The Needs of Refugee Women and Children in the Global Humanitarian Crisis

Jun 24, 2016

In this powerful talk, executive director Sarah Costa explains the work of the Women's Refugee Commission, and discusses the current crisis. The numbers are staggering: one in 122 people across the world have been forced to flee, and the majority are women and children. The average length of displacement is 20 years. What can be done to help?


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Sarah Costa is our speaker this afternoon. She is the executive director of the Women's Refugee Commission. She is responsible for the organization's research and advocacy work—all that is necessary to protect and empower women, children, and youth who have been displaced by conflict and crisis. She is an experienced and passionate advocate for women and children, as a reading of her bio will indicate. I believe you all should have received a copy, and I hope you will have read it by now. I can only say that the Women's Refugee Commission is very lucky to have her leading the cause.

We have invited Sarah here today to talk not only about the over 65.3 million people who have been forced to flee from their homes because of war, persecution, and terrible human rights violations, but because many of these refugees, internally displaced individuals, who are seeking asylum are women or children, whose case for their protection is often ignored, which is morally indefensible. In the next 30 minutes or so, Sarah and I will have a conversation about the work of the Women's Refugee Commission and what should and can be done to help these women and children, to keep them safe. In the time remaining, we will open the floor to discussion so that you can ask any questions that weren't addressed during our conversation.


JOANNE MYERS: Sarah, I would like to begin by asking you just to talk a little bit about the global refugee crisis as you see it today.

SARAH COSTA: I think the first thing to say is that numbers are staggering. When you think about 65.3 million having been forced to flee their homes, these numbers are unprecedented. We haven't seen such numbers since perhaps the Second World War—in fact, when registration first started. So we are coping in the humanitarian system with great numbers. If you think about it, this may actually help you understand the dimensions of the problem. One in 122 people across the world have been forced to flee. That's incredible. When you talked about "many of them," the majority are women and children. In some settings, it's 80 percent, in some 75 percent, in part because so many men are killed in conflict. The numbers for us in this day are really difficult.

But I think it's also important to point out a couple of things that a lot of people don't realize. We are dealing with a very different humanitarian crisis today. Over 60 percent of people who are forced to flee end up in urban areas in non-camp settings. Yet the humanitarian system was actually designed to provide and deliver services to people in camps. So there is a bit of a disconnect there.

The other thing is that the average length of displacement is something around 20 years. When we think about the humanitarian system, it was really set up to save lives—quick-acting interventions, short-term interventions. Today we are really forced to think about what we do to really build stability, resilience of the population that is fleeing. They, as I say, on average are displaced many years. There are cases of women who are giving birth to children today that actually were born in camps.

We are seeing people in urban areas who are so hard to reach because it isn't a camp setting. Yet we have advocated a lot against camp settings, because people are confined and don't have freedom of movement. So we are dealing with a very, very different world.

If I can add one thing: The humanitarian system is expected to really cope with this crisis. At the same time, it's very isolated from the development community. If you start to think about more long-term strategies that build resilience of people, find them jobs, start to put kids back into school, we are really dealing with the development side of things. One of the key things that we are struggling with is how to bring these two sectors together so that we work together and really find more efficient solutions to this crisis.

JOANNE MYERS: It's right that we talk about refugees, but, as you said, so many of them are women and children. Maybe you could just give us a little background about the Women's Refugee Commission, how it was founded, why, and its mission.

SARAH COSTA: It was founded, I think it was 29 years ago. It was founded by a group of women who were attached to or part of the board of the International Rescue Committee, the IRC. One of the reasons it was founded is because the board members would go to the field and they would see that even women's most basic needs were not being addressed. They were delivering in fields without any health services being provided. They were struggling to get food, because at the lines for food—men would push them out of the way. The organization really was founded to start to think about how we could better meet the needs of women and children.

We have been doing this for many years. We are a research and advocacy organization. We are an organization that is really trying to push the humanitarian community to better address the needs of women and children. This means more specific programs and really trying to provide the evidence base for change.

JOANNE MYERS: What groups do you work with to collect the evidence, and what do you do once you have the evidence?

SARAH COSTA: We work a lot in partnership. To us it's key. Because we are research and advocacy, we don't have a presence on the ground. We are not a service-delivery organization. We are the people who are pushing very hard and telling the agencies that are responsible for care, "You need to do this. You need to do that. You need to push on this front. You need to make sure women are safe. Why aren't you doing the basic things you need to do?"

We partner. We partner with a lot of the UN agencies in our work. We partner with the large service-delivery organizations, like IRC, like the Norwegian Refugee Council, like Mercy Corps, Save [the Children], UNICEF, etc. Our success really is because we have a particular niche and we are seen as somebody that can actually help them improve their programs.

JOANNE MYERS: What are the biggest obstacles that you are faced with when trying to address the needs of these women?

SARAH COSTA: There is tremendous gender bias. Women are often not seen as important players in the field as men are. In refugee camps women have much less access to decision-making and leadership. Women get raped every day going out to collect firewood. Yet this doesn't seem to be at the top of the agenda for many people. When you see what happens in sub-Saharan Africa, where women make the choice of who they are going to send out of a camp to collect firewood each day, it's heartbreaking.

The fact is that it is not necessarily seen as a key problem, because it's a woman's problem, it's a woman's issue. They are responsible for caring for the family. They are responsible for cooking a meal without water. They are responsible for finding enough firewood—and it may take them eight hours a day to find enough firewood—to cook the meal for the family.

I think that gets translated up to the humanitarian community. I'm not saying everyone in the humanitarian community doesn't prioritize women, but when you look at progress on gender equality programming, it's pretty dismal. We are fighting very hard to get it to the top of the agenda.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you find that many women are migrants—or maybe we can talk first about—separate migrants from refugees. When we talk about refugees, we think about what is happening in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan. You mentioned Africa, where it's more of an economic issue, which is also a human rights issue—could you address that?

SARAH COSTA: It's a difficult distinction. There is a sort of fuzzy line between the two groups. Basically, refugees are people who are, by definition, fleeing persecution, conflict, and human rights violations. Migrants—often it's a voluntary process, and they are seeking a better life. They are looking for jobs, etc.

But when you look at what has been happening in the European crisis and you talk to people from Northern Africa or from Eritrea, they are people that are moving because they don't have access to health care, to schooling. They are suffering violence.

It's a hard definition. I tend to think people—if they are seeking asylum, all cases should be heard, whether they are going to be classified as a migrant because they are doing it for economic reasons. Then it's up to the judicial system to decide whether they get refugee status. But everybody has the right to claim.

JOANNE MYERS: The EU has now come to an agreement with Turkey to send the migrants back from Greece. Could you talk a little about what's happening in Greece? We were talking about that before we came down.

SARAH COSTA: As you all know, there was the migration route. People were leaving Turkey, getting into rubber dinghies, crossing the Aegean Sea, and making their way north, principally to Sweden and Germany. In March of this year, that route was closed, because there was a deal between the EU and Turkey that the border would be closed, Turkey would receive the refugees back from Greece, and then Europe, in return, would receive two refugees for every one returned.

But effectively what has happened—this is a policy to deter people moving. When people need to get out of a house that's on fire, they will do anything to jump out of that window on the top floor to try and survive. This is what we are seeing now. So the impact is really quite devastating. People are no longer crossing into Greece. They also are taking a much longer route round to Italy.

But the other thing is, we have a backup in Greece of some 50,000 refugees. My staff have just come back. They came back last week from doing an assessment of the conditions for women and children. Staff have been all over the world, and I haven't seen people so disturbed at what they were seeing. They were horrified by the conditions. Basically, what is happening on the ground there is that the large camp, the Idomeni camp, has been disbanded and people are being put into what are really detention centers. They are using old factories, factories that are not suitable to be used for housing people, while some of the asylum claims are being processed. There are some other camps that are more out in the open and people are living in tents.

But what is so disturbing is that women and children are not necessarily being separated from men they don't know. We had a number of women come to us and tell us that they were being raped at night, because they were going to latrines and there was no lighting. One of the basic things that we know about keeping women safe in humanitarian settings is that latrines need to be separated. You need to have locks on doors of showers and bathrooms in general. You need to have lighting near these areas. You need to really separate women from men, because violence happens in all of these settings.

So women are reporting violence. They are reporting that there are no adequate services. They have no one to report what's happening to. There are no reproductive health services. One of the things we saw last year was a very high number of women who were pregnant who were moving through Europe. This is the same in these camps. There are women giving birth in these camps and finding it incredibly difficult to get medical care in Greece.

It's unbelievable to think that this could be happening in Europe. This, to me, is tragic. I think we are failing women and girls. We are failing women and girls in a way that I haven't seen in some of the other settings. We need to do something about it.

JOANNE MYERS: Do you think the Italian government is addressing these needs in a better way than the Greek authorities are or is it the same across the board?

SARAH COSTA: I have no reason to believe—basically, what's happening in Europe is a policy to deter people. The EU doesn't want more people coming in. This was an agreement to push people back and to contain them.

What we also hear in Turkey is that for those few who have been returned or those who are still waiting to get out, the conditions are bad. I think it's important to realize that people don't move without really good cause. A lot of work and research has been looking at why people were leaving Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon in particular. Because of the closeness of the cultures, in many ways it would make sense for them to stay.

But what we are seeing is that kids have been out of school for four years. At least 30 percent of households are headed by women. This is because the men have disappeared—they are detained; they have been killed; they are off fighting—and for the first time, these women have got to manage the household. Well, they are not getting enough food. Their kids are going out to beg or to work at very young ages. They are not in school. The services are not adequate. To be fair, these host communities have done what they can. They are not necessarily rich countries. They need a lot more support. This is the other failure. We have not given them enough support to be able to manage the crisis. So people are moving on.

JOANNE MYERS: Could you talk a little bit about the unaccompanied children? The figures are astounding, the numbers. I think Europol reported that 10,000 unaccompanied children, refugees, have gone missing in Europe this year. That's extraordinary.

SARAH COSTA: I think there is not a wealth of data on what is actually happening. But one of the things I can tell you is that in one of the camps in Greece there are huge gaps in the fence that circles the camp. Women are reporting that their kids are getting abducted and trafficked at night. They can't stop men coming in the big holes in the fence.

Certainly when I was on the European trail—we went along through Serbia and Slovenia. What was happening was, it was such chaos that a lot of the children got separated from their parents. People were getting off trains—thousands of people getting off trains, having to register. In that kind of chaos, children get lost. There just weren't enough systems and cross-border systems to be able to identify these kids and make sure they were linked up to their families. But people are saying they are also disappearing from reception centers and from other services that have been set up.

It's a dire situation. I think we need to do much more research on what is happening to those kids. We need to understand—if they are being trafficked, then the people that research trafficking have to come into the pool of people who are responding to this crisis.

JOANNE MYERS: Has any progress been made? It sounds so dire.

SARAH COSTA: Overall in the humanitarian community, I think we have made quite a lot of progress. Over the last 30 years, we have developed quite good guidance on how to address the needs of women and children. We have also got very good guidance on how to prevent gender-based violence. We have a lot of tools. We have a lot of models that have been tested.

I think the biggest problem we face—or one of the biggest problems—is that so often these don't get implemented. There is a huge gap between policy and implementation on the ground. I believe that this needs to be tackled head-on, because we can't afford to be failing in this way.

I believe that one of the areas that needs to really change in the humanitarian system so that we become more effective and more transparent in what we do is to involve local organizations in the response. If you look at the situation for women and girls in particular, a lot of the local organizations in either the countries that are hosting refugees or transit countries that refugees are passing through—the NGO world is very well equipped to respond to gender-based violence. They are very well equipped to provide basic reproductive health care, delivery care, family planning that women so badly need along these refugee or migration routes. I think we need to build these new partnerships and new alliances, because I think this is how we also are going to—which I think is essential—increase accountability in our field.

JOANNE MYERS: I think that's a big problem, accountability and whether or not certain governments want to open up. It seems to me there is more of a push now to close their borders. The priority, then, would be to try to make people more aware, governments more aware, and hopefully that will be successful with resettling some of these refugees. Could you talk maybe about some wonderful cases where you have resettled refugees who have come out of these camps, so we can end on a more positive note?

SARAH COSTA: One of the projects that really resonates with me has been what we have been doing in Jordan, in Zarqa, which is an industrial area. What we have been doing is working with the local women's associations and we have been providing small grants to women so that they can set up almost like cottage industries. These are women who have never worked, never been out of the home, have no financial literacy skills. They are coming into these centers, and they are also working side by side with poor Jordanians, which is incredibly important so that we start to address that backlash that is happening in a number of these host communities.

The project has provided small grants to women. It is really about leveraging their skills. There is a wonderful case of a woman who had a recipe to make vinegar. It came from her great-grandmother. She started to make vinegar in her home. She now employs eight refugees. As you know, in most places refugees can't legally work, so they have to move into the informal sector. She is employing eight women. They go around the community selling vinegar. There are lots of other examples of soap and cleaning products.

But when you see how providing just a few resources and tools to women—they can fly. They can build a community around them. I firmly believe that there is a lot that can be done. Social and economic empowerment of women is key. Getting women into leadership positions in some of these refugee communities is absolutely key to changing the dynamic and making sure that more money comes to address women's issues, promoting gender equality in their communities. If they are not sitting at the table where decisions are made, it's also not going to change.

JOANNE MYERS: So what was the formula that made it so successful in Jordan that can't be duplicated in Lebanon or Turkey?

SARAH COSTA: This is a very good question. It's something I personally struggle with every day. When we have good models, what is stopping us from scaling up? I think when we look at the humanitarian system right across the system and the service providers, what we see are pockets of very good work, but not necessarily are these connected, not necessarily is that information shared, and not necessarily do we get the resources. Just to give you an idea, it's in the one-digit figure, the amount of money that goes to promoting gender equality and women's empowerment of the total budget.

We have just had the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, which is the first summit of this kind. It brought 9,000 humanitarian people together, people from government, NGOs, INGOs, etc. UN Women, which is the UN agency that addresses women's empowerment and rights, has made a commitment to try and push to get that figure up to 15 percent. If you think that the majority of refugees are women and then you add in girls, this is still a small number.

So this is, in part, one of the problems, the allocation of funding. You see these pockets. You see these good models. We have to keep pushing to scale that up.

JOANNE MYERS: Have you seen anything like that being duplicated in any other country other than Jordan?

SARAH COSTA: We are trying to do that. One of the things that I think is going to be important is a piece of research that we are doing. We are trying to develop an index that really sort of measures resilience. If we are all trying to build resilience and have long-term solutions to the problem of being a refugee, displaced for 20 years, what are the components that really make a difference in people's lives? One of them is actually having access to a job, to an income-generating activity. The other is education for their children. We are starting to quantify this as a way of using it as an advocacy tool to really change the dynamic of funding within the humanitarian community.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you so much for just giving us a little window, an opportunity to see what you are experiencing and what your needs are.


QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

Thank you for being so candid and really helping us to identify with the women. I have been thinking of questions all along as you spoke. You mentioned several times that the women and children are likely to spend 20 years in the refugee camp, in this area of suspended animation, really. Can you give us an idea, from the point of view of these women and the children, how they think about their future? Are they likely to return to a family situation with a father? What are their aspirations? You probably would have to break them down, the ones who are more entrepreneurial and starting jobs or their own cottage industries. But what are they hopeful to do? Are they just living day to day or do they have a sense of their future?

SARAH COSTA: I think it very much depends on the situation they are in. In some of the recent interviews that we did with Syrian women, refugees from Syria in Greece, some of them actually said that they prefer to go back and die in their own country because the conditions are so bad. So obviously there is not much hope.

But if you look at some of the refugees who were settled on the Thai-Burma border, they have established their lives there. They have a lot of hope. They have gotten access to far more services.

So I think it very much depends. But one of the things I can share with you is, I have just come back from the youth consultations. Every year the UN Refugee Agency has a theme and they bring in NGOs to talk, to consult with them, etc. This year the theme was youth. What we did was we took 30 young people, refugees, from all around the world to Geneva to actually talk to the humanitarian agencies. They had such a strong message of hope. There was this one young man from Aleppo. He is on his own in Germany, in terrible conditions. But he really believes that he can make a difference, having been in a network of other young people, that he now has that support. The young women in this group were very energetic, committed.

I think it is also related to age. I think if you have lived in displacement for many, many years and you have seen some of the horrors of it, perhaps you do give up. But on the other hand, my experience with women is that they will do anything to survive to support their families. I think it doesn't take much to give them hope, but some of them have lost it. It's sad, very sad.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Carol Spomer.

I have two questions. One is the issue of Islam. I imagine that most of the refugees follow Islam. How does that impact how services are provided and how the camp is operated?

SARAH COSTA: Urban areas are different, but in many of the camps that is taken into account. Many of the service providers are of the same faith and can support and relate to the group.

I'm trying not to answer thinking about security issues. I'm trying to think about—within a humanitarian setting, people try really to address the culture and accommodate. For Muslim women coming to a service center, every effort is to make sure that they see a female doctor. I think that happens. There is time for prayer.

I think one of the difficulties, of course, is that you see an opportunity in those situations to perhaps empower women and girls in a way that may conflict with the dominant religion of that community. That is a little bit difficult. One of the things we do a lot is obviously talk to community leaders. I'll give you a concrete example of what happens frequently.

Adolescent girls are so marginalized in some of these population groups, they are kept inside for fear of violence. What is happening is that we are seeing the age of marriage go right down in these kind of situations. Child marriage is very much on the increase, particularly in some of these Muslim communities, where they fear a worse fate for their girls if they don't get married young.

We try to work with the culture; we try to observe it. But we are also a rights-based group. And some things are wrong. Domestic violence goes up in all these situations. We speak out against that. It's not right. It's not right in any culture.

So we try to navigate with care and try to be sensitive, but there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong.

QUESTIONER: On a personal level—we were just chatting—if we wanted to go help teach English or be on the ground in some way, what could we do? How could we do it?

SARAH COSTA: There are many organizations that do take volunteers. I can put you in touch with people that can help you in that. We, being a research and advocacy organization, actually don't deliver services on the ground. But we are connected to groups that do provide services. There are many institutions that actually do take volunteers and want people.

I think the one thing that we have to always bear in mind is that the world is not what it was 10, 15 years ago. In many of the places where the need is the highest, it's also the most dangerous place to be. Security becomes a really big issue. So there are places that you can go and places that you really can't go.

But in Europe, if you speak—some of it is translation that is needed very much. People need to learn English in some of the countries where they are resettling. So I think there are some opportunities maybe in Europe, where you would be in a much more friendly environment, that could work.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Peter Manyara. I come from Kenya.

My comments are two. The first thing is, I think you have heard already Kenya is very concerned with increased terrorism. They made a decision recently to relocate or close down the Dadaab camp. I wanted to hear from you, what do you foresee as the psychological implications on, especially, children who have lived in Dadaab camp in Kenya since they were born until now, and then you move them to Somalia, a country which almost does not exist?

Then secondly, Kakuma refugee camp, which is in the north of Kenya, which is an area I've worked in extensively, there is this issue of the women and children who live on the periphery of refugee camps. What is the policy of Women's Refugee Commission as regards, for example—as much as you empower women and children who live in the camp, what is the position of your organization as regards to these periphery organizations, in this case the Turkana community?

SARAH COSTA: Taking the last question first, I think when you look at all the humanitarian service-delivery agencies, they all tend to work also with the surrounding populations. If you look at schools in camps, they are very often attended by non-refugee children. I don't think it's easy in very poor communities to make that distinction. From what I gather from organizations like IRC, they are serving a broader community.

In terms of moving people who have lived—this is the problem. People have lived for so long in one place. It's a huge impact on children. I think that one of the areas where there is very little assistance in the refugee world is psychosocial support. We personally feel it's something that shouldn't happen. We shouldn't disband the camp because people don't want refugees in the country, sending them back in harm's way. Somalia is not a place where families should be moving to at the moment. It's not settled. We need more stability there before people move. I think it's a tremendous problem. I think it's very devastating for children to have to make this move and suddenly to find themselves in a dangerous place, having to learn a new language. I think we have to negotiate a settlement around this policy.

QUESTION: I'm Luciana Marulli-Koenig.

Can you expand a little bit on your advocacy work?

SARAH COSTA: Absolutely. One of the things that we do a lot is to look for gaps in humanitarian assistance, identify needs and problems, and then we take that information and advocate at the local/national levels, but also within the UN system. For instance, we have been absolutely key in helping the U.S. government, the State Department, with what is called their Call to Action to prevent gender-based violence in emergencies. This is a new initiative that was launched a year ago. We have been collecting evidence, first around the need for that kind of global initiative that governments buy into and put dollars behind.

But the other thing that we have been doing is advocating for other people to join that initiative. This is the kind of thing we do. Why? Because if we can scale up that initiative, we have a chance of preventing, or at least contributing to the prevention of, gender-based violence.

So we take what we know. We take it to governments. We take it to the UN. We go to all the high-level meetings and sit there and make noise. This is what our advocacy is. I went to the World Humanitarian Summit. I got up and talked about the need for more programming in gender equality in humanitarian settings. I gave them some data. I gave them some numbers. I pushed very hard for more funds for youth programming.

What we try to do is to use our voices and take messages that are based on concrete evidence from our research. But also one of the key ways we advocate is to bring the voices of those that are most impacted by crisis, by displacement, and bring those voices to the forum. We work a lot on disabilities. People with disabilities have been excluded from humanitarian services for so long. They don't have access to reproductive health clinics. They don't have access to food because they may be in wheelchairs and they can't cross muddy fields in their wheelchairs.

So we have been advocating for disability inclusion across the humanitarian system, and we have been incredibly successful. At the World Humanitarian Summit, we finally were able to get a charter for disability inclusion signed by—I forget how many—I think it's 40 governments. That's the kind of thing we do.

We are looking for systemic change through our advocacy.

JOANNE MYERS: Has there been one cause that has been more successful than others? You mentioned disabilities. Do you find that having a case example or statistics—what works best?

SARAH COSTA: It depends. I think one of the ways that we have actually made a change has been through our reproductive health work. We were one of the first organizations, going back to the founders, that discovered that women weren't getting any kind of basic reproductive health care. We have been working with a coordinated group of agencies to push this forward. This has been very successful. A recent global assessment has shown that in almost half of emergencies we now have basic reproductive health care.

It's not good enough. We need to expand and get greater commitment. But if you look back 20 years, there was nothing in place.

So I would say that that has been one of our great successes. It's an area that is absolutely fundamental to the survival and well-being of women. If they are not healthy, they can't look after their families, they can't be productive. This is something that I think we consider has been very successful. We now have what is called a minimal initial service package. That package we designed with some other agencies. In an emergency all humanitarian workers need to look at that package and roll it out. It's expected to be rolled out in the first 24 hours.

I don't know if that answers your question.

JOANNE MYERS: It does, thank you.

QUESTION: My name is Zarka. I'm an intern here at Carnegie Council.

It seems to me that there are two sides to the issue of rehabilitation of refugees in countries other than their country of origin. On the one hand, it seems that there is a need to provide women with tools for their economic development, but on the other, it seems that there is also a need for social assimilation, because you repeatedly hear stories of backlash against the flow of refugees from different countries, where questions of national identity and culture come up. How do you think we can deal with that?

SARAH COSTA: I think this is a perfect area for a lot of the NGO world, because they are working at the grassroots level and have access to refugees. One of the things that we have found that has been incredibly important is working with the adolescent girls. As I said, they are the most marginalized. Frequently they are forced into early marriage. But if we can help them build their social, economic, and human assets at an early age, this really helps them. It helps them develop the coping mechanisms, and very positive coping mechanisms. We have been able to show that. I think the work that we have done, doing that in partnership with local groups, has been extraordinary in sort of changing the dynamic.

But also I think building networks—if women refugees—and men, for that matter—can be more integrated into the communities that are hosting them, either through centers where they can start to exchange ideas, talk to each other—so often the backlash has to do with ignorance. It has to do with fear of violence. It has to do with competition for jobs. If you can break some of that down, in safe spaces where people can really talk and feel that they can voice their opinions and get to know refugees, I think that's a huge help.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you, Sarah, for informing us about what the Women's Refugee Commission does and what we can hope to help with.

SARAH COSTA: Thank you for the opportunity. Thank you all.

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