“Claire didn’t care—or at least show me that she cared—if Rob abused her. Within hours of fleeing my grandmother’s house, Claire made a hard, subconscious calculus: she could survive, and maybe enable me to survive too, but only if she cast off emotional responsibility, only if she refused to take on how anything or anybody felt.”

Human rights activist Clemantine Wamariya fled Kigali during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 with her teenage sister, Claire. She was six years old then. Over the ensuing years, the girls would travel, mostly on foot, across seven borders, navigating the international migration regime as unaccompanied minors. In 2001, at ages 13 and 22, Clemantine and Claire finally stopped walking. Having survived a lifetime of trauma over seven long years, the sisters were resettled as refugees in Illinois. They wouldn’t see their family for another five years, not until an anti-climactic surprise reunion on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2006. Oft quoted here, Clemantine’s stunning autobiographical essay “Everything is Yours, Everything is Not Yours”  serves as the inspiration for this piece of writing.

Theirs is an immigrant story, unique, and just like any other.  It is important to hear, yet  impossible to understand without acknowledging, first, the symbiotic relationship between the migrant and migration policy. The traditional gaze treats the migrant experience as incidental to policymaking. Yet, a reorientationbeginning with the migrant, and mapping her relationship with policy structuresilluminates this interdependency. Migrants are subject to immigration laws, and also influence them.

So let’s start at the beginning.

International refugee law was established by the United Nations (UN) in response to World War II.  At its conclusion, the war left 40 million Europeans displaced, challenging the international community to do something. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was their answer. It established a definition of a “refugee” as someone who,

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling, to return to it.”

This model refugee was conceptualized as male, European, and of working age. Women were presumed to play passive roles, as companions.

Patriarchy subscribes to the notion that men are natural leaders and women are their submissive helpers. Feminist migration studies understands gender as a power relationship. It situates the migrant within power hierarchies that she has not constructed. In fact, some feminist thinkers believe that gender organizes migration patterns.

It matters, then, that Clemantine and Claire are female. Their girlhood is not incidental to their experience of the migration system, it is essential to how they engage with policy, and how policy affects them.

The essay never reveals what happened to their brother, Pudi. We are never told his age in 1994, when their journey began; nor why he was left behind; nor what happened to him during the war. In the essay, the family reunification 12 years later only mentions new brothers born after the genocide. What we do know is this: in the first days of their journey, Clemantine’s account is a story of unaccompanied daughters fleeing Kigali.

“Then one day my mother told Claire to pack a few things, to go to my grandmother’s farm, which we loved. At her house we never even wore shoes. The next morning a van from my father’s car service arrived. My mother handed me a bag and put me in the van alongside Claire. She made me promise to behave. She hugged us and said she’d see us soon. On the way out of Kigali, we stopped to pick up two of my cousins—girls Claire’s age. The driver knocked on the door. Nobody came out. We stopped at other houses; other girls entered the van… When it happened, we heard a knock on the door. My grandmother gestured for us to be silent and then, she motioned for us to run, or really, to belly-crawl through the sweet potato field. I carried a blanket, which turned out to be a towel. Claire pulled my arm. Once we crawled through the field and reached the tall trees, we ran, for real, off the farm and deep into a thick banana grove, where we saw other people, most of them young, some of them bloody with wounds. We walked for hours, until everything hurt, not toward anything, just away.”

Paradoxically, it is likely because they were girls in a patriarchal society that Clemantine and Claire survived the 110 mile journey from the farm to Burundi. Fighting is “men’s work,” and abducted “child soldiers” were usually boys. The Rwandan government’s post-war analysis estimates that around 56.4 percent of deaths were male. In fact, it is an accepted generalization that women are more likely to survive civil unrest, and 80 percent of displaced people are women.

Survival, however, is not without its perils: unprotected girls like the Wamariya sisters are targets for gendered violence, including rape, enslavement and sexual torture. Worse, there is no safe space for female refugees.

Among migration studies academia, official UNHCR refugee camps are said to host the vulnerable “under the protection of the international community.” For women fleeing alone, this is often empty rhetoric. Risk of harm exists along escape routes and in UNHCR refugee camps. “Claire knew that we were targets, two girls without a guardian; she instructed me never to accept gifts like candy or bread,” Clemantine writes. Even as children, they understood that predators could come disguised as Hutu rebels, fellow refugees, or aid-workers, and there was precious little protection.

This isn’t incidental. The original emergency response guidelines of the UNHCR used the “model refugee” (read: male) template to guide policy. In doing so, they created an international displacement response based on the needs of the average male refugee, creating a systemic gender discrimination that replicates patriarchy. What we now have are contemporary refugee camps, where mostly women-led households are policed and controlled by male refugees and aid workers.

It has taken decades of advocacy by feminist scholars and activists to acknowledge this failing. Despite this, the victory remains rhetorical, and specific policy interventions (like the “People Orientated Planning” program recommended by UN Women in 1992) continue to be in the implementation stage.

It should come as no surprise that absent substantive structural changes in these policies, women are forced to seek protection in whatever form it presents itself, even if it means conceding to “lesser” abuse.

“Claire knew that we were targets, two girls without a guardian; she instructed me never to accept gifts like candy or bread. She told the CARE worker—who I’m going to call Rob and who, at the time, seemed extremely sophisticated and put-together, due to his well-cut hair, striped shirts, and shiny shoes—that she was too young to get involved, that the last thing she needed was to be a 16-year-old refugee without any parents and a little sister and baby to care for. But he persisted. “Me, I want to marry you,” Rob said daily. “Me, I want to marry you. You can go to school.””

Barely 16 years old, living in a supposed place of refuge, Claire faced an impossible, and inhumane choice: a protracted stay as an unprotected young woman in a refugee camp or a “child-marriage” to an older aid-worker who wielded power over her wellbeing.

After a few months, Claire broke down—of course she did. This life wasn’t going to lead anywhere anyway, and marriage (however personally problematic) was a lottery ticket out. Marriage came with papers. Besides, I had Claire to look after me, and Claire had no one to look after her.”

In fact, this “choice” is far from unique: 1 in 5 displaced women report being victims of  sexual violence under international protection. In Burundi, “Peacekeeper babies” is a common phrase among girls and women in refugee camps. It describes children born from rape by predatory UN Blue Berets. And that is only if they survive: displaced women, having become pregnant at the hands of men charged with protecting them, make up 60 percent of worldwide preventable maternal deaths.

“Claire did go to the hospital to give birth to Frederick, but even that building was bombed a few hours after he was born, so Claire wrapped him in a blanket and ran back to Rob’s uncle’s house, where she joined us under the bed. With no food Claire’s milk dried up within a week. She covered Frederick’s mouth with her hand, so the soldiers on the street could not hear him cry. Even once the fire fights died down, no one would let the children out — because all the adults knew. They knew people were all the same. They knew that we were scared and hungry, thus capable of becoming depraved. The Congolese Army was filled with war orphans (Kadogo), many close to my age, just 11 or 12 years old, children just like me but who hadn’t been forced to stay inside, so they’d wandered out and met a man with a rifle who offered them candy or stew.”

If it matters that Clemantine and Claire are female, it also matters that they begin their journey as children, navigating a civil war without adult, or state, protection. At least rhetorically, this is a universally acknowledged moral outrage, requiring a swift, and compassionate, response. Yet borders, like war, are indiscriminately violent.

Because they never thought to include us in their thinking in 1951, to be a displaced woman at the mercy of the Convention on the rights of Refugees is to constantly be in danger. It is an exercise in impossible choices: Catch 22, lived. Migrant women deserve better from every government, from the international community, from the United Nations.  

In her role as a human rights activist, Clemantine Wamariya has joined the ranks of women advocates, yet she writes, “I still often feel like the seven-year-old girl, waiting for water at the refugee camp in Burundi, trying to assert that I have a right to take up space.” You do; they do; we do.