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The Forgotten Global Refugees: An Overlooked Tragedy

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June 2019 began with so many deaths across the world for various reasons, some hundreds getting massacred in Sudan and many young, malnourished children dying of Encephalitis in Bihar. The unlawful detention of people by the foreigners’ tribunal in Assam, Rohingya refugees in neighboring states getting rescued by officials from child abuse, human trafficking etc., are some of the common news headlines that one comes across on a daily basis.

More than seven million Rohingyas migrated from the Rakhine state in Myanmar towards Bangladesh in August 2017. Today, most of them stay in refugee camps near Cox’s Bazaar, in Bangladesh. Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Ukhia, Chittagong is the most famous one. Many UN Goodwill ambassadors have visited these camps including Priyanka Chopra and Gigi Hadid, who paid a visit to some of the camps in Cox’s Bazaar last year.

Image via Getty

Bangladesh is trying extremely hard to cater to the basic human needs of the Rohingya refugees. And because Bangladesh is a country of low lying flood plains, there are added problems of an appalling and recurring cycle of floods and cyclones every year, further turning the refugees into victims of climate hazards.

Almost all of them undertake a journey packed with perils crossing the Naf River from Myanmar to Bangladesh. They cross through boats, some swim; many make it, and many die on the journey. If one looks up for images of the Rohingya crisis on the internet, they will come across many heartbreaking photographs.

Let’s not forget Syria along with Iraq, which has faced one of the worst humanitarian crises of this decade at the behest of the barbaric ISIS. Hundreds and thousands of people tried to flee their home country, crossing the Mediterranean Sea and making it to Europe. While most of them crossed and made it via illegal means or as smugglers, many others could not as their boats capsized and they drowned. In September 2015, the image of a three-year-old boy named Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach, drew worldwide attention to the global refugee crisis.

Many Yazidis were killed at the hands of ISIS, who were determined to conduct an ethnic cleansing because Yazidis do not have a holy book and have distinct religious beliefs and practices. They are a small ethnic and religious minority which has roots originating from Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion preceding Christianity. They mostly speak Kurdish and are concentrated in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The ISIS has targeted many religious minority groups, but the treatment of Yazidis, in particular, has been extreme, fraught with sexual violence, human trafficking, the killing of children and male members, which are all tactics of terrorism.

Propaganda plays a huge role. The ISIS published journals and pamphlets which were distributed among the people providing ideological justifications to committing such heinous crimes. Nadia Murad, who won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Congolese gynaecologist Denis Mukwege in December 2018, is a Yazidi woman. She is also the first Iraqi ever to win a Noble Prize. Nadia is a courageous woman who has endured unimaginable tragedy and degradation through sexual enslavement to ISIS.

Six of her brothers were killed, and her mother died a little later; their bodies swept into mass graves. But she has fought back, and today she is a human rights activist who lives in Germany. There are hundreds and thousands of women and girls like Nadia, and today many of them have started life from scratch, are resilient and determined to make it through, even though they suffer a backlash from certain communities and countries, because one cannot ignore that there have been crimes committed by the immigrants as well.

The ongoing economic crisis in Venezuela has almost brought the whole country to the streets. With oil becoming cheaper than water and rising prices of bread, today, most of Venezuelan women and children are suffering from acute malnutrition. Many of them have fled to neighbouring Columbia while many others have gone to Spain and other European nations. This is happening in a country which has the largest oil reserves in the world, and has a reputation of producing the maximum number of beauty pageant title holders!

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s also not forget the immediate refugee crisis brought about by the Partition of British India, which displaced millions of people on both the sides of the border and took nearly six years after independence to counter. It’s said to be one of the most disturbing episodes in modern day history which displaced the highest number of people just after the Holocaust! Several memoirs have been written, and many films and documentaries have been made, but the pain of separation is still there among those who witnessed partition.

I have tried interacting with many octogenarians, and even today, they get teary-eyed when reminded of Lahore, Sindh or other towns of the Pakistani province of Punjab. There are many migrated families from Pakistan—staying in central and western parts of Delhi in present times—who started their lives from nothing. Their endurance over the years kept them alive. It is true that such episodes in history create hate among communities, mostly religious strife and promotes ghettoisation which is bad in the long run—because it defeats the very idea of integration and assimilation among the larger society.

Often in many cases, while one community flourishes, the other community struggles even to get basic amenities. While some areas become the epitome of progress, luxury and cleanliness, the other areas somehow fail every time to remain just ‘clean’ mostly due to the collective failure of local governments and citizens. Often, these ‘failed areas’ in the eyes of many get pushed to the peripheries of the large cities becoming walled, getting disconnected, disrupted and disassociated from the essential and accessible areas of the main city.

Just a few days ahead of June 20, which is celebrated as World Refugee Day, UNHCR declared that more than 70 million people have been displaced worldwide. Within this 70 million figure, UNHCR categorizes them into three main groups:

The first group is the refugees or people who have been forced to leave their home countries because of conflict, war or persecution. The second group is of those classified as asylum seekers i.e. people outside their country of origin and receiving international protection, but awaiting the outcome of their claim to refugee status. These two groups together amount to nearly 30 million displaced people worldwide.

Around half of the world’s asylum seekers are children, many being unaccompanied minors. They are often stuck for years in refugee camps in host countries which are unable to absorb the high numbers of incoming people.

The third and biggest group, at over 41 million, is people displaced to other areas within their own country, a category commonly referred to as Internally Displaced People (IDPs).

The refugee crisis is a very complex issue worldwide, and countries get caught in the debate whether to accept them or not. The issues vary for most of the developed west and developing east. Developing countries have their own homegrown issues of an ever-increasing population and poverty, and most of them live in the rural areas with impending problems of gender-based violence, low education levels, farm crises further aggravating the issue of climate change, unemployment among the youth, to name a few.

On top of that, accepting refugees gets problematic as there is a massive competition for resources. There is anger among the natives, what if they become minorities in their own land? What if migrants and refugees snatch their jobs?

Many developed countries have taken in refugees and asylum seekers, albeit many of them are getting subjected to hate crimes for belonging to a particular country or faith. And this is indeed a vicious cycle fraught with anxiety, mental trauma. We need to have empathy and collective responsibility of shared goals for the greater good. Only time will tell.

So does time heal? Or does time creates a lag and helps one forget memories from the past? For no one wants to get displaced from their homes or countries. There will always be one corner of the heart which will long to go back to one’s roots!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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