Migrant & refugee crisis: We must act now, says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director

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Refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq and seeking to enter Europe. Credit: BBC

The world is struggling to calibrate its response to the vast numbers of refugees and migrants seeking a better and safer future. The scale of population movement and the horrors fuelling the surge are hard to take in and hard to process, on many different levels.

Yet we must not only find the right emotional response to the situation, we must find the right strategic and practical approaches too. Those approaches must ensure that the response is both sufficient and intelligently framed for the long-term. There is an immediate task of relief and there is a deeper task of confronting why the situation became so acutely intolerable and ensuring that discriminatory conditions are not replicated when refugees and migrants arrive at their destination.

The United Nations is calling for humanitarian assistance and protection for over 80 million women, men and children globally.

Refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq ; seeking to enter Europe. Credit: BBC
Refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq and seeking to enter Europe. Credit: BBC

At UN Women, while we are deeply concerned about the instability and lack of safety for all those who need to escape, we have a particular responsibility to safeguard women and girls against the dangers at home and that are widely perpetuated through their displacement.

Women and girls have become explicit targets of aggression and subjugation by extremist groups, and of routine violence in countries in conflict. At home they risk being denied their educational, economic and social rights. Many have been subjected to brutal abuse, sexual exploitation and even enslavement. They flee to avoid this, only to run straight into smugglers or others who may exploit, traffic, injure or abandon them before they reach their destination.

The sheer scale of unsafe journeys means that the majority of perpetrators are not being held to account. For the Mediterranean alone, there were more than 430,000 crossings in 2015.

There is an urgent need for humanitarian action to address the specific needs of women and girls and to involve them as equal partners. This includes ensuring safe routes for refugees and migrants, in particular for women and children at risk of violence, and providing safe spaces and special protection for them when they arrive. We must make sure that we are able to provide them with opportunities for education and work, as well as protection against further violence. This is not the norm: in destination countries they can face compounded discrimination, deprivation and dislocation. Health services are absent or overstretched. It is estimated that 12 per cent of the women travelling in the Mediterranean crisis are pregnant; there are dramatic increases reported of women dying in childbirth. Reproductive health care for arriving migrants and refugees is essential.

UN Women is working directly on the ground in refugee camps as well as with partners in countries of origin, transit and destination, to shape policies that specifically take these known issues into account, and tackle them. For example, we are working to provide sources of income and psychosocial support, and are addressing violence against women in refugee and host communities in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, which are shouldering the largest number of Syrian refugees.

Women and adolescent girls have enormous capacity as a force for reconstruction. They are among the first responders in crises, holding their families and communities together. They must not be portrayed as helpless, nor forced to become so by restrictive environments.

As world leaders meet at the UN General Assembly in New York later this month to adopt a transformative global development agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals, a renewed commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international humanitarian law is essential. More than that, we want to see it lived out immediately and directly in the response to the current humanitarian situation. Women and girls must be at the heart of this agenda that will shape our future. They must be at the centre of our present concern and support.

We applaud the efforts of nations and institutions, of individuals and communities, who support the needs of migrants and refugees. But as we are facing this unprecedented crisis, we see that much more must be done.

Funding is needed, on a large scale and immediately to address the current crisis. Globally, the humanitarian appeal coordinated by the UN is at approximately USD 20 billion while its funding so far is less than 30 per cent of that figure. We also need to confront what this enormous relocation of populations means for us as a world.

This is a true test of the value placed on humanity in the new sustainable development agenda and it will shape our work for years to come. We must not fail in this. With attention to protecting women and girls from discrimination and violence and a focus on their resilience and potential to learn, to lead, to thrive, we can and must draw strength, exhibit tolerance and enable recovery.

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