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Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Year of the family

Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Year of the family
Issue 95, I - 1994

1 March 1994
The United Nations has declared 1994 the International Year of the Family. The refugee family is without doubt the most vulnerable of families.

The United Nations has declared 1994 the International Year of the Family. The refugee family is without doubt the most vulnerable of families.

The United Nations has designated 1994 the International Year of the Family, honouring what a U.N. General Assembly Resolution calls "the foundation of human society and the source of human life."

But for millions of refugee families around the world, those foundations have been severely shaken, sometimes irreparably. The refugee family, exposed and subjected to trauma, violence, separation and loss of home, belongings and even identity, is without doubt the most vulnerable of families.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) strives to provide protection and assistance to more than 20 million refugees and displaced people around the globe. Millions of these people have experienced the loss of family members through death or separation. But even those who were fortunate enough to escape with their families intact must face almost overwhelming odds in their new countries or regions of asylum. They are expected to sustain themselves in foreign and sometimes hostile environments. Often, everything that was familiar to them is lost -home, livelihood, school, friends, cultural traditions, language. Despite the pain and depression caused by this loss, they must carry on the struggle to survive. And it is usually their sense of family unity that gives them the strength and the will to do it.

After more than 40 years of work with refugees, UNHCR is all too aware that the family, the basic unit of society, is also the greatest casualty of social upheaval. Guided by both humanitarian and practical considerations, UNHCR makes every effort to preserve and ensure family unity among refugees. Because for millions of refugees, the family is all that is left.

Marie Lobo, UNHCR's senior social services officer in Geneva, says families undergo severe stress in a refugee environment. Usually, the stress is from multiple causes, any one of which is enough to create major upheaval. Women, for example, often must assume the dual roles of breadwinner and homemaker because men are left behind to fight or are killed or taken prisoner in their homeland. In addition to losing everything, these women must assume added responsibilities to keep their families together.

"It is not surprising that the mortality rates in the early stages of a refugee emergency are very high," Lobo said. "Family members are lost, some die and many are separated. People lose their means of livelihood and all their resources. There is a general loss of direction, of purpose and of meaning in life, especially in separated families. Many refugees suffer disabilities in flight and need medical attention they cannot get. The elderly are abandoned and those who cannot cope fall by the wayside. Many people die because they simply give up hope. They feel they have nothing left to live for."

Perhaps the most tragic victims are the children who become separated from their parents. Experts estimate there could be more than 40,000 such "unaccompanied minors" as a result of the war in former Yugoslavia alone. Several international organizations, including UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, numerous non-governmental organizations and the International Organization for Migration, are doing what they can to reunite these children with their families.

Women with small children without male support are often expected to fend for themselves. For women from traditional, conservative backgrounds, this can be especially difficult. Often, these women are taken advantage of and are sometimes victims of physical and sexual abuse. Women under these conditions find it almost impossible to defend themselves and seldom tell anyone of their plight.

UNHCR and its partners are working hard to identify these and other vulnerable cases and to provide programmes for their protection.

Refugee families who would normally have cared for their old, disabled and weak members are often no longer able to do so and are sometimes forced to abandon them or lose their own lives. The guilt and sense of shame resulting from this terrible choice haunt many refugees for the rest of their lives.

To deal with these kinds of problems, UNHCR is striving to place community workers in emergency areas as early as possible to help identify those most in need - often the elderly, unaccompanied children, the disabled, and single-parent families. Foster homes are found for unaccompanied minors, if possible with families who are known to them. Sometimes, elderly refugees without support are also placed with families who can help care for them.

UNHCR has made the family the basic planning unit for provision of assistance, shelter and other needs to refugees throughout the world, using a figure of four to five persons per family. But helping refugee families should not end with provision of these basic needs. Refugee children, who sometimes spend their most formative years in refugee camps, must be given a stable environment to grow up in. Their educational, recreational, cultural and medical needs must be met. And their parents, usually their mothers, must be given help in coping with the needs of their children in such areas as health education and nutrition. Often, the food provided to refugees is not part of their normal diet, but what foreign donors have made available. Thus, refugee families must be taught how to prepare and cook what they are given.

Lobo stressed that all of these programmes to help families are based on the participation of the refugees themselves. "These are their programmes," she said. "We don't work in isolation."

The principle of family unity is set forth in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which state: "The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state."

In addition, the Geneva Convention calls on governments and parties to conflicts to "facilitate in every possible way the reunion of families dispersed as a result of armed conflict."

Over the decades, UNHCR, ICRC, IOM and other organizations have helped protect and reunite tens of thousands of families around the world. But much more needs to be done. Lobo said the International Year of the Family provides UNHCR with an opportunity to stress to governments the need to reunite refugee families now separated by international boundaries.

UNHCR, particularly the Division of International Protection, is working toward a greater advocacy role with governments to bring rapid unification of separated refugee families. It is also promoting the adoption of liberal criteria in national legislation determining the admission of refugees' family members, and flexibility in regard to requirements for documenting proof of marriage or affiliation of children. Many refugees flee their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and getting documentation can be a major problem.

"In the end, what we want to do is create an awareness of the special problems of refugee families," Lobo said. "This is something that is of vital interest to all of us."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (1994)