Girl in blanket after leaving refugee boat

The world must rise to the challenge of keeping refugee girls safe

The refugee crisis hitting Europe means alarming numbers of girls are being exposed to violence and exploitation.

But, as Sarah Costa of the Women’s Refugee Commission explains, we know from past emergencies what girls need to stay safe – and it’s time for the humanitarian response to consider girls from the start.

As the refugee crisis unfolds in Europe, one vulnerable group of people remains invisible to media attention. Adolescent girls are missing from photographs, articles and, most worrying, probably also from humanitarian relief efforts.

We know, from humanitarian emergencies the world over, that refugee girls are at heightened risk. In flight, a girl is a magnet for violence and exploitation.

This is a tremendous challenge, and the scale of the problem is growing. In Sweden a flood of lone young refugee children have been arriving in swelling numbers, with 12,000 expected this year and the same again next year.

A lone girl can easily be trafficked because she won’t be missed.

Some of these are girls, and some of the girls are orphaned; they lose their families to conflict or during the journey. Some are already married but lose their husbands. Without their usual family and community protections, they’re vulnerable to rape and other violence.

A lone girl can easily be trafficked because she won’t be missed. It’s been reported that last year, out of 13,000 unaccompanied minors who arrived as refugees in Italy, 4,000 went missing.

In desperation, some girls feel they have no choice but to engage in survival sex with men who promise food for them and their children.

Girl in refugee camp

Hiding in plain sight

Seeing the risks, families typically react by hiding the girls or marrying them off. Sadly, this only exacerbates the problem. If humanitarians don’t see the girls, they are not considered in the design of assistance programmes. In the rush to provide water, food and shelter, the protection programming that reduces the risk of violence against girls is put aside for later. We know all too well that later never comes. 

But invisibility should not be mistaken for helplessness. Even in these crisis situations, girls can recover and, if given the opportunity, they can thrive and even move beyond their own expectations. Take Muzoon, living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. When she noticed more and more girls were getting married early, she set off on a mission to make sure they went to school instead. Her efforts led Malala Yousafzai to open a girls’ school in the camp.

In programmes with our partners in refugee camps, we’ve trained and employed teenage Syrian girls to run focus groups designed to investigate their unique needs. They soaked up the opportunity with relish.

“This project has brought order, accuracy and purpose to our daily lives,” one girl told us. 

Another said: “Frankly, I was so happy this week… I learned something so useful: being able to introduce the work and to understand why it’s important.” Once girls understand how the humanitarian system works within their communities, they’re empowered to make their voices heard.

Europe's challenge

Europe could be that haven refugees are betting on. If they are welcomed humanely, girls could return to school and regain the potential that was taken from them when they became refugees. In fact, if the governments of Europe and the humanitarian community made a commitment to treat displacement as an opportunity, the girls are often the first to take advantage of that opportunity to build new lives, such as 11-year-old Manar who is thriving with her mother and sisters in the UK.  

We don’t really know what’s happening with the girls fleeing to Europe right now: there are no dedicated statistics or data-gathering on them. That should trouble us all.

And the daily headlines show European countries struggling to cope with the influx of desperate groups of people amid chaos. In the scramble to provide shelter for tens of thousands of refugees, have officials in the hastily constructed registration centres and camps considered the safety needs of girls? Do they know that where lights and latrines are placed play a crucial role in keeping girls and women safe? Are they consulting girls and women about their unique needs?

Under international law and the laws of most European nations, refugees have a right to protection from targeted violence. The fact that the girls have made it this far, from the violence that drove them from their homes, to closed borders and hostile police in Europe, proves their resilience. We must match their strength and step up to this challenge to ensure their safety.

Sarah Costa is the executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission.