The Refugee Crisis and the Women Left Behind

Leah Olasehinde is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.

In 2016, the United Nations Refugee Agency[1] estimated that there were 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. They may be displaced from their homes through war, persecution, poverty, or environmental disasters. Of this 65.6 million, 22.5 million are classed as ‘refugees’. The others may be asylum seekers, vulnerable migrants, or internally displaced people.

Despite media hysteria, Europe as a continent and the UK as a country are one of the lowest host territories for forcibly displaced people in the world: of the 10 countries hosting the most refugees per population, only 2 are in Europe.[2] Yet, the circumstances of refugees that arrive in Europe are similar to those experienced throughout the Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia.

So when we discover that 65% of forcibly displaced people are men[3], the disproportionate difference between men and women is most likely mirrored in every other region.*

But why is this the case? What does it mean for the women left home? Is there any support at home for this particularly vulnerable group?

Why are women left behind?

The journey from a dangerous home country to a faraway host country is exceptionally perilous.

Many men, as the traditional heads of the family, take it upon themselves to face this danger to find peace, in the hope to safely bring over their family once they are settled. The traditional role of a husband and father is to provide for the family and establish a home, so men are more expected to leave the country in order to do so.

Along the way, forcibly displaced people face illegal smugglers, makeshift camps, and government detention. Each of these parts of the journey is riddled with exploitation and violence, with women and children as the easier targets. The disproportionate violence, especially sexual violence, experienced by women and children on this journey would prevent their husbands or fathers from allowing them to join.

Once they arrive, despite facing more prejudice and resistance in a host country than women, men are often more educated and experienced. They will be more likely to speak a foreign language, and will have more transferrable skills to begin work. This will allow them to get their new lives established, and in turn, bring over their families, faster than a woman in the same position.

What does this mean for the women left back home?

Being left home in a dangerous place has many effects, as women see their roles change to become the head of the family, and are left alone and isolated.

Without the traditional male breadwinner of the family, full responsibility is imposed onto women to provide for themselves, their children, and family elders. Some women will see themselves in work for the first time in their lives. The initial financial strain of being the sole financial source of the family is obvious. However, this responsibility is particularly onerous on women: they are still paid less than men, and are often limited to less lucrative areas of work than their husbands would be.

This financial strain, together with months or often years with no contact with their husbands, and the exhaustion of living in a dangerous home, have further implications on physical as well as mental health. Anxiety, loneliness and hopelessness will make these exceptionally difficult circumstances even harder.

What support is there at home?

Of the limited resources and support available to internally displaced people, there is growing attention being paid to women left home.

As of this year, the majority of refugees worldwide come from South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Syria.[4] It will be in these 3 countries that are the most women left home.

In South Sudan:

The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA Network) has set up 3 initiatives for female empowerment. It works closely with local organisations to provide vulnerable women with professional skills training, health and legal aid services, and community projects.

In Afghanistan:

The Organisation of Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities (OPAWC) is a Women’s Centre established in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. It has opened vocational training centres, a health clinic, orphanages, and runs projects for rural development.

In Syria:

Women Now for Development first began as a women’s political movement, supporting the revolution against the regime. Now, it runs women’s and children’s centres, specialising in psychosocial support, education, and skills training across Syria and Lebanon.

To find out more about these organisations, along with information on how to campaign, volunteer or donate, follow the links below:

SIHA Network – South Sudan

OPAWC – Afghanistan

Women Now for Development – Syria


The nature of the refugee crisis means that the facts will never provide a clear image of the situation. Single men are more likely to be targeted by crime and immigration authorities, so are less likely to register and be known to the government than women. This means the figures for refugee women will be more accurate than for refugee men, and there are likely many more forcibly displaced men that are not captured in data samples. In addition, no comprehensive data will be able to account the amount of forcibly displaced people who perish on the journey, or are imprisoned or forced into combat by their own governments in their attempts to escape. These men, too, are forced to leave their wives, mothers, and children behind.






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