Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is authored by Emily Arnold-Fernandez, the executive director of Asylum Access.
Refugees around the world held their breath as last Thursday approached: U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s second executive order barring refugees and others from the United States was scheduled to take effect at 12:01 pm EDT.
Thankfully, Yusra and her children were already in the United States.
United States is a critical safe haven
Yusra (an alias to ensure her safety) is an Asylum Access client. She and her children fled Somalia, leaving their home behind to escape pervasive and unending violence.
Somalia is a deadly place to be female. Sexual violence is particularly pervasive in the country’s deteriorating security situation: women interviewed by rights groups in recent years testified to the normalcy of asking each other, “Were you raped today?” But Somalis, including women who have faced grave human rights abuses, are among six nationalities the Trump administration wants to bar from entering the United States – along with all refugees.
Yusra and her family sought safety in Thailand, where 30-day tourist visas can be purchased on arrival. When they arrived, however, Thailand had no asylum system – which meant Yusra and her family soon were undocumented migrants.
Eventually their luck ran out. Yusra and her children were arrested by Thai immigration police and detained in a filthy, overcrowded Immigration Detention Center. In mid-2016, Thailand suspended its immigration bail system, leaving Yusra and others like her facing indefinite imprisonment.
The only way out of detention was via United Nations-facilitated resettlement to another country like the United States. Yusra and her children had completed the myriad steps of the U.S. resettlement security and screening process and were booked on a flight. Before they could board, the first executive order barring refugees was issued. The flight left without them.
After a federal court halted that executive order, Yusra and her family were rebooked on a new flight. They arrived in the country just days before the second executive order was to take effect.
Other governments have greater impact
While the number of refugees able to resettle in the United States will decrease if the Trump administration succeeds in its plans to limit or eliminate resettlement, the resettlement program is open to less than one percent of the world’s 21 million refugees. The vast majority of the world’s refugees never reach our shores.
For most refugee women and girls, the policies that touch their lives are those of governments in Africa, Asia (including the Middle East), and Latin America, where most refugees remain. In many countries hosting most of the world’s refugees—such as Jordan, Kenya, Pakistan, and Turkey—refugees are not allowed to move freely, seek work, attend school, open a bank account, or take other steps to rebuild their lives.
Some are confined in internment camps, as most camps require refugees to remain inside at all times, with few exceptions. Others live in hiding on urban margins, afraid of being arrested and detained like Yusra and her family. Many refugees spend decades in this limbo: protracted refugee situations, which account for about half of the world’s refugees, last for an average (!) of 26 years.
The effect on refugee women and girls is profound. If they are raped in a refugee camp, they’re not allowed to move elsewhere – instead, they are often compelled to live next to their rapist. If they work without permission, their employers can abuse them with impunity. Women and girls bear the brunt of unjust laws that confine and oppress refugees around the world.
To change this, we must change national laws and policies in refugee-hosting countries. Today, however, most donors do not invest in advocacy to improve the laws and policies affecting the vast majority of the world’s refugees.
Our global response to refugees meets basic survival needs for most, but provides no pathway for them to thrive. A shift that redirects some funds into advocacy for better refugee policies would provide exponential returns: policies that allow refugees to work yield positive effects on wages, working conditions, and economies overall. Dividends are observed when women, in particular, are economically empowered.
To get better policies, we need advocates who will fight to change laws – not only in Washington, but in Amman and Bangkok and Nairobi. This means we need to fund them. If we don’t invest in laws that give refugees access to safe, lawful work, free movement, equal protection, and access to state services, refugee women and girls will continue to have their lives constrained and their potential suppressed.
Donors and advocates fight to open opportunities for women all over the world. We believe women should be able to work and earn money and control assets. We believe girls should be able to attend school. We believe a woman should be free to leave her residence without permission from someone else.
It’s time we started fighting for the same opportunities for refugee women and girls, too.