"Invisible", but refugee women play key integration role

News Stories, 9 April 2003

DUBLIN, Ireland (UNHCR) Sarah is a "seasoned" refugee, having fled for her life twice in the last 20 years. But when it comes to public recognition, she feels that refugee women like herself are often invisible.

In the 1980s, her Tutsi family escaped the civil war in Rwanda and sought refuge in Uganda, where she was later naturalised. She married at a young age, but as a result of her husband's political activities, was "harassed and threatened" by the authorities in Uganda, prompting her to flee again.

She and her husband arrived in Ireland in early 2001 and applied for asylum. Within seven months, they were granted refugee status and were able to reunite with the three children they had left behind in Uganda.

Sarah is adamant she is as much a refugee as her husband, and that her fear of persecution is just as great based on the political opinions imputed to her and the fact that she had become the target of authorities seeking information on him. However, she laments, her passport only recognises her as the wife of a refugee, evidence of the fact that women refugees are often too invisible.

Still, Sarah is glad to be in Ireland, where she feels safe. "As a refugee, you basically have the rights of a citizen," she says, reflecting the positive environment for integration in the country.

But she is also aware of challenges that remain, such as the media's indiscriminate use of the terms "refugee" and "asylum seeker", often with misleading or negative connotations.

In 2000, Ireland introduced a policy for refugee integration, but steps to introduce practical integration programmes for refugees have been limited. Sarah says the government "gives you rights but never tells you where to go. You have sleepless nights waiting for your refugee status. And after you get it, you have sleepless nights not knowing what to do."

Refugee women have a key role to play, she says. Attending a conference on refugee women for International Women's Day on March 8 in Ireland's second-largest city of Cork, she had a strong message for her fellow refugee women, urging them to "find themselves again, their old confidence and their value in the community."

For integration to succeed, she added, refugee women must contribute to their new communities so that "they can contribute to themselves, their families, and live a better life."

By Steven O'Brien
UNHCR Ireland