Member Blog: World Refugee Day – Where Do We Go Now?

This blog post was written by youth SRHR advocate and Chair of the Youth Coalition Board of Directors, Hazal Atay. Hazal is a Turkish feminist studying and working in the field of sexual and reproductive rights. She is currently working towards her PhD at The Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

It has been seven years since the Syrian conflict started, with monumental levels of human mobility that had not been seen this century. I come from one of the countries that has been most affected by the conflict: Turkey. Today, my country hosts more than three million Syrian refugees. The conflict and this influx of displaced people has had a tremendous impact on the country’s outlook.

My studies focus on displaced Syrian ethnic minorities, and as such, I’ve met, talked and worked with many refugees. I have heard both horrible and inspiring stories about the hardships endured by many refugees. But more than those stories, what strikes me the most each time is the mis-en-scene and how these stories are narrated in the media and used for political purposes. Unfortunately, refugee policies are already a political flashpoint, with the realities and results of these policies revealing everything that is wrong with society.

For the most part, discussions on refugee protections embrace the idea of humanitarian aid – at least this is how it is portrayed in the media. However, as the discussion progresses, it becomes a numbers game, with governments lamenting the high costs and their squeezed budgets.

But refugees don’t only need aid and emergency resources – they need support and rights! No humanitarian aid will be effective until the human rights of refugees are recognized. No assistance will be meaningful unless refugees have entitlements to it.

While today the world hosts the largest number of young people ever, it also hosts the greatest number of displaced youth and children. UNICEF reports that children now make up more than half of the world’s refugees.[1] Further, refugee youth and children are among the most vulnerable within displaced populations. It is essential that both humanitarian relief and integration programs embrace these populations and strive to meet their needs. Comprehensive programs should be developed by including and empowering refugee youth at every stage of policy-making and implementation, recognizing their diversity and lived realities.

Although there are many programs in place to facilitate refugee protection and integration, they are not comprehensive enough and often lack a youth-friendly approach to services, especially when it comes to sexual and reproductive health. Most of these programs lack an intersectional approach and fail to acknowledge the immense diversity within refugee communities. We tend to think of refugees as homogeneous masses, as this is how they are depicted in the media. But they are also individuals with distinct and unique needs and stories. The shortcomings of our integration programs, as a result, contribute further to the marginalization of certain groups and leave them at risk of isolation, poor health, exploitation, and even death.

There are many notable examples of the further marginalization of refugees, but for myself, I cannot stop thinking about Muhammed Wisam Sankari, a gay Syrian refugee who was killed in Istanbul due to his sexual orientation.[2] The story of Muhammed remains has largely been glossed over, but I believe it should be a used as a lesson to guide future refugee protection programs.

Mr. Gay Syria, a documentary by young Turkish filmmaker Ayse Toprak, is such an effort, which helps us acknowledge the diversity of refugee communities. Telling the story of displaced gay Syrian refugees living in Istanbul, Mr. Gay Syria demonstrates their struggle to find home and recognition. Although they escaped war and homophobia in Syria, they still encounter homophobia, on top of many new challenges, in Turkey. As they compete to attend the Mr. Gay World Competition, they demonstrate their determination to freely express their gender identities and sexual orientation, despite the threats and their fears.

Mr. Gay Syria also communicates the need for collaboration to reach marginalized displaced communities and to ensure that we truly leave no one behind. Recognizing the experience of civil society organizations in the field, and especially those of youth and/or youth-led organizations in working with young populations, it is important that we work together and engage meaningfully to address and meet the needs of young refugee populations. Only by working together and recognizing this diversity, can we ensure that these communities are able to express their identities free from stigma and discrimination, and ensure they are empowered to take ownership of their rights and lives.


[1] http://www.unicef.org.uk/Documents/Media/UPROOTED%20Report.pdf

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/04/body-missing-gay-syrian-refugee-muhammed-wisam-sankari-found-beheaded-istanbul

Image retrieved from iNews.