Refugee camps serve as microcosms of poverty-stricken societies. While on a much smaller scale than an entire country, many of the same problems that plague the developing world also affect refugee camps and their inhabitants. Many problems are exacerbated by the close quarters, new environment, boredom, and lack of social order that often characterizes refugee camps. Specifically, women and children face many of the same issues in refugee camps as they do in urban slums and rural villages. While specific problems vary, broad issues such as inequality and abuse are seen universally.
Women in Camps
Women and children are typically hit the hardest by poverty and life in a refugee camp is no exception. Often the victims of sexual abuse and other crimes, women lack a powerful and unifying voice when it comes to their predicament in refugee camps. The life of a refugee is one of uncertainty, boredom, and fear. Women are subjected to all of these problems in addition to gender specific issues they also must face.
Concerns of Women
The concerns of women in refugee camps are limitless in scope but include such issues as discrimination, sexual violence, human trafficking, and maternal and reproductive health problems. Rape is often used as a weapon towards women in order to demoralize and terrorize communities and families. Sexual violence stigmatizes women and leaves them emotionally and physically destroyed. These are issues that women face on top of their responsibilities as mother, head of household, teacher, etc. All of these concerns make a woman’s life in a refugee camp extremely difficult.
Health Concerns of Women
Frequently, especially in low-income countries, the health issues facing refugee women are not unique to refugees, but are common to the entire female population. These range from dehydration and diarrhea to high fevers and malaria, but also include more broad phenomena, such as gender-based violence and maternal health. All of these ailments, however, are multiplied for refugee women because of the external factors contributing to their particularly poor health. These external factors include culturally-reinforced gender inequality, limited mobility, lack of access to healthcare facilities, high population density within the refugee camps, and low levels of education.
One of the biggest concerns regarding female refugees’ health is their reproductive health. In refugee situations, reproductive health often falls to the bottom of the list of priorities, primarily because in situations where healthcare is already scarce, life-saving measures are often of prime concern. Much of reproductive health is not seen as a “life or death” issue, although it clearly is. Because of the lack of healthcare infrastructure in refugee-dense areas, women often give birth without any trained medical staff present. Complications during birth can often result from a lack of healthcare assistants or medical facilities.
Another key healthcare concern is that of gender-based violence within the refugee camps. It is generally recognized that, “displacement, uprootedness, the loss of community structures, the need to exchange sex for material goods or protection all lead to distinct forms of violence, particularly sexual violence against women,” making women in refugee situations particularly vulnerable. Additionally, sexual violence is considered a taboo subject in many cultures, and therefore gender-based violence often goes unreported. Even if women did have the courage to report violence, oftentimes there is nowhere within the refugee camp for them to turn.
Severine Deneulin explains Amartya Sen’s Capability approach as an approach to development where the focus is not on income, but on people’s capabilities. Capabilities are the freedoms to accomplish and promote what people value doing and being. Participation in the political process is one of Sen’s essential capabilities and the empowerment of women is included in this capability. Including women in important decisions is one form of empowerment. Aid organizations often lack gender-sensitive staff, and policies are often not comprehensive in their inclusion of women. Listening to women, working with pre-established organizations, and researching what services women actually want and need are all ways to empower women and get them involved in the governing of refugee camps.
Women spend a considerable amount of time every day collecting water for their families, but they are rarely ever consulted when it comes to water supply planning and management. Collecting water can take hours or even days and is often unsafe. Women spend time collecting water when they could be back at home tending to their children, generating income, or providing meals for the family. Adequate water services could be better provided if aid organizations and those in charge of refugee camps discussed water supply issues with women.
Women often participate in agricultural tasks in order to provide for their families. However, as with water supply management, women are often excluded from the discussion on what to plant in refugee camps. Establishing committees that include women in the agricultural planning process allows them to contribute their knowledge to the planning process. Often, women are just as capable as men when it comes to agricultural services, but often lack the tools, seeds, and land to effectively produce anything. Giving women the tools they need to farm is one way to increase the capabilities of women in the camps.
Children in Camps
Nearly half of the thirty four million people with whom the United Nations Refugee Agency is concerned are children. Children are often the most neglected refugees. The United Nations (UN) has indicated five major issues of importance concerning refugee children: separation, sexual exploitation and abuse, military recruitment, education, and adolescent-specific concerns.
Separation of children from their families is a common issue that has negative consequences for the children who are separated. If separation occurs, it is important to document the separation and attempt to reunite the child with his/her family (if this is in the best interest of the child). A strong family support network is essential to the proper growth and development of children in general, but especially those living in refugee camps.
Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
There are many associated dangers that come with sexual exploitation and abuse including teen pregnancy, infection with sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, and traditional practices that are often harmful such as genital mutilation. The responsibility to protect these children falls on the host government, the refugee community, and other humanitarian organizations. The lack of structure in refugee camps can lead to abuse. Improving awareness of the issue (both in and out of the camp), improving access to education, and creating safe living conditions are all potential strategies to curb sexual exploitation and abuse. Sexual exploitation and abuse can be publicly addressed and dealt with through legal battles, adequate health care, psychological support, and protection of the abused.
Refugee children are at an increased risk for recruitment by military forces. Often separated from their families, there is nobody to fight for a child when he/she is forcibly recruited by a military and forced to serve as a child soldier. There are several methods of recruitment: compulsory recruitment, voluntary recruitment, or forcible recruitment. Both boys and girls alike are recruited to join militaries and often fight alongside adult soldiers. However, other duties may be carried out by children such as cooking, delivering messages, or cleaning. Children enrolled in school are less likely to be recruited because it is more difficult for military forces to recruit an entire school as opposed to a single child playing alone. The UN states that children reap the benefits of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
Amartya Sen, Noble Prize winning economist, has listed education as an essential human capability that is integral to the overall well-being of a person. This is especially true when it comes to children living in refugee camps. Education serves a variety of practical purposes in addition to gaining knowledge and skills for future endeavors. Children in schools are at a decreased risk for military recruitment, sexual violence, HIV/AIDS transmission, and crime and drug use. The structure provided by education also provides a sense of normalcy for children living in refugee camps. The unstructured life of a refugee can be hard on children, and school provides children with a break from the tediousness of everyday life.
Adolescents are frequently overlooked by organizations that are providing foreign aid to refugee camps. Often if a parent is lost it is up to the oldest child to take care of the younger children, including those they are not related with, and this role frequently falls to the oldest female perceived as a mother figure. One such experience is described in the novel After the War. Adolescents would also benefit greatly from increased educational, vocational, and recreational activities in refugee camps for many of the same reasons children benefit from these opportunities.
Numerous Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations work to advocate on behalf of refugee women and children. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are two of the better known organizations advocating for refugees. In addition to services, refugees are in need of advocates to successfully lobby governments for their well-being.
International Rescue Committee
The International Rescue Committee was founded in 1933 to respond to humanitarian crises across the globe. The IRC works in forty countries to help displaced people return to normal lives. The IRC works to build capabilities by providing sustainable solutions to crises, and spends 90% of donations on programs that directly affect the impoverished. The IRC serves as an advocate for women to foreign governments to pass laws concerning the health and well-being of refugee women. They also educate men and boys to change the culture of violence towards women.
United Nations Human Rights Council
The UNHCR is a branch of the UN that was established in 1950 to help people displaced by World War II. Now the agency focuses on helping refugees, stateless people, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, and many other people who are without a permanent and safe home. They work in nearly every continent to provide aid and services to displaced people. The UNHCR advocates for refugees, builds capabilities, responds to emergencies, and provides assistance and protection among other services and programs.
It is the very nature of a refugee to be displaced. Often refugees resettle in new countries either close to the refugee’s home country or as far away as America. A refugee’s adaptation to his/her new home is dependent on many factors including education, sex, age, size of residence, ethnicity, ethnic support network, sponsorship, voyage trauma, marital status, length of residence, and in the case of refugees moving to America or other English speaking countries, English proficiency. While resettlement is hard on all refugees, children often have an especially hard time adapting to their new surroundings.
Adaptation and Children
Once a child is past the age of six months, their adaptation to their new surroundings is partially determined by the amount of trauma, stress, and violence the child has endured thus far in their lives. Identification with an ethnic group is also important to a child’s functioning. Boys are more vulnerable than girls to poorly adapt to their new surroundings because they are less able to adequately articulate their problems. Children adapt easier in new countries when the size of their ethnic group is large, there is a degree of cultural continuity from the home country to the host country, and the ethnic group is maintained in the host country. The idea of a cultural melting pot is not conducive to a child’s comfort in their new home as maintaining cultural roots is more important in the early stages of resettlement. Families represent an important way to help refugee children adapt to their now home.
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