priority and how can the global community make it happen?

The Grand Bargain is spot on. In order for the outcomes from last month’s summits to be effective, it’s critical to make funding work for women and girls. We need humanitarian programs that address the specific needs of women and girls, and we need funding to go as directly as possible to civil society organizations. There’s something like 4,000 civil society organizations responding to crises, but they receive a tiny fraction of humanitarian funding. Civil society groups can help monitor what’s going on in country, and help hold governments accountable for all the commitments that have been made. But they need financial support to do that.

When there’s violence or crises, very often it’s women’s rights groups that are the first responders to issues affecting women and girls. But time and time over they do it without any funding at all. They’re playing a critical role, but the humanitarian community doesn’t acknowledge it.

The Women’s Refugee Commission will monitor the overall amount of humanitarian funding that goes to civil society groups and track whether women’s rights groups receive an equitable share. This is critical for the protection of women and girls.

There is a parallel effort underway—the Call to Action on Protecting Girls and Women in Emergencies—through which humanitarian actors have committed that every humanitarian response mitigate the risk of gender-based violence and provide safe and comprehensive services for those affected by it. What’s next on this front?

Our challenge now is in implementation. We know a lot about preventing gender-based violence, and some of it starts with simple steps—like locks and separate latrines for women and men. Yet, across the humanitarian community, there is a continued failure to implement this basic guidance. We need to call the humanitarian providers out on that. When they set up camps, they need to put these basic procedures in place from the beginning. It’s much harder to correct them if they’re not there, and women and girls suffer in the meantime. The international community has made strong commitments to protect women and girls in emergencies, but now we have to make sure that these pledges are really carried out.

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