Women, Children and Climate Change: The Struggles of Vulnerable Groups Forced to Move

by Amayaa Wijesinghe

In the past decade, extreme weather events have been triggered all over Sri Lanka, taking place more and more frequently and intensely. The severe drought conditions in districts such as Jaffna and Polonnaruwa have continued unceasingly since 2016. More recently, the intense floods experienced in May-June 2018 in most Southwestern and Central regions of Sri Lanka saw the displacement of tens of thousands of families.

These are just examples of extreme events triggered by climate change. The people and livelihoods affected by slow onset events in Sri Lanka and around the world, such as temperature rise and sea level rise, remain largely undocumented. Yet these cumulative gradual changes are push factors that cause the most vulnerable communities and families to pack up their belongings and leave their homes in order to survive.

These people have now become climate refugees–but how can their specific needs be addressed if no such category exists in international law? The plight of climate refugees is increased manifold because there is no legal recognition for them.

The Most Vulnerable Groups

Among these refugees, women and children ultimately become the most vulnerable groups, especially girl children. This is true at every stage of migration, from the journey, to staying in interim refugee camps, to enduring the processing of cases by authorities of the potential host country.

Women who are pregnant or nursing children while fleeing have specific needs that are not taken care of, and women face many reproductive challenges during the crossings.

At the same time, the sexual violence that takes place en route is a further nightmare for women as they attempt to seek refugee status in another country. Women are often powerless to reject the unwanted advances of men who make the journey with them, as they need the protection these men can afford. There is no access to birth control, and many become pregnant during the journey.

Women and girl children must also face the threat of human trafficking. They may become victims of the sex traffickers that monitor common migration routes, lure women with the promise of jobs, and force them into prostitution.  

Once they are in the camps, women and children also face the harsh realities of living in overcrowded conditions, where there is poor lighting and security. The stays in interim camps are usually prolonged, and as this timeline stretches, a woman’s vulnerability increases. The gender-based violence that women endure also leaves them in need of specific psycho-social support when they reach their destination, but this support is rarely, if ever, provided.

The Little Ones

Children also suffer a disproportionate amount of trauma as refugees, and this phenomenon was never more clearly seen than in the US administration’s recent “zero-tolerance” policy, which sought to separate children of immigrant families from their parents. Although an executive order has since reversed this policy, between 5 May and 9 June 2018, thousands of children suffered mental trauma by being ripped away from their families during this critical period. There could be continued repercussions for these children, as the mechanism to track the families that have been separated are inconclusive. They may never be reunited. This is a violation of basic human rights.

Young children are completely dependent on caregivers and have no experience in fending for themselves. The food and water they require on the journey must be provided. If left unsupervised, they can become of the victims of many issues such as abuse, trafficking and slavery.

The education of refugee children also becomes a critically important issue. The better the education a refugee child receives, the better their prospects in a foreign land. Unfortunately, disrupted education is often not restored, and refugee children tend to fall into a cycle of poverty.

Something is Better than Nothing

The UNHCR, The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and several other international and localized aid agencies exist to provide essential services to incoming refugees, particularly to women. In Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, which sees the mass entry of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, women and girl children who have suffered gender-based violence are provided with the required support. Many are also provided with “dignity kits” in order to meet their hygiene requirements.

Regional women’s groups also play a critical role in helping refugees. They provide essential services, work to change norms around violence, create safe spaces for women, and empower women and girls to understand and demand their rights. Mobilizing women in host countries to raise their voices for better living conditions for refugee women and children has also proved to be effective, especially in Europe.

Private sector companies, especially sports goods manufacturers, have come forward to help refugee children integrate better through the participation in sports activities. Similar initiatives have been carried out for education as well, but they occur in isolated pockets, and are yet to be scaled up.

No End in Sight

According to a UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) Report in 2016, low- and middle-income countries host the most number of refugees worldwide. At the time, there were 2,773,800 refugees in Turkey, and 1,576,800 refugees in Pakistan. Lebanon, Iran, and Ethiopia also rank high on the list of refugee destinations. They come from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, where conflict and persecution are rampant.

On the other hand, there are also many instances where migrants and climate refugees do not cross a border at all, but become internally displaced persons in their own countries. Disasters were responsible for 23.5 million new displacements in 2016 alone, with 97% caused by weather and climate-related events. Almost 12.9 million displacements across the globe were resultant from the impact of storms such as Hurricane Matthew, which caused over 1 million people to be evacuated in Cuba alone. This was the first time that Internally Displaced Individuals had been officially recorded in Cuba.

The expanding desertification of Mexico’s drylands is forcing hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to look for better prospects, and many turn to the United States as a good prospect. In a survey carried out in 2017 in Mexico, 25% of the general population and 45% of those in employable age said that they had considered moving to the US in search of better prospects. On the other hand, cyclones and sea level rise are hitting archipelagos such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, forcing residents to look towards more stable neighbors such as Australia and New Zealand.

At the same time, the policies of countries like the United States have also changed. Where the US used to be one of the foremost advocates for addressing the specific needs of women and girls in complex humanitarian crises, the Trump regime has now decreed that no funds will be allocated to organizations such as the UNFPA. This seriously hampers the efforts made by these agencies.

A Broader Outlook

It is important to have a gender-sensitive understanding of refugee and migrant journeys, and to understand that the numbers people displaced by climate change will only increase in the future. They need to be recognized in international laws, and special attention needs to be paid to women and children in these desperate circumstances.

On the flipside, women and children must also be allowed to become a part of the answer, and their ability to create durable and unique answers to complex situations can be harnessed. Former refugee women, and people who have made the crossing as children, provide a good resource to help people who become refugees today.

At the same time, governments and international agencies must take immediate action to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, helping people become more resilient to change and enabling them to remain in their homes, stopping the creation of climate refugees in the first place.

Countries that have historically benefitted from the processes that caused climate change have a responsibility to assist those who now suffer from it now, and this “common but differentiated responsibility” forms the crux of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s principles.

The understanding of the interplay between climate change and human mobility is slowly increasing, and states and civil society must take action to protect climate refugees, especially the most vulnerable among them.

 

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