Every year on 15 May, the UN observes the International Day of Families to reflect on the importance which the international community attaches to families as basic units of society as well as its concern regarding their situation around the world.

In 2022, we have seen an increase in the number of conflicts around the world, with many families becoming separated in the midst of a conflict or during the process of fleeing or migrating.

In honour of the International Day of Families 2022, Advocates for Dignity (AFD) hosted a webinar on Wednesday 18 May, focusing on the effect that despotic regimes have had on families from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Turkey.

The webinar was opened by AFD President, Mr Mehmet Saral, who introduced the moderator for the webinar, former ABC journalist John Cleary.

The speakers included:

  1. Prof Sophia Pandya from the California State University of Long Beach, who talked about Turkish refugees escaping the Erdogan regime in Turkey
  2. Emeritus Prof William Maley, former Professor of Diplomacy at the ANU, who talked about Afghan refugees escaping the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
  3. Dr Olga Oleinikova, senior lecturer from the Social and Political Sciences Program at UTS, who talked about Ukrainian refugees escaping the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The webinar began with Prof Pandya reflecting on her studies of Turkish families that crossed the borders of Turkey to Greece through the Maritsa river, to flee persecution as a result of President Erdogan’s regime after the attempted coup of 2016.

She noted that in 2022, over 84 million people have become displaced to political turbulence and conflict around the world, with at least 35 million of those being children. 

“When we think about the refugee status, crossing a river is only one stage of their journey. For some, the journey may include arrest, exploitation, human trafficking, sexual assault, conlfict and death,” Prof Pandya said.

She further added, “it is actually women and children who die in higher rates, and they are more vulnerable, especially to violence and sexual assault. Women and girls suffer disproportionately from poverty, family separation, language barriers, lack of access to resources.”

Prof Pandya’s research found that the impacts of the trauma of displacement resulted in depression, anxiety, and a diminished ability to parent effectively, which is how displacement becomes an intergenerational issue within families.

In addition to enduring the poor living conditions, a series of relocations, and mental health problems, especially PTSD, children can also face poor care due to the diminished mental health of their parents.

She then provided an example of an interview with a displaced Turkish mother in Greece. “A mother of twins said she arrived in Greece with her twins, and couldn’t provide diapers for them. Now that they are 2 years old, she expresses that she does not want to play with them anymore. She said ‘I don’t want to be with them, I can’t handle them’. She did not want to be a mother. This is a family crisis, there are many mothers who are so emotionally and psychologically affected that their family lives are in crisis,” Prof Panya said.

Prof Maley spoke about how displacement has been such a major part of the life of Afghan families for decades, highlighting that what displacement fundamentally does is tear apart support networks that are fundamental in sustaining families in functioning societies. 

Prof Maley stated that several specific problems have arisen for Afghan families both within and outside of Afghanistan as a result of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan as of August last year.

The first is physical safety; people are being attacked/becoming victims of terrorist strikes. “Each victim is a member of a family. This will affect the internal dynamics of the family, they may lose their breadwinner, their children, their elders. It is very difficult for families to move forward when they are dealing with the overwhelming grief of these attacks,” he said. 

Prof Maley continued, “the very idea of family is complex, it can very significantly vary in different countries. About 1 million people have fled since August last year. The conception of family which tends to be applied by western bureaucracies, which can be relevant when people are seeking to use sponsorship mechanisms to reunite fractured families, does not cover their relationship with aunts, uncles, cousins and other extended family members…disruption to family life then affects their ability to function on a day to day basis.”

Dr Oleinikova started her presentation with an image of destruction in the Kyiv Region, which has severely suffered from the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year.

She stated that the human costs of war are severe, with 7.1 million people that have become internally displaced, and 5.5 million refugees that have fled the country.

This equates to 25% of the whole population of Ukraine being displaced. Within this escalating refugee crisis an estimated 55 children are forced to flee Ukraine every minute. 

“Men between the ages of 18 and 60 can’t leave Ukraine because they can be called to the front at any time. Those who are fleeing Ukraine are mostly women and children as a result, as well as the older generations, so mostly vulnerable groups are being displaced,” Dr Oleinikova said.

As the war started, Dr Oleinikova established a small fund to cover relocation costs for Ukrainian refugees including visa applications, document translation and much more, to assist in the first week of the war when these resources weren’t available as they are now.

She was working with 10 volunteers on the ground in Ukraine. “My grandparents live in Kyiv, they are 85, they were surviving the first very harsh months thanks to food and medication provided by volunteers, otherwise they would not have been able to maintain their basic survival needs,” Dr Oleinikova said. 

She then recounted many cases of mothers and children which she knew of personally, who were forced to cross the borders to flee Ukraine during the freezing winter months.

Many of these cases had safe endings, however some included the loss of mothers and fathers volunteering to protect their country.

The program was concluded with Mr Mehmet Saral thanking each of the speakers for their insightful talks.