Health Doesn’t Ask for a Passport

Last month saw the observance of World Refugee Day, and as the Swedish Organization for Global Health’s Girls’ Globe Blog Writer, I had planned to write a piece on the health issues migrants and refugees face.

Instead, I was silenced by outrage, anger, overwhelm, and shock – which is rare for me and also a privilege not available to all amidst crisis. The (often forced) mobility of humans around the world in 2018 has been responded to in every single wrong way possible from countries with the ability to help.

As a living, breathing human being, I feel connected to others – and not just those who have the same passport as I do. This is what makes the refugee crisis so raw, and the policies that endanger fellow human lives so disgusting, unacceptable, and devastating. Humans should be saved from drowning, empowered out of poverty, saved from war and death, maintained as a family.

I cannot and will never be okay with ‘othering’, or with seeing precious lives in danger, exploited, separated, willingly left in dangerous waters – both literally and figuratively. We know that women and girls, in all their diversities, are disproportionately at risk whether or not they leave their homes or stay in places that feel like the mouth of a shark”. We have felt, all of us, that visceral need to respond when another human is struggling. 

So, after some moments of action, phone calls with my friends and family, and inspiration from people like the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, I write these words both to regain my own voice and ignite yours. There is much to say about the refugee crisis and the treatment of people across the world in 2018.

The truth is, health does not discriminate. It does not check passports, ask age, or inquire if one can afford the staggering cost to pay for simple care.

Globally, there are 258 million cross-border migrants and 753 million internal border migrants (according to the World Health Organization). The physical and mental well-being of migrants, refugees, immigrants, and all people who are mobile, is an enormous concern. These risks are present whether or not a migrant or refugee stays in their country, resides in a camp, or travels to a new country. The risks are present in each place. Like all health threats, if left unaddressed, the contagion effect will continue within vulnerable populations in a cyclical manner.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reminds us that “Individuals who are stateless face grave and often insurmountable barriers”, especially regarding healthcare. Health risks for women include sexual violence and reproductive health, in addition to accidental injuries, hypothermia, burns, gastrointestinal illnesses, cardiovascular events, pregnancy- and delivery-related complications, diabetes and hypertension”, which the WHO regional office in Europe has documented.

Conditions where life and death are two close alternatives make luxuries like safety, care, protection, health, and hygiene hard to prioritize – especially without help. Though physical health care has traditionally been the main priority, mental health care for migrants and refugees must now become equally important.  

As I finish writing this long-awaited post, I see a news alert pop up on my screen with a picture of a woman clutching her toddler in reunification. The headline reads: My Son is Not the Same. This woman’s son was stolen from her arms at the border of the United States and Mexico, and kept from her for eighty-five days.

Trauma lives in the body and is embedded in the mind. While refugees, migrants and humans who face difficulty in life are incredibly resilient, they are not without scars. Our work now must be two-fold: prevent more atrocities and help our brothers and sisters, our fellow humans, to heal.

This is a reminder that we are not without agency to help change things. We do not need to be an elected official or head of an organization to help. I’ve compiled a short list of organizations to consider getting involved with. Please comment below to add!

Rescue and Advocacy
  • The Global Compact for Migration was finally adopted after months of deliberation, on July 13, 2018. The word “health” does not appear at all in the three page document. This is a problem and needs to be changed.
Social Media
  • Videos to share
  • Follow the above organizations on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other favorite platforms

Where are the Adolescent Girls?

Amid the recent outcry over the separation of children and their families at the US border, the Trump administration has released photo after photo of detained adolescent boys. At first, however, there were no images released of adolescent girls.

After reporters, elected officials and the public began asking #wherearethegirls, the administration released a few carefully cropped images of detained girls. Wishing to avoid further outcry, they selected photos of girls who appear healthy and well. First Lady Melania Trump might even describe them as “very happy”, as she described the detained children she visited last week.    

Despite the pretty pictures and First Lady’s eyewitness account, I do not believe that all, or even most, of the detained adolescent girls are healthy and well. I’ve worked in enough humanitarian emergencies to know that adolescent girls – especially those who are separated from their families – are at risk of sexual abuse, trafficking and other forms of gender-based violence. Although we would like to pretend otherwise, the humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border is no different. All of the same risks are thrown into the cauldron, and adolescent girls feel the heat more acutely than anyone else.   

As in every humanitarian emergency, in this border crisis girls between the ages of 10 and 17 seemed to have vanished under our nation’s radar. The US Government lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children last year, so it is not a huge jump to worry that the few pictures and scant information on the girls that have been released might be all of the information that exists.

The Department of Health and Human Services revealed that some girls have been sent to shelters with boys in Homestead, Florida and Bristow, Virginia. Other reports indicate that some are being sent to foster care in New York City. Those places seem random to me, but perhaps they are selected precisely because they are random. They are a long, long way from the border and a long, long way from where their parents are detained – if these girls even are in Florida, Virginia and New York.  

At the risk of being accused of focusing on the extreme, I worry about trafficking. Each year, over 300,000 children are trafficked in the US. Although these children come from different backgrounds and include boys, I’ve never seen a refugee crisis in which girl children weren’t trafficked.

In the US, the networks and demand to enable trafficking already exist, and here we have a population of girls taken from their parents and placed in a system that criminalizes their existence. The Trump administration has also created a narrative that these asylum seekers are subhuman, which heightens their risk of abuse and exploitation.  

We call out the unjust and inhumane treatment of babies and toddlers, using what we know about early childhood development to understand the trauma being inflicted upon these young children. But we stop short of using what we know about gender-based violence to understand what’s going on with the absent girls. We ask the questions, but stop short of stating the obvious: many of these girls are being assaulted, abused and exploited. We recently learned that a facility in Houston is accused of medicating children, and yet there is no outcry about what that means for girls. Men, drugs and power have never resulted in anything positive for women and girls.

This administration has consistently undermined and dehumanized women and girls, and women and girls of color and migrant women and girls have taken the worst of it. Although I often feel helpless amidst the tides of violations carried out by this administration, I know helplessness gives space for continued human rights abuses.

Ultimately, it is our right to be seen and heard regardless of our race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or ability, and this applies to girls as well as to those who care about what’s happening to them. ‘We the people’ includes all of us, and I believe that ‘we the people’ includes those girls who are out there, somewhere, depending on other people’s voices until they are in a space to raise their own.

As much as we are able, we should support organizations working specifically with women and girls, like the Women’s Refugee Committee and the Tahirih Justice Center.

Continue to follow Girls’ Globe for more coverage on this and other issues pertaining to the rights of women and girls globally.