“If I was a man, the worst that would happen to me is I would be beaten and robbed – but because I am a woman, I am beaten, robbed and raped,” a female refugee on the stage before me declared – pain, dignity, and defiance in her eyes.
She was here, at the Listen to the Women event in London on the 13th September, organised and co-hosted by CARE and Women for Refugee Women, bravely taking the stage with other refugee women to share her story with the packed-out auditorium.
Over time we have become desensitised to the plight of refugees. Pictures of boats overflowing with desperate people, a child washing up dead on the beach and a father crying as he cradles his terrified child – these tragic images have become regular news. They slide in amongst our everyday drama and become forgotten.
Just last week 162 bodies were recovered from the sea after a boat carrying refugees capsized in the Mediterranean. According to The Independent many of them are believed to be children and women who were unable to swim away when the boat sank on Wednesday. The story barely made the news.
Fire of hell
At this event, held in a building poignantly located a stones’ throw away from the UK Home Office, we were lucky enough to hear the stories of some refugee women.
There were common themes: rape, miscarriage, fear, loss of dignity and separation from loved ones.
“No woman passed through the Sahara to Libya without being raped. It’s like a fire of hell burning inside me, forever,” said one woman.
“We just want to be treated like humans, not like animals in a cage,” said another.
All of the stories started and ended with searching and hope. Always searching, always hoping for somewhere, just somewhere, finally, that would be safe.
And the sad reality is that when refugees reach camps in Greece or Cali or Serbia they hope to be safe but instead face more danger. According to testimony and first-hand accounts from charity workers and MPs at the event, these camps breed sexual violence and fear. The vulnerable are exploited instead of protected.
There are no doors on the showers. No sanitary towels. No clean clothes. No safety.
Apparently, it is rare to see an unaccompanied teenage girl in a refugee camp but there are many teenage boys. Why? According to the experts in the room, the most likely explanation is that many of the teenage girls are appropriated by an ‘adult’ – an abuser, a pimp, a trafficker and stolen away into the shadows.
NGOs told us that unprotected sex with a child refugee can bought on the streets of Greece for €5.
Hearing this makes you sick to your stomach and want to weep for all humanity. Then it makes you ask: how can this be possible in Europe in 2016?
Then Fatima came on stage. Fatima, a newly arrived refugee to England, was shaken, timid, terrified. It was the most uncomfortable moment of the evening when she wept as she told of the horrors of the ‘Cali jungle’ through a translator.
Through tears she spoke of the lack of safety , of conflict between people trapped there, and of sexual harassment of women and even children. Being confronted with Fatima, who was clearly traumatised by her experiences, was stifling. The fear in her eyes unsettling.
It makes you realise that for refugees finding a safe place to live is the first, most important step for them, but it doesn’t end there. There is internal trauma that can’t be seen but needs to be healed. And this is just for the adults, it must be even worse for the children.They also want to support themselves but are restricted from work and education.
At the event MPs Yvette Cooper and Heidi Allen, along with NGOs, discussed what can be done. They called for Theresa May to take in more refugees – probably a move unpopular with the majority of the electorate given the current mood after Brexit.
The ‘Dublin children’
Former Green Party leader Natalie Bennet in the audience raised the issue of the so-called ‘Dublin children‘.
I’d never heard of the ‘Dublin Children’ before. I learned these are refugee children that have a right to be in the UK because they have family living here but are stuck living in camps for weeks, months at a time.
Heidi Allen pointed out that bureaucracy is delaying their arrival in the UK. These children don’t have anyone to fill in their forms and go through the bureaucratic processes with them so they remain stuck in a dangerous place when they could be safe with family in the UK.
I personally would like Theresa May to do more for refugees on behalf of Britain and at the very least get the ‘Dublin children’ to safety quicker. The following Saturday after the event I joined the March for Refugees event in London last Saturday to express this with thousands of others.
The UK is one of the richest countries (4th according to one 2015 report but this does vary depending on what report you read) in the world, why can’t we do more?
I think it is our duty to help each other out as much as we possibly can. What if we were them?
I may not be rich but I have enough to share and I intend to share as much as I can. It never hurt anyone to be a bit more neighbourly. On the other hand, leaving people vulnerable, scared and traumatised can have long-lasting ramifications.
If you want to help refugees here are a few ways you can:
- Donate to CARE and Women for Refugee Women to help women refugees.
- Sign the Refugee Action petition asking Theresa May to provide more English classes for refugees settling in the UK.
- Tweet @theresa_may asking her to do more for refugees.
- Check out volunteer opportunities, donations needed and other ways to help at http://www.helprefugees.org.uk/how-to-help/
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