by Ryan Corbett
I sat in a hot basement room of an old church in Cairo in the middle of August last year. I was working for a refugee legal aid organization during the summer after my first year in law school. A woman from South Sudan sat across from me bouncing a tiny baby on her knee to keep him from crying. Though this child followed from her rape just 11 months earlier, her community ostracized her because they viewed the child as evidence of her promiscuity. This mother spoke of hopes of all four of her children attending school and living without fear of being mugged on their way home from school each day. She so desperately wanted to work to support them, since her husband remained in South Sudan because he did not want to leave his parents. However, as an asylum seeker, she was not legally entitled to do so.
This woman’s situation is not an anomaly. Unfortunately, most of these stories go unheard. Many people speak of the plight of refugees in sterilized terms, allowing us to discuss numbers, quotas, and “influxes.” These terms allow us to remain at arm’s length, never having to grapple with an individual refugee’s dreams, aspirations, hopes, or fears.
The world is facing an extraordinary time of conflict and crisis and the number of refugees and displaced persons is the worst it has ever been in history, including World War II- currently more than 65 million people. These refugees originate from Syria, Iraq, and Somalia, as well as less discussed countries such as Eritrea, Colombia, and Myanmar. While gender disaggregated data is not available for all refugees, where data is available, it shows a nearly equal proportion of women refugees to men, 49.8 percent and 50.2 percent respectively. Unfortunately, headlines in major news sources report in ways that seem to erase women from the picture, stressing the prevalence of young, single men of fighting age crossing borders in Europe. Women, meanwhile, are often expected to provide for their family members: to bear and raise children, ensure a family structure is maintained, and work to support their families. Since asylum seekers and refugees are often not granted work permits by countries of asylum, they spend long days making little money.
Hoping for a better, more stable life for their families, many women have approached the offices in which I’ve worked in Egypt, Israel, and asking to be resettled. Despite news coverage that implies otherwise, less than 1 percent of refugees are granted that request. In reality, the process for resettlement in the United States is extensive and takes, on average, 18 months to complete.
Women face particular challenges in this process. Often, they struggle to find childcare that would allow them to attend resettlement interviews. In addition, many women are hesitant to talk about rape or sexual assault because of cultural taboos. Without being open about these past experiences, women may not qualify for resettlement. Moreover, traveling to and from these meetings alone may leave women open to further sexual assault and harassment.
But most refugees are not so lucky to undergo this grueling process. Most are stuck in under-funded countries, which lack adequate resources to provide for all the refugees they welcome. I have seen countless women of different backgrounds approach my office seeking resettlement; some have been successful after years of interviews while others are still stuck in limbo awaiting an outcome. We in the U.S. stand in a geographically unique position that allows us to limit the numbers of refugees who enter our country. President Obama has established an increased quota of Syrians to be accepted, but far more refugees exist than resettlement spots. This, among other issues related to refugee resettlement, will be discussed at President Obama’s Leader’s Summit on Refugees on September 20 and at the United Nations General Assembly’s Summit for Refugees and Migrants on September 19. Both summits – which will be attended by heads of state and government, UN leaders, civil society, private sector representatives, international organizations, and academia – aim to develop a more humane and coordinated approach to addressing the large movements of refugees, and to pledge new commitments to their resettlement. With any hope, those who know the stories of these refugee women will bring them to light so that they no longer will be glossed over.
About the Author: Ryan Corbett is a 2016 Graduate Public Service Scholar and recently interned with the Caribbean Protection Unit of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. She attends Boston University School of Law in Boston, Massachusetts and just started her third year.