World Refugee Day: A chat with the experts

By Alexandra Shaphren
June 19, 2019

World Refugee is June 20 — a day to stand in solidarity with the millions of people displaced from their homes. Refugees around the world face incredible hardship and are often among the world’s most vulnerable. We sat down with two of our experts, Alexandra Shaphren and Molly Fitzgerald, to better understand the unique challenges faced by refugees and discuss how you can help!

Alexandra Shaphren is a Disaster Risk Management Program Manager at Plan International USA, specializing in Child Protection and Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies. Alexandra has worked in conflict, natural disaster and refugee contexts across multiple regions, including the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, the South Sudanese refugee response in Uganda and the Burundi refugee crisis in Rwanda.

Molly Fitzgerald is a Senior Technical Advisor for Health at Plan, where she draws on experience with local and international organizations delivering refugee health services, including programs and advocacy for sexual and reproductive services.

What should we know about refugee settings? What are the most common myths?

Alex: Refugee crises are not always caused by war or conflict, but can be a result of climate change, natural disasters, political instability or epidemics, among other causes. Children and young people who migrate to safety are entitled to a series of rights guaranteed to them by international human rights and international humanitarian law. Some people might think that these rights are equally applied worldwide; however, in many contexts, children have been denied refugee status and in some cases their nationality. Sometimes they’ve been separated from family, making it harder from them to claim those rights. Children on the move deserve access to comprehensive protection systems and to live free from violence, abuse and exploitation. Plan International works with host governments, national systems, and community-level organizations to strengthen the protective environment around refugee children, including those who have been separated from their families.

Molly: The average time spent in displacement due to crises (conflict, violence and natural disasters) is around 20 years. UNHCR reports about 25.4 million refugees exist in the world today, which is only a portion of the 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide.

What are some of the key issues that refugees face? Have these issues changed over the years?

Alex: While this is not a new challenge in refugee settings, refugee contexts can last for many years. Children and their families are often displaced without a sense of when they will be able to return home. Some host countries have progressive refugee policies that allow for refugee children to attend school, for parents and caregivers to access land and property, and to earn a living.

However, many refugees live in situations where they are denied basic human rights, such as freedom of movement and access to services, are forcibly returned to their place of origin or are detained.

At Plan, we believe that more resources should be made available to host countries to support the accommodation of large numbers of refugees and durable solutions that promote self-reliance of families. For example, foster families that support children who have lost their parents during crisis may have interest in providing long-term care, but are unable to do so due to unpredictable refugee policies and secondary displacement. Children thrive in supportive and stable environments that support their well-being and healthy development. Permanent solutions for refugee families are the best way to promote the best interests of the child.

Molly: Women and girls are disproportionately affected during crises, and for those women and girls living in emergency settings, all require sexual and reproductive health services as a matter of life and death. Maternal mortality can be very high in many fragile states. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) report that 75 percent of the countries that have maternal mortality rates exceeding 300 per 100000 live births occur in fragile states. Given the often increasing trends in sexual violence resulting from a breakdown of legal, social and economic structures during crises, the need to ensure a comprehensive sexual and reproductive health response for refugee women and girls is a matter of survival.

What are the strategies/approaches to tackling those issues? What has been Plan’s approach?

Alex: Plan works with governments to find solutions for children and their families who are seeking safety. We provide children and their families with child protection prevention and response services. Plan traces missing relatives of children and organizes foster care for children who are alone. We provide opportunities for children to receive psychosocial support through recreation, life-saving information and one-one counseling. We help children and their families develop and strengthen positive coping mechanisms to keep children out of harmful labor, early marriage and other harmful practices. We work with communities and families to ensure children have access to their basic rights and live in protective and supportive homes, schools and communities.

Molly: The Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) is a minimum basic standard for emergency settings. The MISP saves lives. It also prevents morbidity, trauma and disability, particularly for girls and women. Ensuring access to a basic minimum package of sexual and reproductive health services averts preventable maternal and newborn deaths, unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and HIV and other STI infections and transmission, as well as sexual violence and trauma. However, the MISP includes a mandate to move beyond this basic package of services towards more comprehensive, long-term solutions as soon as the crisis situation allows. Remember that the average length of displacement is 20 years! Refugees also bring with them valuable skills and knowledge including a deep cultural understanding that can be invaluable for the delivery of programs. Meaningful engagement of refugees not just as ‘beneficiaries’ but as active participants in the development, monitoring and delivery where possible of programming can be an important strategy for ensuring that services and information are culturally are acceptable and accessible.

Why Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights and Child Protection in refugee settings when children and adolescents need food, water or shelter?

Alex: This is a good question! It is essential for children to have their basic needs met in humanitarian settings — food, shelter and water are essential for their survival — but without safety and protection from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation, those basic needs can’t be met. For example, if children are forced to exchange sex for access to food distributions, are assaulted on their way to and from water points, are living on the street without parental care, are working in dangerous environments, are married before they have the chance to develop physically and mentally or are survivors of abusive or neglectful homes, then they will not be able to realize their rights to basic services. This was the point made in the 2013 Inter-Agency Standing Committee Statement on the centrality of protection in humanitarian action. Plan International believes it plays an essential role in the protection of children and ensuring they survive and have a chance to thrive.

Molly: Because it saves lives. It is a right. It is outlined in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and the Minimum Standards in Disaster Response and is included as a minimum standard within health services.

It is necessary for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

The basic sexual and reproductive health needs for women and girls, including refugees and other forcibly displaced persons, are outlined in a set of standards called the Minimum Initial Service Package (MISP) for Reproductive Health. Moving beyond the MISP as quickly as possible to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information and services is absolutely essential. Meaningful engagement of refugees in the design and delivery of programming can be a critical feature of success.

What can we do to help? What can you do to help?

Alex: A gift to Plan’s Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund helps us ensure that we can take immediate action when a disaster strikes — whether it is natural or man-made — and help people who have been displaced. People like you have already donated more than $40,000 to help children and families affected by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. We can do a lot more together!

Molly: Don’t forget to help us spread awareness of these important issues, too. Use the hashtag #WithRefugees and follow @PlanUSA on Facebook and Twitter and @Plan_USA on Instagram to engage with us during World Refugee Day!