United Nations turns focus on 20 million migrants around the world

Syrian refugee children learn computer skills at a community center of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Deir al-Ahmar in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

When I met Aayda Merhej a year ago, she struggled with the day-to-day agonies that exacted a toll on many Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

"We're just trying to survive right now," she told me.

Four people — Merhej, her two children and her husband, Ayoub Bshesh, a day laborer — lived in a small Beirut apartment at the time.

"Small" is putting it mildly. The space included only a common room and a kitchen, plus a leaky roof.

Rent was already high — $300 a month — and about to get higher. That was painful for a family dependent on Bshesh's small, and by no means secure, income.

Several members of the family faced medical problems. Most worrying was Bshesh, who has several medical conditions and ailments that almost caused a stroke.

And all of this had happened while being caught in "migration limbo." The family did not want to emigrate to the West because of the difficulties that posed, including differences in language and culture. But they had nothing to return to in Syria.

"Our house was destroyed," Merhej said. "We'd have to go back to zero."

Going back to zero is a common refrain among refugees everywhere, whether they live in urban centers like Beirut or in the camps that are home to refugees and others fleeing wars, social tension, natural disasters or environmental problems.

With the highest number of migrants since the end of World War II now on the move — in all likelihood, more than 20 million, according to the Migration Policy Institute — the United Nations is focusing on migration in ways it has not done before.

The U.N. is working this year on developing international compacts to strengthen protections for refugees and migrants. As part of its overall development agenda, the U.N. has committed itself to the "orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies."

The work going on now will build on the first U.N. summit on migration, held in September, that produced "The New York Declaration," a document calling for protection of human rights of all migrants and refugees, regardless of their legal status. The document includes a focus on women and girls.

A view of the Secretariat Building, with U.N. members states' flags flying in the foreground, at United Nations headquarters in New York. (U.N. photo / Rick Bajornas)

It's not surprising, then, that as a kind of lead-up to the U.N. meetings, the U.N. is regularly hosting events focusing on the challenges of migration.

One such recent event, on February 9, examined the ways early childhood development should be a cornerstone of the international response to migration, especially since The New York Declaration says nations need to ensure that all refugee and migrant children be in school within a few months of their arrival in new communities or countries.

In her talk at the event, Sr. Winifred Doherty, the U.N. representative of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, highlighted the need for education for refugee children.

Doherty mentioned a project I visited last year while in Lebanon: a community center of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Deir al-Ahmar, located in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley and about a two-hour drive from Beirut.

The center is doing fine work — but is also overwhelmed, Doherty noted.

"Where are the facilities for early childhood education when life itself is threatened and survival strategies are all people have?" she said, noting that each and every day, "morning and afternoon, a total of 405 Syrian children crowd the classrooms of the kindergarten and the primary school. The struggle for Good Shepherd is meeting individual needs, each person, versus addressing systemic causes."

Addressing such causes is, of course, extremely difficult. The center becomes a place of calm for children who have had troubling experiences fleeing from their homes and are now living in often crowded and difficult circumstances.

I well remember that, surrounding the Good Shepherd Sisters' well-built and well-tended center, enclaves of tents — temporary refugee homes — dotted the valley. In an environment filled with uncertainty, such havens like the one provided by the Good Shepherd Sisters can only do so much.

Sr. Winifred Doherty, the U.N. representative of the Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, at the Feb. 9 U.N. meeting that examined the ways early childhood development should be a cornerstone of the international response to migration (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

"Education has the power to transform lives, building the foundation for a brighter future. But poverty and conflict can make it difficult to access quality education," Doherty said. "Children suffer from disadvantages that get in the way of their development — fear and insecurity due to displacement, conflict and war all around, malnutrition . . . all impact cognitive development as well as physical, psychological and emotional development."

That is one part of the challenge. Another, Doherty noted, is the problems of migrant women and girls.

Quoting Leila Zerroughui, the U.N.'s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Doherty said, "Girls are always affected by conflict in each and every context," used as sex slaves, bush wives and domestic servants.

Doherty added, "Girls are largely invisible in conflicts — often subject to stigmatization by communities because of rape and pregnancy . . . the most heartbreaking thing is when we see a girl who is a child with her own children."

A focus on gender-based concerns is very much a part of the U.N. discussions on migration.

Ahead of a February 17 session on lifting up women's human rights in the U.N. compacts on migration, UN Women, noted that women "make up approximately half of the 244 million international migrants worldwide."

At a time when studies show more women are migrating on their own and not necessarily following spouses or other family members, UN Women said in a statement that migration "has the potential to positively impact equitable, inclusive and sustainable growth for countries of origin, transit and destination. When women migrants' rights are protected, migration can be an expression of agency, positively impacting their position in their family and community."

Even so, women still "face high risks of sexual and gender-based violence, psychosocial stress and trauma, health complications, physical harm, injury and exploitation. Migrant women are commonly subject to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, as women, as migrants, and often on additional grounds such as race, ethnicity or belonging to a minority group.

"Such gender-based discrimination limits migrant women's decision-making and agency in the household and in the labour market, as well as their mobility — within and outside their countries of origin."

To that end, UN Women has made a series of recommendations about women's and girls' human rights in order to "mainstream" the issue of gender "in the global compact and discuss concrete ways to address and promote the rights, contributions, voices, participation, and leadership of migrant women and girls."

Aayda Merhej at her family's apartment in Beirut, Lebanon. (GSR photo / Chris Herlinger)

This includes a topic of great concern to Doherty and other Catholic sisters: combating "trafficking and exploitation of women and girls in line with international human rights law, norms and standards, recognizing the increased risk of trafficking that women and girls face due to economic precarity, conflicts, post-conflict contexts and natural disasters, and when they lack nationality and identity documents."

Debates about U.N. documents may seem arcane, maybe even obscure, to those outside the United Nations. I understand that. But the pressure on focusing on gender rights in migration is a good one.

Yes, men and women both bear the weight and pressures of migration. But too often, women take on particularly heavy loads. In Aayda Merhej's case, that means just keeping her family together. In the cases of a number of women I have met, particularly in some African countries, that means trying to recover from trauma and horrible acts of violence, often sexual violence.

Having countries live up to commitments to migrants and refugees, which is ultimately what the U.N. compacts will be about, can create the spaces for a better and more just world.

As Doherty notes, "Inhumanity is all around us ... yet in the midst of that inhumanity there are everyday miracles that impact the individual at all stages of the lifecycle."

Migrants and refugee deserve more of those everyday miracles.

[Chris Herlinger is GSR international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]

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