The international community is developing effective humanitarian policies and undertaking ambitious projects to support refugees. However, fundamental challenges to ensuring an equitable and dignified life for the most vulnerable remain.
The number of forcibly displaced people has doubled in the past decade and passed 80 million. Most uprooted people are living in a neighbouring developing country, with limited access to proper shelter, food, healthcare, education and job opportunities. Host countries, with the support of local and international organisations, are implementing a range of projects to address refugees’ needs.
It is worthy to ask how many of these bold, high-budget projects involve the most vulnerable including people with disabilities and mental health conditions, women and children as well as victims of torture, gender-based violence and human trafficking. Considering that half of the world’s refugee population is women and 34 million are children, it’s important to think about the extent to which their needs are met by humanitarian projects.
Forced displacement leads to deep-rooted traumas. Leaving loved ones behind, getting used to a different and sometimes hostile environment, learning a new language and working in demanding jobs are amongst the common challenges facing refugees. Many of them are also traumatised by their experiences of detention, torture or rape. Others are burdened with a physical or mental disability.
Besides daily struggles, refugees with extreme vulnerabilities are at a much higher risk of exploitation, which has been exacerbated by Covid-19. Domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual abuse and stigmatisation are far more prevalent among these groups. The reality points to their dire needs such as protection, medical and psychosocial support. Yet it is not easy to reach these less visible but more vulnerable persons – leaving their appalling needs unmet and voices unheard.
Special Needs Fund
Inclusive humanitarian action has become a key policy agenda in recent years and was ingrained with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which pledged to “leave no one behind” and “reach the furthest behind first”. New policies, frameworks and initiatives were introduced to eliminate economic, political and social barriers for the most vulnerable.
Humanitarian organisations focussed on projects targeting indigenous peoples, minorities, pregnant women, the elderly and unaccompanied children to reduce their vulnerabilities and integrate them into social life. These projects are of significant value in terms of translating policies into concrete actions.
A striking example of such a project is the Special Needs Fund (SNF), which was established in partnership between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Turkish Red Crescent. SNF supports individuals who - due to their age, gender, or other diversity characteristics - have needs that are not met through available social support mechanisms. SNF is an exemplary tool to push forward an inclusive agenda and address the urgent and vital needs of people with extreme vulnerabilities.
The Fund provides one-time or short-term immediate in-kind support to prevent or minimise risks that may arise by the time an individual can access benefits from an appropriate protection scheme. SNF services include support for pest control, rental payment, assistance after natural disasters, transportation, emergency accommodation, school materials, university entrance and Turkish language exam fees, death/birth certificates, medical devices such as wheelchairs, orthoses, prostheses and medication for life-threatening conditions. The goal is to reduce vulnerable people’s dependency, facilitate access to fundamental rights, protect them against gender-based violence and empower them.
Since 2018, over 16,000 beneficiaries have been supported through SNF. The success of the project led UNHCR and Turkish Red Crescent to continue their partnership in 2021. Another 600 people will be reached this year.
This number is, of course, only a small fraction of the thousands of refugees with extreme vulnerabilities, but it is a step forward in making an astonishing difference in the lives of affected people, like that of little Bibi Zainab Sadad.
Bibi Zainab lost her hearing at the age of one during the bombings near her home in Afghanistan. She and her family left everything behind and settled in Agri, Turkey after a long journey on foot. When Bibi Zainab started school, her father contacted the local Turkish Red Crescent branch with the hope of receiving support to treat her hearing and speaking difficulties. Hearing aids were provided to the little girl under SNF and her hearing improved.
SNF is an important collaboration between UNHCR and Turkish Red Crescent and is one of the many projects the two organisations have been implementing since the start of the devastating conflict in Syria. It is a prime example of the implementation of the inclusive agenda to provide a more equitable and dignified life for vulnerable populations.
Despite numerous projects and good practices, fundamental problems in reaching the most vulnerable and addressing their needs persist. Identifying the most vulnerable is challenging particularly in countries with a large population of refugees, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Also, mental health issues and certain disabilities remain a taboo in some cultures, and vulnerable people tend to refrain from revealing their conditions and seeking professional help.
Vulnerable people need to be visible and active members in their communities. The inclusion of refugees with extreme vulnerabilities into local life through employment, education, language or voluntary work is of utmost importance. Raising awareness among host communities and improving social cohesion can help create mutual understanding and respect.
Moreover, the participation of vulnerable groups’ representatives in the design of projects is vital to better understand and prioritise their needs. Even though extensive effort and extraordinary work is being conducted by humanitarians to identify and support the most vulnerable, it is essential to develop specific policies and put appropriate legal mechanisms in place to protect them.
The private sector can also play a key role as both donors and partners in protection and social cohesion activities via social responsibility projects. It is through the broad cooperation of international, national and local actors that an inclusive society where no one is left behind can be achieved and fully realised.
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