Q&A: Baroness reflects on refugees in Iraq and around the world

Posted April 27

Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne has been in politics since the 1980s, but her humanitarian resume goes much deeper.

The baroness worked as a director of Save the Children, an international NGO, for 11 years prior to her election as a member of the British Parliament and the European Parliament. As an elected leader, she has championed issues ranging from children’s rights to business development in Iraq to the fight against human trafficking.

In 1991, Nicholson co-founded AMAR Foundation, a relief organization that provides health care and education to refugees and other communities in conflict areas in the Middle East. The foundation is particularly active in northern Iraq, where an estimated 3 to 4 million people who have fled ISIS now live in 22 refugee camps. Most are Yazidis, members of a monotheistic religious group indigenous to the area, but Christians and Muslims are also found in the camps.

These refugees hope to return home, she said, but statistics show that refugees remain in camps for an average of 11 years. In addition to meeting the immediate needs of refugees, AMAR is also convening a conference at Windsor Castle in September to look into the religious persecution that drove them from their homes and how to better understand and fight it.

Last week, the House of Lords Committee on Sexual Violence in Conflict, of which Nicholson is the chair, published a report calling on governments to set ambitious goals to end sexual violence in conflict zones, a war crime that affects large numbers of refugees in Iraq and around the world.

The baroness spoke to us about the recent report and about changing attitudes toward refugees. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where is sexual violence in conflict zones occurring most?

There are about 39 countries that at the moment are in conflict, either just before, just after or continuing conflict at different levels of their society. Sexual violence in almost all of their nations is happening, and it's happening constantly, consistently and almost unnoticed except by the unfortunate victims.

It's not just the invaders. It will come also from peacekeepers. So-called peacekeepers frequently assault the local women. Sexual violence in conflict is horribly widespread, and my committee decided that it wasn't highlighted enough. It was somehow accepted as a fact of having conflict.

Well, that's not good enough, because if you destroy womanhood — if you destroy the mother, if you destroy the girls — you destroy the family. If you destroy the family, you destroy the village. This is absolutely not a way to create a peaceful society, let alone to have a happy family.

How are the motivations and effects of sexual violence different?

There seems to be a very clear relationship with lack of respect for women in the general, broad sense. If you don't respect the mother and the wife, if you don’t respect the sister and the working woman, you won't think twice before assaulting her to gratify yourself or perhaps just to show you’re more powerful than that particular family or village. Lack of respect for women and women's status seem to be intimately linked with sexual violence in conflict.

In many of these societies, because of the lack of respect for womanhood, there's vast domestic violence as well. So these are violent societies, and in a sense that violence is turned against the weakest member of the family, which may very well be the woman.

Tell us about how the AMAR Foundation is addressing the issue of sexual violence in northern Iraq with its “Escaping Darkness” initiative.

Huge numbers of victims are in those camps. The AMAR Foundation is providing health care, and in the health care of course is psychology — psychosocial support.

We've always done that from the beginning of our foundation in 1991, but it is particularly important now when we're dealing with grotesquely abused girls. When I use the word “abused,” that's far too light a word. They've been treated like sex slaves and worse, to be tossed aside and many of them killed. Dealing with them and bringing them back to life again, almost, is a massive task.

Are there any particular women or girls whose stories stand out in your mind?

The women I admire are the ones who I find in the refugee camps desperately trying — perhaps they've got six or eight children, perhaps there are no men left in the family because they've been killed or lost in a conflict. They’re living in a squalid miserable little canvas tent, many of which frankly are not up to standard.

There they are, dealing with drenching rain pouring into the tent, dealing with snow, dealing with no security, inadequate food for which they have to queue for hours. Maybe they've got Granny, who's a disabled person, there’s no disability provision at all for her, and it's actually no life — it's worse than no life because there's no hope.

These women I admire more than almost anyone else. I sit beside them and I look at one of them and I think, I couldn’t do it. You're a much greater person than me, and what can I do to help you? This is desperate, and yet you're sitting there smiling, welcoming me, and trying to give me a glass of water. You're a great lady. These are fabulous women.

What are the most important things the world should do to address this kind of violence?

Our most important recommendation is that this vile crime, which is already a crime against humanity, must be pulled up, must be highlighted and must be on the same level as wiping out slavery and torture. We want it right up at the top, and we want to make sure that it is in fact successfully addressed globally. So we need a complete campaign.

I'm forming another group in the House of Lords and the House of Commons called an All-Party Parliamentary Group. We’re going to carry the torch forward, and I'd like to get Congress to help. I'd like to get loads of people to join up.

We need a campaign to change the thinking of the great powers that somehow are all accepting sexual violence in conflict as something they can't stop. That's not the case. Of course we can stop it, but it takes global willpower to do that, so we're going to carry this flag forward, and we're looking for lots of support.

Thinking of these women and of refugees more broadly, what can people do to help?

Each and every one of us as individuals can do more. We've got to find ways of helping these refugees be individuals again, be families, be their own selves.

At the moment, the philosophy toward refugees internationally is we don't make them too comfortable, or they might want to stay. What an amazing way to think about someone who’s living in a much poorer circumstance than you are. You should say to yourself, goodness me, how can I get you something back? How can I help you even in the deprived circumstances you're living in with a tent for 10 of your family, an outside lavatory and a little cooker inside the tent that may make the tent catch fire? What can I do to bring you a little bit of life and hope and tender loving care?

Each and every one of us can help in some way or another. We can contribute funds, we can assist with our time, we can begin to write, we can begin blogs. We can begin to clump together to try to alter the way in which the system is working. It's penning people into being refugees long-term. It's not helping people revive themselves and become as good as you and me, as competitive.

Why doesn’t every single refugee have the opportunity to be trained in a new skill or to embellish their old skill? When there are jobs, why aren't the refugees taken on? We in AMAR employ now 150 Yazidi refugees in the camps in the skills that they've already got.

All sorts of things can be done, but we have to change global thinking on this to make refugees be seen as what they are: people just like you and I.


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