Do not forget the most vulnerable people on World Refugee Day

Published on 20 June 2018

Tina Nelis

Knowledge Officer

Brigitte Rohwerder

Research Officer

As the world across political spectrums is horrified by scenes of children being torn from their parents at the Mexican border as a result of Trump’s callous immigration policy, World Refugee Day is a stark reminder that the international community and humanitarian agencies need to do much more to protect the most vulnerable groups. With women, children, older people and persons living with disabilities the most susceptible to discrimination, exploitation, and violence, there is an urgent need to reflect upon our collective failures to protect the most vulnerable and marginalised.

Through a set of Operational Practice Papers focusing on disability, menstrual hygiene and sustainable refugee return, the Humanitarian Learning Centre (HLC) at IDS has developed tangible and actionable advice that should be immediately incorporated in response plans to ensure that those who are the most defenceless are not overlooked. These papers highlight the unique challenges faced by certain people in humanitarian crisis and  outline the vital steps to supporting refugees to voluntarily return to their homes and lives should that be possible.

Incorporating disability in Humanitarian Response

A survey of Syrian refugees living in camps in Jordan and Lebanon found that 22 per cent had an impairment (pdf). However, accurate numbers of refugees with disabilities can be hard to calculate due to lack of data disaggregation in humanitarian emergencies and differences in the way disability is defined and measured, while families may be reluctant to disclose disability due to fear of stigma and isolation.

Discrimination, prejudice and other barriers disadvantage displaced persons with disabilities in humanitarian situations. Humanitarian aid and services, such as shelter, food distribution, WASH facilities – including menstrual hygiene management – health facilities, temporary learning spaces and child-friendly spaces, are often not built to be accessible to persons with disabilities. For example, 75 per cent of respondents (pdf) to a survey of persons with disabilities in humanitarian contexts reported that they did not have adequate access to basic assistance such as water, shelter, food or health.

There are still significant gaps in operationalising disability inclusive responses at the field level in humanitarian emergencies, including in terms of ensuring appropriate human and financial resourcing; strengthening staff knowledge, attitudes, and practices; and monitoring access and inclusion with data on disability.

However, lessons for improving disability inclusion in humanitarian response include making sure basic service provision is accessible to all; implementing a “twin track” approach with mainstreaming of disability and targeted services; disaggregating data to ensure awareness and accountability; involving persons with disabilities in humanitarian preparedness and response; and taking a resilience-based approach that identifies disabled people’s resilience traits, strategies, and approaches.

Managing menstrual hygiene in emergencies

Until recently the issue of menstrual hygiene management (MHM) for women and girls in emergencies had been somewhat overlooked by agencies engaged in humanitarian response.Despite the debilitating and humiliating effects that poor MHM can have on displaced women and girls in emergency settings, research has shown that in an emergency context MHM is not prioritised by humanitarian responders. Yet displacement and the very act of having to flee one’s home seriously disrupt the habitual, but often inadequate, coping strategies adopted by women and girls when at home.

Moreover, during the period of displacement it is unlikely that women and girls would be able to carry an adequate supply of underwear, cloths or sanitary products to alleviate their recurrent monthly menstrual hygiene needs, making the inability to access these essential items during displacement an additional but real concern.

MHM in emergencies involves three essential components: MHM materials and supplies, MHM supportive facilities, and MHM information. There is a need for better technical guidance, information and evidence on how to prepare for and implement an effective MHM response.

Supporting sustainable refugee return

Every refugee statistic represents a life uprooted and on hold. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that a total of 25.4 million refugees have been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.

Only 3 per cent of the global refugee population returned home in 2016 (pdf), often in less than ideal conditions, with concerns that many of these returns may not be sustainable. Significant factors in the low rates of return were insecurity and conflict in countries of origin, an absence of socioeconomic support in areas of return, and a lack of political will to resolve the root causes of displacement.

Voluntary return has been found to be more sustainable than cases of forced refugee return, as refugees who return voluntarily are less likely to want to leave again. For refugee return to be successful in the long term, those returning need to be able to meet their basic needs and not feel forced to move again to meet them as a result of conditions in their country of origin. Forced and early repatriations have resulted in a recurrence of conflict and renewed refugee movements. It is illegal to return refugees to unsafe locations where their lives or freedoms could be threatened.

Remembering the individual in crises

The language of migrant, refugee and humanitarian crisis seems to have done a disservice to those fleeing from their homes for safety and prosperity. It can ‘lump’ people into one group, allowing those watching or responding from afar, or even close up, to forget that refugees are still having their periods, they may still be navigating life with a disability and they may still want to go home. Humanitarian ‘responders’ need to learn these lessons, and they need to fast, otherwise the responses will continue to be inadequate for those that are most likely to suffer.


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