Refugee and displacement crises
"I don’t have enough money to buy food for my children"
42-year-old Feda holds her 12-year-old daughter Rajad in their home in Mafraq, Jordan. Their family have lived in Jordan for five years, after fleeing the civil war in Syria.
Feda’s husband stayed in Syria when they left. He has since remarried and doesn’t send any money to support the family. They lost their house in Homs and all of their money during the war, and came to Jordan with nothing. Feda cleans houses to make money but doesn’t earn enough to care for her family.
“Sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy food for my children,” Feda said. “My one hope is to go back to Syria.”
Rajad has a disability which means that she uses a wheelchair and doesn't have the ability to speak. During their journey from Syria to Jordan Rajad was very scared and couldn’t sleep. She had nightmares and would wake up screaming. They walked for the final two hours to get to the Jordanian border. Feda had to carry Rajad and the younger children. Others who were fleeing helped her to carry them.
ActionAid's approach to supporting refugees and displaced people
We support refugees and displaced people in the immediate aftermath of a humanitarian crisis, and over an extended period of time to help them rebuild their lives.
In the short term, we provide humanitarian aid; including food, safe drinking water, shelter and hygiene kits that contain clean underwear, soap and sanitary protection.
At displacement and refugee camps, we set up safe spaces for women where they can breastfeed in private, seek counselling and access emotional support. We set up watch committees to monitor and prevent violence against women.
We also provide cash transfers for women to decide and buy what they need the most.
In the long term, we help to rebuild communities and strengthen their resilience. For example, ActionAid trains women in leadership skills and disaster preparedness so that they are better equipped to lead their communities in times of crises.
Displacement and climate change
Increasing threats to food security and damage from weather-related disasters forces people to leave their homes and look for refuge elsewhere.
Climate-induced displacement occurs when rising temperatures cause sudden-onset, extreme weather-events such as floods and cyclones or influence long-term, slower-onset environmental changes such as droughts.
These in turn affect natural resources such as availability of water and farming land for the world's poorest people, threatening their safety, food security and livelihoods.9
However, the majority of the climate-related displacement is internal, with those affected remaining within their countries.10 Of the 28 million people who were internally displaced in 2018, 16.1 million relocated due to weather-related disasters such as extreme storms, floods and droughts.11
Migration caused by climate change occurs in a wider context, however, with pre-existing socio-economic and local governance exacerbating people's movements.
For example, climate change may impact the availability of resources which may lead to conflict or violence causing further dispersement of people.12
Conversely, those who have moved due to conflict or persecution may end up in regions that are climate change 'hotspots' and may suffer from secondary displacement.13
Displacement of women and girls due to climate change
Future climate-related disasters are inevitable14 and will drive women and girls away from their homes. 20 million of the 26 million people currently estimated to be displaced by climate change, are women.23
Women and girls are at an increased risk when disaster strikes.
- Women and girls are more likely to miss out on educational opportunities when they are displaced
- They are more likely to experience loss of income and livelihood.
- They are more vulnerable to violence, early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, rape and trafficking.15
Furthermore, displacement affects social support networks and community ties that are valuable to women and girls.16
Some women are reluctant to move to camps and shelters due to fear of violence and may risk staying in their disaster-prone regions.17
Internally displaced people in Somaliland
A severe lack of rain since 2011 has created and worsened the drought in Somaliland. Families and communities have been forced to leave their homes in search of food and water as crops are failing and livestock are dying.
There are 1.1 million internally displaced people in the region of Somaliland.
This climate crisis is affecting women and girls the hardest. Due to gender expectations, women and men in different contexts are forced to migrate for work or to displacement camps. In settings where it is dangerous for women and girls to travel on their own, this exacerbates their anxieties and risks of experiencing violence.
In the oppressive heat, with little protection from the sun, some women and girls prioritise the health of men and children, leaving themselves exposed to severe health consequences. There is limited, basic food and no toilets. Water is difficult to access, and every night girls go to sleep fearing an attack by strangers and wild animals.
ActionAid's work to support internally displaced people in Somaliland
ActionAid has had a long-term presence in Somaliland to help relieve the effects of climate-induced events.
In 2017, ActionAid reached over 232,000 people through our drought response in East Africa.
In 2019 ActionAid is working closely with women and girls in the displacement camps.
- We are providing cash transfers which women are using to buy food, water and medicine for their families.
- We are also providing survival kits which contain clothes, underwear, soap, torches, baby lotion and whistles. We have distributed 800 women’s survival kits in total so far.
- We have helped set up one women’s coalition in each camp, where women are trained in leadership skills and given opportunities to identify their greatest needs.
- There are also plans to train women and girls in livelihood skills, to help them earn an income and gain financial independence.
We are putting women at the forefront of our response because we know that women are resourceful and play a critical role in the survival of their families. They bring strong knowledge of their communities and are often best-placed to identify the needs of their communities during crises.
The Syrian refugee crisis
The war in Syria, which started in 2011, has claimed over 400,000 lives and injured more than 1 million people.
Violence and horrific human rights abuses, deepening poverty and the destruction of healthcare and education services has forced millions21 to cross treacherous waters and travel hundreds of miles in search of safety for themselves and their families.
As a result of this brutal conflict, 6.3 million people have been internally displaced and almost 4 million people are registered as refugees abroad, making this the biggest displacement crisis in the world.
The majority of refugees who have fled Syria are living in neighbouring countries, including more than a million registered Syrians in Lebanon and 660,000 in Jordan.
Challenges faced by refugee women and girls
Women and girls face unique vulnerabilities as they are more at risk of exploitation and abuse in refugee camps and in transit and at borders.
Many women reported feeling threatened throughout their journey, from sexual harrassment to financial exploitation22 . Maria, 27, who had reached Lesvos after travelling from Syria said: “During the journey... the ISIS men tried to rape me. When we got to Turkey, the Turks sent us back to the borders with Syria twice. They were shooting at us with their weapons. However, if you pay, you can get to Turkey again."
Without segregated toilet facilities, some women resorted to limiting the amount they ate and drank, because they felt unsafe using the toilet. Many women reported feeling unsafe when forced to sleep in facilities with hundreds of unknown men.
But women are also at the forefront of assistance to those most vulnerable among the displaced as they often serve as the main caretakers for children and elderly family members.
Anna Karabet, who worked in the ActionAid women's safe space on Lesvos, said: "It’s a good thing that ActionAid set up this space which places an emphasis on women. This was the right thing to do. The whole family relies on women. When you do something to support the women, the entire family will benefit. How will these women be able to support their children if they are not strong enough themselves?"
Supporting the most vulnerable refugee women
Sajida, who is 28 years old and from Syria, came to our women’s safe space on Lesvos after a traumatic journey. She shared her story.
“Our city is gone. There’s nothing left any more. Not only was Assad bombing us from above, we were living in fear of ISIS too.
I left with my two children, as well as my husband, mother and brothers. But one of my brothers didn’t make it. He died in Syria.
We would have fled earlier if we could, but we didn’t have enough money. We were hoping that the war would end. The journey was really difficult. My children were shaking and crying. We were so scared because the sea got extremely rough before our boat reached the shore.
Right now, I’m dreaming of living a life without fear. All I want is for my children to have one night’s sleep without fear.”
"Women are equal to men"
Ghroub, 40, from Homs, has been in Lebanon for four years. In Syria, her husband was a lawyer and she was the manager for a research centre.
"When we came to Ballbeck, I isolated myself with my kids for almost six months, I was really depressed," she said.
"After that, I met with Amira and other people from ActionAid and started taking training with them. They give you more ideas and support and i started working on this farm with my husband. As my husband was away from the farm quite a lot, I ended up driving the truck and selling the water in the neighbourhood. The men in the neighbourhood were surprised seeing me drive the truck. Women are equal to men, we are sisters of men, in my family we are equal."
All-female refugee football team smashes stereotypes
In 2016, Action Aid Lebanon started its first female football team. The idea came after a discussion about forming a new youth football team when Hassan, the community center organizer, suggested creating a team for girls. It was initially opposed by some of the men, who said an all-female soccer team would not be accepted by society – but the girls were determined to play.
17-year-old centre forward Hanin says: "Our team is made up of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian girls. Many of them are refugees, but some are from the local community here. They are all so positive and our team spirit keeps us united.
The ActionAid Community Centre, where we meet, has become my second home. If I face any problems with work or everyday life I always know I’ll get good advice from my friends and the ActionAid staff there.
The best thing about playing football, is that when I’m on the pitch I forget all my worries and the hard things I went through in Syria. I just focus on my role in the team and winning the game. I want to break the stereotypes around women – this box men put us in - and I’m prepared to work hard to do it!"
ActionAid's work to support refugees in Jordan and Lebanon
ActionAid Arab Regional Initative works with women's groups in Jordan and Lebanon to support both refugee women and local women.
These groups focus on ensuring women have economic independence through establishing a weekly market for goods produced by women, helping them set up small businesses, and also provide gym facilities so that women are able to exercise. They have also received training in how to tackle and report violence agaisnt women from our local partner NGOs.
ActionAid’s work in refugee camps in Athens
ActionAid Greece started responding to the refugee crisis in September 2015 on the island of Lesvos, providing women friendly spaces and supporting some of the most vulnerable women and children in the refugee camps of Moira and Kara Tepe.
In the women friendly spaces, women were able to breastfeed in private, change their clothes, access hygiene kits including soap and sanitary towels, and get information in their own language from our cultural mediators.
The EU-Turkey deal
In March 2016, European leaders struck a deal with Turkey that meant refugees arriving in Greece would be sent back to Turkey if they did not apply for asylum or if their claim is rejected. As a result, border control was tightened and many of the refugee camps in Greece became closed camps.
ActionAid Greece responded by changing their focus from people on the move, to vulnerable people who would remain in Greece. Our teams in the camps of Schisto and Skaramaga in Athens provided pyschosocial support, information to refugee women about their rights in Greece and the EU, and they also run activities that the women requested, from learning English to keep-fit classes.
ActionAid workers on the ground
Lina Abuaisheh, an aid worker from ActionAid Occupied Palestinian Territory, volunteered in Lesvos in 2016. She said:
“When ActionAid’s emergency response team called, seeking Arabic-speaking women to help refugees in Lesvos, I knew I had to go. I had prepared myself for what I might see, but no one could prepare me for the scale and intensity of the tragedy.
When I first arrived on Lesvos it was so chaotic and my colleagues and I were among the few people who could actually speak with the refugees.
Now, thank God, it’s better. When the refugees arrive they get a number and we, the Arabic and Farsi speakers, translate the announcements and explain to people what they need to do and where they need to go.
I came to Lesvos primarily to help with ActionAid’s mother and baby centres. Here women have a chance to relax for the first time in a long time. They can breastfeed, change their clothes, clean their babies and they can talk to someone about their difficult experiences.
I don’t buy it when people say ‘it's impossible’. There is a solution to this crisis and a way to save all those lives. There has to be.”
- 4 https://www.iom.int/jahia/webdav/shared/shared/mainsite/about_iom/en/council/94/MC_INF_288.pdf
Top image: Rasal and her mum arrive in Moria camp in Lesvos, Greece. Karin Schermbrucker/ActionAid
Page updated 17 November 2021