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World Refugee Day: Voices of Women in the Midst of Conflicts

The music has stopped in the heart of the desert, the savannahs, and forests of the Sahel and the Central African Republic - taking with it the joy of better days. Fear has spread across the region, and people are facing it on two fronts: firstly, where armed groups devastate villages, driving more than five million people to flee their homes.  Secondly, the rise of COVID-19 is creating additional fear and uncertainty amongst communities.

And for the majority of displaced women, their dance partners have also disappeared. Many men of working age have been killed by armed groups, disappeared or have left in search of a better future. In Burkina Faso, women and children represented 84 per cent of the displaced population. Women find themselves in extremely precarious situations, struggling for their survival and for those depending on them. Many bear the scars – visible and invisible - of acts of violence. In the Central African Republic, a woman is victim of sexual and gender-based violence almost every hour.

These Sahelian and Central African women are hundreds of thousands, survivors and heroes - waiting for music to resume in their lives. Whilst they do not sing, they still have their stories, and hope, to imagine another future.

A team of female humanitarian workers with Oxfam collected the following stories. They are accompanied by illustrations made by the artist Sophie Le Hire, who has lived in Senegal for four years and who, in her artistic approach, proudly carries the voice of women, whom she considers as "giants". By juxtaposing two styles, she illustrates the reality of the present and the dream for the future of these women

Victorine*, Burkina Faso

“The day I hear that this disease is over, we will dance. The shootings, we were able to flee. But a disease that the wind can bring is very hard.”

My name is Victorine. I come from the Center-North of Burkina, from the village of Dablo. Before, I used to make a traditional millet beer as part of a women's association. It allowed me to support my whole family. I have been the head of my large family since the death of my husband.

The first time that gunmen attacked my village, I lost two of my brothers and my nephew. The second time, I was forced to flee like others had done before me. I left with only the clothes that I was wearing; today I am left with nothing.

We are hosted, like so many others, by a local family. We did not know our host before we arrived. He is our benefactor; without him, I don’t know what we would have done. There’s a huge lack of food; I can't eat every day, and without help I would not make it.

We have been told about coronavirus. It doubled our fear. You know, we fled because of the shootings and now we have more problems. When we arrived here [in Kaya], things seemed to have improved. We were able to go out to find food. Now, with a virus added to the mix? It's a double fear. Can we deny that death is waiting for us now?

We can no longer gather for food distributions. We’re asked to wait for a phone call, but this is very slow. I’ve started to collect gravel, and I sell the heaps of gravel in order to feed my family. My children count on me.

The most difficult thing here is water – we urgently need it. When I get 10 cans of water, they don’t last the day; it's hot, we have to wash, drink and clean. Water is our number one need.

If the disease ends and the attacks end, there will be peace. From childhood, our parents have always taught us that if there is agreement between a man and his wife, they make blessed children. As a woman, I teach my daughters-in-law, my children, my grandchildren, so that they cultivate peace and social cohesion. I would have liked to have been an outreach worker. I would go around to educate young people, and women on the importance of peace.

In the future, I see myself surrounded by my children. They will have succeeded in school, they will take me on trips to visit other countries, and I will breathe the air of peace. My children are my hope because they are the source of my life. And with them I will be happy. They say that a good child is everyone's child, so it all starts with education.

I ask the authorities to find a cure for the disease because we are already bearing the brunt of our other ‘disease’: insecurity.

Interview by Syntyche Ouedraogo, Oxfam in Burkina Faso.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

Oxfam’s response

In the Sahel and the Central African Republic, Oxfam provides humanitarian aid and carries out advocacy actions for communities affected by large-scale humanitarian crises. Women and girls are the most exposed in crisis and it is fundamental that their specific needs and their protection are at the heart of humanitarian responses. Women also play a major role in developing social cohesion and peacebuilding.

Oxfam and its local partners provide humanitarian aid to more than 400,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) and host communities in the region, in terms of food aid, access to water, hygiene and sanitation and to protect the most vulnerable, especially women and girls. Oxfam also work alongside communities in conflict transformation programs to foster cross-border dialogues and the inclusion of women and young people in peacebuilding processes.

Since the arrival of the COVID-19, Oxfam has adapted its programs to protect the poorest and most vulnerable against this new threat. Oxfam also distribute hygiene kits to schools and health professionals and take action to ensure clean and safe water continues to flow.

Read Tedy and Mariam's reflections.

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World Refugee Day: Life in a pandemic

Women refugees share their stories

The economic and social toll of COVID-19 has been felt across the globe, but the impact of the virus is not equal. People fleeing conflict and persecution are among the worst hit by the consequences of the pandemic. They also frequently lack sufficient access to healthcare and handwashing facilities to protect themselves against the virus.

According to the newly released figures by the UN Refugee Agency, an unprecedented 79.5 million people were displaced – the highest number the UNHCR has ever seen. Oxfam works alongside communities, partner NGOs, women and refugee-led organisations to prevent the spread of the disease in vulnerable communities and to ensure that their basic food and hygiene needs are met.

For World Refugee Day, we spoke to five women in Greece and Italy about how they’ve been coping with the pandemic outbreak and how they manage to find strength even in the face of incredible hardship.

Here’s Sara’s experience on how the Bashira Centre for displaced women helps her stay strong in Moria refugee camp in Greece.

Bashira Centre for displaced women, Moria refugee camp in Greece.

“Bashira is so important to me.”

Sara:

“I had already been waiting in the camp for 4 months. The pandemic measures made me feel abandoned, locked up, dirty. I found myself spending my whole day lying in my narrow, damp tent.

“Before the pandemic, every morning I went to Bashira, a centre that supports women in Lesbos. There, I could take a hot bath, meet people, share a tea, have English and Greek lessons and do what I like most: sports.

“Now, to protect myself against COVID-19, I stay in the tent as much as possible, go out only when necessary and wash my hands each time I come back from a trip to the camp warehouse.

“Bashira is so important to me. I hope that a medicine or vaccine against COVID-19 is found, so that Bashira and the asylum service can reopen.”

Lydia, a woman refugee also trapped in Moria camp in Greece, tells us how she has stayed safe during the pandemic.

Lydia's soap represents the force of hygiene.

“COVID-19 changed everything in my life.”

Lydia: “I am afraid of living freely while people are dying.

“To keep myself and my community safe, I respect the hygiene rules: I use soap and water when I can, I wear my mask, I keep a distance of one metre from others.

“For me, soap represents the force of hygiene.”

Oxfam works with partners on the island of Lesbos in Greece. Our most recent ‘Lesbos Bulletin’ provides an update on the situation in Moria camp, one of the EU sponsored ‘hotspots’ on the Greek islands, and our demands to the EU and Greek authorities.

Helena's vegetable garden

“I went through many difficult things, I can get through this too.”

Helena, a refugee living in Italy, has found strength in some small joys.

Helena:

“I wake up in the morning with the worry of getting sick and infecting my kids. Our lives have suddenly changed. To be healthy and protect my children we follow all the medical recommendations: wash our hands, wear the face mask, keep distance from others.

“Despite this, there are some beautiful moments: after work, I can enjoy all day playing with my two children. In my free time we go for a walk in the countryside where there is no one.

“I give myself strength. I say to myself: I went through many difficult things, I can get through this too! I have a vegetable garden with plants and flowers. It makes me happy – there I find my paradise.

“My hope is that this virus goes away forever. I would like to go back to a normal life: that my children go back to school and we can see friends again. I really would like to go to work without being afraid.”

Mariama's Koran - her source of strenght

“The Koran gives me strength.”

Mariama is a refugee from Guinea living in Italy. For World Refugee Day, she describes the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her life.

Mariama:

“Staying home every day without anything to do is the most difficult thing. When the pandemic started, I had just finished my training course and I was going to look for a job and get my driver’s licence. The lockdown made this impossible.

“It is important to respect hygiene recommendations to contain the disease. I already knew a little about these rules because I had seen the Ebola epidemic in Guinea. I avoid contact with people, I wear a mask when I go out and I wash my hands when I get home.

“I hope to find a job and an apartment. In the meantime, I find strength in praying to God. The Koran gives me strength.”

Wafaa repairing doctors’ coats and nurses’ uniforms

“I hope that my friends and family stay safe.”

Wafaa, who fled from Syria and now lives in Italy, is repairing the uniforms of nurses and doctors during this pandemic. For World Refugee Day, she talks about the personal impact of the corona crisis.

An Oxfam hygiene kit

Wafaa:

“Until March, I had a weekly routine: working in the tailor shop, Italian classes, visiting family, and walking along the Arno river.

“The first days of lockdown were hard. I stayed home and sewed face masks for me and my family. I avoid going out often. Oxfam provided hygiene supplies which helped us contain the risk of infection.

“Now, twice a week, I go to work. I repair doctors’ coats, nurses’ uniforms, and other textiles for the local hospitals. I am happy to make this small contribution to my new community in a difficult moment.

“My job helps me stay strong, as does my faith. I hope one day to resume my previous life and that my friends and family stay safe.”

 

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Media Reactive: UNHCR Global Trends Report - Forced Displacement 2019

  • UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, published its annual Global Trends report today showing an increase in the number of forcibly displaced people in the world.
  • By the end of 2019, an unprecedented 79.5 million were displaced – the highest number the UNHCR has ever seen and an increase of almost 9 million since the end of 2018.

Responding to the report, Jim Clarken, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland said:

“It’s deeply concerning that the number of forcibly displaced people has increased for the eighth year in a row to yet another record level.

“The starkest figure released by far is the high percentage of children, who make up 40 per cent of the total number of forcibly displaced people in 2019.

“In addition to the violence, persecution and hardship that people are fleeing, many are now also facing the threat of the global coronavirus pandemic in overcrowded camps without enough clean water or access to health care, alongside additional climate related threats.

“Many people are also stranded at shut borders, or denied asylum because of the pandemic. It’s important that measures to curb the spread of the disease don’t make it harder for people who are forced to flee their homes.

“With the vast majority of the world’s refugees in developing countries, often struggling themselves with hunger and weak infrastructure, it’s time for the international community to step up and fully recognise asylum as fundamental right, invest in peacebuilding and support the call for a global ceasefire.

“UNHCR’s report coincides with Ireland’s successful tenure to the UN Security Council yesterday. Ireland, through its diplomatic representation, now has a window of opportunity - a platform and space among nations with extraordinary power - to be a global voice for peace, and a vocal advocate for the rights of communities affected by conflict.

“This is more important now than ever, with the UNHCR citing one of the two main reasons for the significant increase in people on the move is new displacement - particularly in Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sahel, Yemen and Syria – all engulfed in protracted conflict, with the latter now in its tenth year of conflict and accounting for a sixth of the world’s total of forcibly displaced people.

“Ireland’s position on the UN Security Council is an opportunity to positively affect the lives of millions of people living under the threat of violence and instability due to conflict."

ENDS

Contact

Caroline Reid | caroline.reid@oxfam.org | +353 (0) 87 912 3165

Alice Dawson-Lyons | alice.dawsonlyons@oxfam.org | +353 (0) 83 198 1869

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Fashion Relief TV

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Unaccompanied Minors and the Importance of Family Reunification

There are almost 1,600 unaccompanied minors, the legal term for children seeking asylum without parents or guardians, in refugee camps on the Greek islands. Forced to flee persecution in their country of origin, these children experience untold trauma on their journey to Europe. Many of these children believe that arriving in Greece – their port of entry into Europe – marks an end to their long and dangerous journey. For most unaccompanied minors, sadly, arriving on the Greek islands is just the beginning.

On Lesvos, nearly 18,000 asylum seekers are crammed into one of the most densely crowded and under-resourced camps on the islands. Of those 18,000 people, more than 700 are unaccompanied minors – children without anyone to care for them. Most of these children are detained behind high chain link fences and guarded by the Greek military.

Tragically, the unaccompanied minors held in the so-called “pen” are the lucky ones. Other children, mostly teenage boys who lack the proper documentation proving their age, are left to fend for themselves. These children are at high risk of exploitation and violence. Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and aid workers on Lesvos have reported worrying spikes in self-harm and suicide attempts among children. These already unhygienic and unsafe conditions, coupled with the threat of COVID-19, make the Aegean island camps unacceptable places for unaccompanied minors.

In March, Ireland joined a “coalition of the willing”, a group of EU states which signed up to take a portion of the 1,600 unaccompanied minors being held on the Greek islands. Several European states, and members of this coalition, have relocated children from Greece to their respective countries. Ireland must be next. We ask that the Irish government follows through on its pledge to bring some of these children to Ireland as soon as possible. The unaccompanied minors on the Greek islands, these children who find themselves alone in the world, need a safe haven now more than ever.

Ireland has long served as a place of refuge for some of the most vulnerable. These unaccompanied minors – or any refugees, for that matter – have come to Ireland to start a new life. For many, this is almost impossible without their family by their side. Under the current International Protection Act of 2015, refugees can only apply to be reunited with immediate family members and children under the age of 18. This narrow view of the family does not take into account cultural differences of multi-generational family units, children “ageing out” during the asylum process, or same-sex couples who could not legally be married in their country of origin.

When refugees flee their countries, they are often separated from family members. Yet for asylum seekers granted refugee status in Ireland, the process to reunite with their loved ones becomes a race against the clock. Under the International Protection Act 2015, a person has 12 months to submit an application for family reunification from the date on which they were recognised as a refugee or received subsidiary protection status. While this may seem like sufficient time, in practice, it is often not enough for applicants to find their family and source the necessary documentation. In addition, the current law takes a narrow view of family and disallows dependent parents, siblings or other family members.

In 2017, Oxfam Ireland, the Irish Refugee Council and Nasc put forward the International Protection (Family Reunification) Amendment Bill 2017. This amendment would broaden the definition of eligible family members to include dependent relatives, including elderly parents, brothers, sisters and children over the age of 18. The presence of family members can accelerate the integration of both new arrivals and family members already in Ireland. The nurturing and coping strategies a family unit can provide are broad, ranging from financial and physical support, to emotional support and guardianship. Above all, the family can help anchor a loved one in a new place and contribute to building cohesion, as well as boosting their ability to engage with social institutions outside the family unit.

Oxfam Ireland is asking the new Irish government to uphold its obligation to relocate unaccompanied children from the Greek islands. We also ask that the new government ensures that the International Protection (Family Reunification) Amendment Bill 2017 be resubmitted for attention when the new government is formed, be allowed to pass through the final stages of the Dáil and be enacted into law.

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