Ummee Salma, 16, looks determinedly at the camera with a tear in her eye.

News / International Day of the Girl

Far From Home

The 13 worst refugee crises for girls

About the Report

Refugees are uniquely vulnerable. But refugee girls doubly so. When extreme violence, hunger or climate drives them from their homes, they are the first to be trafficked for sex or child labor; the first to be exploited as tools of war; and the first to lose their childhoods. Meanwhile, they are the last to be fed, the last to be enrolled in school and, too often, the last to be valued.

MORE THAN 17 MILLION GIRLS HAVE BEEN DISPLACED AMID THE GLOBAL REFUGEE CRISIS

The United Nations created the first International Day of the Girl in 2012 to highlight challenges for girls globally and promote girls’ empowerment. The official theme for this Oct. 11 — empowering girls in crisis — comes amid an epidemic of human displacement that has forced 68.5 million people from their homes, including more than 17 million girls. So here we list the 13 worst refugee crises for girls that have mushroomed since the UN created that special day for girls 6 years ago. The crises are ranked in order of total girls displaced, both across national borders as refugees and within their countries as “internally displaced people,” or IDPs.

17 M

the number of girls forced from their homes

For each crisis, we detail a specific threat while highlighting the courage and resilience of girls who are confronting that challenge and, in many cases, overcoming it. Unfortunately, the threats are many. Teenage girls who don’t even have access to menstrual pads are sometimes forced to sell food rations to pay for them. And in crises, the global scourge of gender-based violence grows even worse for girls. At the same time, families and authorities must prioritize near-term survival over the long-term benefits that education, skills training and good health care bring. Child marriage rates soar. School attendance plummets. Especially for girls.

But while far from home, displaced girls are far from helpless. They are strong, smart, resilient, courageous and determined to break through the barriers holding them back, despite staring down some of the most difficult circumstances on Earth. Refugee girls are capable of amazing feats, especially if they have the right tools and support. So be sure to check out the end of the report and learn how you can help girls who, unlike most of us, don’t have the good fortune to live in the place they call home.

Walaa recently directed and produced a short documentary about her father and brother as part of a CARE-supported film school at Azraq’s camp for Syrian refugees. 

1. Syria

2,831,122 GIRLS DISPLACED

1,231,122 GIRL REFUGEES | 1,550,000 GIRL IDPS

The nearly eight-year Syrian war has robbed millions of innocent people caught in the middle, claiming family and loved ones, home, stability— and hope for a future they can shape as their own. A path to such a future starts in the classroom, but nearly 3 million Syrian children, particularly girls, are missing out on their education. Syrian girls often are married off early as parents seek to protect them, but child marriage routinely and abruptly removes girls from the classroom. Schools lay in rubble across Syria. And, struggling to make ends meet far from home, displaced families often pull their daughters out of school to earn money for food and rent. Girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school in conflict-affected countries than their counterparts in conflict-free countries, according to UN Women.

3 million

The number of Syrian children, mostly girls, who are currently missing out on their education.

After relentless bombing and displacement in Syria, Marwa and her family fled the country for Jordan, where her mother couldn’t earn enough to support the family. That meant Marwa went to work too, instead of to school. (Read and watch her story to see how things have turned out). Similarly, intense bombing forced 15-year-old Walaa and her family from their home. But displacement hasn’t deterred Walaa from pursuing her dreams. She is back in school in Jordan, where science is her favorite subject. And thanks to a film school in the camp where she lives, Walaa is getting to pursue her dream of becoming a filmmaker. She already has produced a film called “The Little Engineer,” which depicts the bond between her father and younger brother, who team up to fix electronics and run a coffee shop. Through film, she wants to lift up more Syrian voices. “One day I will talk about the situation of Syrian refugees,” she says. “It will take time for life in Syria to become normal again. That is what I want to talk about. I have always believed in one thing: If you have a dream and you work hard enough, you can certainly achieve it.”

Read Walaa’s story.

Read Marwa’s story.

Book

2.5x

Girls are 2.5 times more likely to be out of school in conflict-affected countries than their counterparts in conflict-free countries.

2. Horn of Africa

1,331,633 GIRLS DISPLACED

269,451 GIRL REFUGEES | 1,062,182 GIRL IDPS

Plagued by more than a quarter-century of war and violence, recurring drought, famine conditions and deep-seated poverty, the Horn of Africa is home to some of the most vulnerable families in the world. Many live on just $1 a day. As they fight to survive, some things fall by the wayside. And education, particularly for girls, is often the first. Somalia, for example, has one of the world’s lowest enrollment rates for young children: A mere 30 percent of Somali kids are in primary school, and only 40 percent of them are girls, according to UNICEF. It’s even worse in rural areas where fewer than one in five kids is in school. Many families can’t afford to send their kids to school, and girls are often the first to be kept home.

30%

of Somali kids are in primary school. Only 40% of that are girls.

Hamdi, 12, has spent half her life with no parents. They divorced and abandoned her when she was 6. She and her siblings fled the fighting and sought safety in a camp for displaced people. Like many girls in the region, circumstances forced Hamdi out of the classroom and into work, washing other families’ clothes to support her own family. “My life had lost meaning,” she says. But she had not lost hope and neither had her older sister, Itsa, who learned about a new school in the camp and soon insisted that Hamdi stop working and start studying. Four years later, Hamdi is in third grade, learning to read and write — and to speak English — and has begun looking beyond the crisis. “When I grow up, she says, “I want to be a doctor and help all people who are sick or hurt.”

Read Hamdi’s story.

3. Afghanistan

1,100,000 GIRLS DISPLACED

650,000 GIRL REFUGEES | 450,000 GIRL IDPS

Girls have long been a target in Afghanistan, brutalized by acid attacks, poisoned water supplies at their schools or other forms of violence. Armed groups bomb their schools and kill their teachers. Abductions and harassment on the way to school instill fear in families who may often keep their daughters home to protect them — all this amid severe poverty and in a culture that promotes child marriage and prioritizes boys’ education over girls’.

Afghanistan did have more than a decade of solid progress. It’s easy to forget that just 16 years ago, less than a million Afghan children attended school – nearly all of them boys. Since then, more than 16,000 schools have been built and 150,000 teachers trained. More than 9 million children today attend school, nearly half of them are girls, thanks to the heroic efforts of Basima and other members of the Kabul Women’s Association. Though illiterate themselves, they refuse to accept another generation of girls will be as well.

85%

of children out of school in Afghanistan are girls

But, sadly, these advances have stalled in recent years, as violence has tightened its grip on the country once again. Some 3.7 million children remain out of school, and in some provinces as much as 85 percent of them are girls, according to a 2018 report from UNICEF and the Afghan government. Furthermore, only 37 percent of adolescent girls are literate, compared with 66 percent of adolescent boys. Afghanistan must reclaim the momentum that was propelling girls into the classroom. Nothing less than the future of its girls – and the future of the country itself – is at stake.

Read Basima’s story.

4. South Sudan

819,241 GIRLS DISPLACED

600,000 GIRL REFUGEES | 219,241 GIRL IDPS

Half of all sexual violence victims worldwide are 15 or younger. And displaced girls are even more vulnerable to gender-based violence. As they flee the violence, they are targeted on their journey, attacked, raped and otherwise assaulted. Even those who make it to a refugee camp are exposed to further violence, as they venture out to fetch water, collect firewood or walk to the bathroom along poorly lit pathways and streets within a camp or settlement.

2/3

of women and girls have suffered physical or sexual violence in conflict-ravaged areas of South Sudan

One study from the global humanitarian organization CARE indicates that in the conflict-ravaged areas of South Sudan, as many as two-thirds of women and girls have suffered physical or sexual violence — among the highest rates in the world. When armed forces killed her parents and brother in South Sudan, Jane and her three sisters trudged for nearly a week before reaching Uganda’s Imvepi refugee camp, where more than 100,000 South Sudanese refugees make their home. In the dark of night, a group of 15 men attacked Jane and her sisters. It was the third time the sisters had suffered a violent attack since arriving in the camp two months ago. In order to prevent others from experiencing similar attacks, CARE raises awareness of the sexual violence threat among unaccompanied minors in the camp. And today, from the relative safety of a new shelter near the camp police station, Jane contributes to those efforts.

Read Jane’s story.

Read Lillian, Scobia, and Viola’s story.

5. Lake Chad Basin

777,855 GIRLS DISPLACED

65,764 GIRL REFUGEES | 712,091 GIRL IDPS

In the Lake Chad Basin, girls aren’t just forced to flee home to escape war. They are inhumanely turned into the very weapons of war. Boko Haram straps bombs to the wrists, backs and waists of girls before sending them off to blow themselves up in crowds, with the goal of killing as many innocent people as possible.

Boko Haram has deployed more female bombers than any other terrorist group in history, according to a report from Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, the U.S. military academy. In fact, Boko Haram is four times more likely to deploy girl bombers than boys. Recruiting suicide bombers, however, isn’t Boko Haram’s only abhorrent practice. The group also abducts girls as sex slaves or as wives for Boko Haram militants. Those lucky enough to evade the terrorist group and its unspeakable brand of warfare, however, face other threats: from early marriage, pregnancy and childbirth to pressure to act as earners and care givers early into their teenage years.

BOKO HARAM IS FOUR TIMES MORE LIKELY TO DEPLOY GIRL BOMBERS THAN BOYS.

When armed groups invaded her village in northeast Nigeria, Hadiza, 15, had two options before they burned it down: leave or join their terrorizing force. Armed groups killed her mother and father. Hadiza fled. Three years later, she lives in relative safety in another part of Nigeria. Her message to the world? Don’t give up on educating displaced girls, as learning enlightens them and gives them the knowledge, tools and confidence to stand up for themselves, even at times when it seems no one else will.

Read Hadiza’s story.

6. Sudan

672,256 GIRLS DISPLACED

173,650 GIRL REFUGEES | 499,256 GIRL IDPS

Displaced girls in Darfur are particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence. A 2017 joint assessment by the African Union and the UN details sexual attacks on 530 people in Darfur between 2014-16, most of them girls. More than 40 percent of the assessment’s documented rape survivors sustained serious physical injury. One of most shocking injuries from sexual violence in the developing world is a traumatic fistula, which is a hole between the vagina and bladder or rectum. It causes incontinence in girls and women who continuously leak urine and feces and, because of the odor that results, become ostracized from their communities and even their families. While virtually unseen and unheard of in the developed world, traumatic fistulas are tragically common in the developing world, particularly in areas of crisis where armed groups use sexual violence as a weapon against girls.

7. Democratic Republic of Congo

618,461 GIRLS DISPLACED

155,200 GIRL REFUGEES | 463,261 GIRL IDPS

Thousands of children in the DRC have been recruited into armed militias. Many of them are girls. Had they resisted, they may well have been killed. Having succumbed, they are almost certainly to be repeatedly raped and otherwise assaulted. Their captors force them to cook, clean and marry the militants who kidnapped them. But it’s not just girl soldiers who suffer such abuse. In conflict settings, girls are exceptionally vulnerable before, during and after their displacement. Having lost their parents in the violence, many are left to fend for themselves and their younger siblings. They become targets for continued violence, particularly as they trek long distances toward safety. Pema was raped and impregnated at 14, then was forced to marry her rapist. Her husband repeatedly raped her, and the forced pregnancies multiplied. Now Pema is fighting back.

Read Pema’s story.

8. Iraq

573,036 GIRLS DISPLACED

65,000 GIRL REFUGEES | 508,036 GIRL IDPS

Thousands of children in the DRC have been recruited into armed militias. Many of them are girls. Had they resisted, they may well have been killed. Having succumbed, they are almost certainly to be repeatedly raped and otherwise assaulted. Their captors force them to cook, clean and marry the militants who kidnapped them. But it’s not just girl soldiers who suffer such abuse. In conflict settings, girls are exceptionally vulnerable before, during and after their displacement. Having lost their parents in the violence, many are left to fend for themselves and their younger siblings. They become targets for continued violence, particularly as they trek long distances toward safety. Pema was raped and impregnated at 14, then was forced to marry her rapist. Her husband repeatedly raped her, and the forced pregnancies multiplied. Now Pema is fighting back.

Read Pema’s story.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Many children have limited access to education and water, and have an extra burden of having to help support the family.

9. Yemen

551,104 GIRLS DISPLACED

47,588 GIRL REFUGEES | 503,516 GIRL IDPS

Nine of the top 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage in 2016 were considered fragile states, according to the Women’s Refugee Commission. In areas hobbled by war and conflict, drought and other forces beyond their control, girls are vulnerable to forced marriage, as their families seek to save them by marrying them early to a husband who they believe can better protect them. Doing so also can carry financial incentive such as a dowry and reduce the cost of another mouth to feed, another mind to educate. Early marriage exposes girls to domestic violence, sexually transmitted viruses, including HIV, and early pregnancy, which often leads to complications during birth and health hazards to both mother and child.

Childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls age 15-19 in developing countries, many of which, like Yemen, are hotbeds of conflict. Most girls who marry early invariably miss out on school, vocational training and, consequently, the opportunity to live into all that they can be. Babies born to teenage mothers are more likely to be born prematurely, suffer malnutrition and die. Crises and displacement only exacerbate the problem.

Afghanistan did have more than a decade of solid progress. It’s easy to forget that just 16 years ago, less than a million Afghan children attended school – nearly all of them boys. Since then, more than 16,000 schools have been built and 150,000 teachers trained. More than 9 million children today attend school, nearly half of them are girls, thanks to the heroic efforts of Basima and other members of the Kabul Women’s Association. Though illiterate themselves, they refuse to accept another generation of girls will be as well.

2/3

of Yemeni girls are married off before they turn 18.

Child marriage rates in Yemen, for example, one of the few countries in the world with no minimum age to marry, have soared since the war began. More than two-thirds of Yemeni girls are married off before they turn 18, compared with 50 percent before the war, according to UNICEF, which also notes that child brides in Yemen are especially common in areas hosting large numbers of displaced people. Child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence are prevalent in the Middle East as detailed in a report titled Standing up for Girls, produced jointly by CARE and the UN Population Fund.

Read Maryam’s story.

10. Ukraine

500,000 GIRLS DISPLACED

0 GIRL REFUGEES | 500,000 GIRL IDPS

Brightly colored, they can look like toys on the ground — but they have deadly consequences. Landmines threaten the safety and lives of children from Africa to the middle East to Asia and the Ukraine. UNICEF reported that, by the end of last year, “Eastern Ukraine was one of the most mine-contaminated places on earth, endangering 220,000 children who live, play and go to and from school in areas littered with landmines, unexploded ordnance and other deadly explosive remnants of war.” A Washington Post report states that “anti-vehicle mines in particular kill more people here than anywhere else in the world.” Landmines are especially lethal for children whose smaller size means their vital organs are closer to the blast. Displaced children returning home are particularly vulnerable as they are often unaware of the dangers of playing in and walking through contaminated areas. Often tasked with collecting firewood for the family, girls in particular can easily fall victim to the explosives. If they survive the blast, their injuries can have long-term ramifications that, for example, force them out of school or otherwise limit their development and prospects later in life.

11. Venezuela

343,000 GIRLS DISPLACED

343,000 GIRL REFUGEES | 0 GIRL IDPS

Like many Venezuelan girls, 7-year-old Salma fled a country where a near-worthless currency, an inflation rate that could reach 1,000,000 percent before year’s end and a poverty rate approaching 90 percent have pushed food, medicine and other necessities out of reach. Some 2.3 million people have done the same, with as many as 5,000 more crossing the border every day. “People are fleeing because if they stay, they die,” says Dany Bahar of the Brookings Institution in a report from the Financial Times. “They die because they don’t get enough food to eat, they die because they get malaria and can’t get treatment, they die because they need dialysis and can’t get it.”

30%

the amount that infant mortality rates increased in 2016.

Hunger in children is particularly devastating — and deadly. Malnutrition rates have soared, and mothers, themselves unable to find enough to eat, often are unable to breastfeed their babies. Many of those babies, born healthy, die because their moms and dads can’t find — or can’t afford — formula. Infant mortality rates increased by 30 percent in 2016 alone. Given the severity of Venezuela’s crisis, Salma is fortunate to have made it beyond those most crucial young years. But it hasn’t been easy. Before fleeing Venezuela for Colombia, she survived for months on a single daily meal of rice and, if she was lucky, plantains. Girls fleeing Venezuela also face another risk: human trafficking. Gangs and other armed groups often greet them at the border with promises of jobs or financial support, only to traffic them for sex and child labor in Ecuador, Colombia and other parts of South America.

Some girls have turned to "survival sex" as a way to make it out of the crisis alive

12. Central African Republic

330,686 GIRLS DISPLACED

136,375 GIRL REFUGEES | 194,311 GIRL IDPS

Amid a resurgence in violence and with no means to afford basics like food, some girls in the Central African Republic have turned to “survival sex” as a way to make it out of the crisis alive. Some are even pushed into the practice by desperate parents. News reports state that girls as young as 13 sell their bodies for as little as 50 cents. Many of the documented incidents, which stem from prostitution rings run by boys and young men, have occurred in displacement camps where survivors have sought safety from armed groups back home, only to be assaulted in new ways once they arrive.

13. Myanmar

312,120 GIRLS DISPLACED

312,120 GIRL REFUGEES | 0 GIRL IDPS

Nearly 1 million refugees make their home in the crowded five square miles that is Cox’s Bazaar in southeastern Bangladesh, most of them having arrived in the past year alone. They cram into tents and tenuous bamboo shelters, many perched precariously on towering cliffs. The steep inclines are muddy, saturated and often impassable, particularly in the monsoon season, exacerbated by climate change, when relentless rain undermines the safety, health and lives of those living at the top and the bottom. Insufficient water and sanitary facilities leads to diarrhea, escalating the risk of malnutrition, which affects about one in eight girls in the camp. The long-term consequences couldn’t be more serious as malnutrition and stunting impede brain development and often lead to infection. Those effects often are irreversible. To escape the violence back home, girls walked for days with their families — or strangers — with little or no food along the way and not much more when they arrived. Once in the camp, many are kept out of school; some are married and impregnated early; and they are often confined to sweltering tents the size of a closet where temperatures can soar above 100° F. Surviving these impossible conditions is a feat unto itself, which makes the strength and resilience of girls like 12-year-old Noor Kajol all the more inspiring. She’s lucky that her parents are still alive and, unlike many of her peers, she goes to school with dreams of becoming a pharmacist.

Read Noor’s story.

RANKING METHODOLOGY

Our ranking is based on the number of displaced girls under age 18 in each crisis, both as refugees across national borders and as internally displaced people, or IDPs. It does not account for protracted, decades-long displacement in places like Colombia and Palestine and instead focuses on those crises that have provoked mass, active displacement since the first International Day of the Girl six years ago. We derived the majority of the IDP data with support from the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix, which determined figures for displaced girls as recently at August 2018. Where there were gaps we sourced data from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which also was the source for refugee data. Where specific age or gender data was unavailable, we consulted UNHCR’s 2017 Global Trends report, which tracks overall displacement figures. In some instances, we were able to identify a percentage of children displaced in a particular crisis, then halved that figure to arrive at the number of girls. In cases where a percentage of refugee children was not reported, we conservatively calculated 25 percent of the total to arrive at the number of girls.

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