I recently had the honor of presenting at “Double Jeopardy: Woman Refugee,” a panel organized by the European Parliament as part of International Women’s Day. The event focused on the refugee crisis from a gender perspective in order to raise awareness of the situation of women refugees in Europe. I spoke alongside Mary Honeyball, Member of the European Parliament, and Rahela Sidiqi, Trustee of Women for Refugee Women.
With Europe’s refugee crisis, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported at the start of 2016 that the number of women and children seeking asylum is higher than men. In 2015, more than 70,000 unaccompanied children sought asylum in Europe, of which around 7,000 are girls. The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality recently put forth a report calling for gender-sensitive processing mechanisms for female refugees.
During the panel discussion, I described the service provision that Maximus provides for unaccompanied refugee minors in Australia and how our delivery model aligned with the Committee’s recommendations for assisting the refugees seeking protection in Europe.
I also shared my personal experience while spending time in Afghanistan and then working as a program manager for the Maximus Care and Support Program for Unaccompanied Refugee Minors in Australia.
“Afghanistan is a difficult place to be born a girl in this world,” says my friend Dr. Sima Samar, head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and former Afghan Minister for Women’s Affairs. Afghan girls face numerous challenges in their homeland, which are only exacerbated when they are exiled as refugees, especially for those who flee without guardians. It is not uncommon for female refugees to become victims of sexual violence as they search for protection.
While many Afghan refugees flee to nearby Pakistan and Iran, others make a much longer journey to seek safety and stability in Europe, North America and Australia.
As part of the care and support services Maximus provides to unaccompanied refugee children in Australia, one aspect of program delivery is our Independent Observer (IO) division. I served as an IO, providing support to asylum-seeking children who were unable to have a guardian present while their claims for refugee protection were assessed by an immigration officer. I was responsible for ensuring the well-being and dignity of the young person was maintained at all times, which is fundamental for children recalling distressing events related to his or her claim.
I witnessed the difference a Maximus IO can make to the lives of asylum seekers, including vulnerable girls, when I was as an IO for Zara*, a fifteen-year-old Afghan girl. During her interview, she recalled being raped in her village, only to be told by her mother how she had shamed their family. There was no recourse for her perpetrator. She eventually fled to Australia where she was raped again during the journey, this time by a people smuggler who forcibly held her until she managed to run away.
In my capacity as an IO, I ensured she had a female immigration officer and a female interpreter during her assessment. I also called regular timeout breaks to minimize her distress when describing what had happened. Given her traumatic experience, she would not have discussed it in the presence of men nor had the confidence to request female immigration staff. IOs can assist girls such as Zara to seek professional counselling post interview, which is extremely important for their self-care after describing traumatic events.
As the refugee crisis continues to unfold, it is clear that more people and particularly young girls like Zara will need support. The Maximus refugee program, which works so effectively in Australia, can act as a model for other nations looking to help young refugees start a new life after escaping the violence they left behind in their homelands.
*Name changed to protect privacy