Where Are the “Lost Girls”?

3,700 young Sudanese refugees made it to America. Why are only 89 of them female?

The disappeared

After 20 years of fighting that has left more than 2 million dead, Sudan’s warring factions finally appear close to reaching a peace accord. Still, as the New York Times observed, a settlement “will take years to come to fruition, even without setbacks.”

Nobody knows better than Sudanese young people about the elusive quality of peace in their homeland. Separated from their parents or orphaned in war-torn Sudan in the late 1980s, untold thousands of children, ranging in age from 4 to 12, left their towns and villages and walked across Africa in search of a safe haven. Traveling in small groups, they battled snakes, militias, and disease until they found temporary refuge in Ethiopia. When war broke out in that country, they set off again, chewing leaves, grass, and mud to stave off hunger as they looked for a way out of the seventh circle of hell. They became known as the “lost boys of Sudan” because they, like the characters in Peter Pan who fended off crocodiles and pirates, covered a perilous terrain.

Approximately 20,000 of the children eventually made it to an area in northwest Kenya that became known as Kakuma Refugee Camp. The survivors were mainly boys—with 1,000 to 3,000 girls. The children who escaped were usually herding cattle in the fields when their villages were plundered—when the children saw the villages burning, they fled into the bush. As a result, most of the escapees were boys; the girls were usually in the villages, cooking and cleaning their homes, and they were killed or kidnapped by the enemy.

In November 2000, the survivors started coming to the United States in one of the largest resettlement programs of its kind. Their journey has been documented on 60 Minutes II, in newspaper human interest stories, and, not surprising given its uplifting narrative arc, is soon to be the subject of a feature film (an “intimate epic,” said Daily Variety). Yet among the 3,700 young refugees who were resettled in the United States on this program, only 89 are female. The other hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of girls and young women who survived the journey are still in Kakuma Refugee Camp. Many are living with so-called foster families and are being exploited as domestic servants or worse.

Some of the girls are beaten, raped, or sold off to older men who pay a bridal fee of between five and 50 cows to the foster family. Even on the low end, these bride prices are a fortune for the families in Kakuma Refugee Camp. * The camp has a population of 70,000 people—but only the services and resources of a town of 5,000, according to an official in the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Diseases like cholera, typhoid, and malaria are common.

So why are the girls facing hardship in Kakuma while the boys are living out the American dream? Blame it on a series of blunders by the UNHCR, the agency entrusted with their protection and care. When the Sudanese children first arrived in Kakuma, the boys were placed in group homes and loosely supervised by adults. Meanwhile, the girls were placed in foster families. In theory, the foster families would provide a more nurturing environment. In practice, the girls simply disappeared.

During this time, a group of aid workers reached out to the boys through a “psycho-social program” and kept a list of those who were being counseled. The girls weren’t included—presumably, they were being cared for by their foster families. UNHCR officers later relied on the “psycho-social program” ledgers to determine who should be recommended for resettlement. That’s why only a few dozen girls were included. They were mostly sisters and cousins of the boys, who insisted they be helped.

Still, UNHCR officials knew about the girls. In December 2000, Julianne Duncan, an anthropologist specializing in refugee children filed a report explaining in heartbreaking detail how the girls were being shafted. But UNHCR officials were distracted. In April 2001, several employees in the UNHCR office in Nairobi, Kenya, were arrested and charged with extorting money from refugees. More than 20 workers were dismissed. “The girls were back-burnered again,” said a humanitarian worker who spent four years in Kakuma.

The State Department allocated $6 million in the 2003 fiscal year to help with resettlement programs, and part of the money was used to create a UNHCR staff position in Kakuma. The hope was that UNHCR would refer more cases, including the lost girls, but almost three years after Duncan’s report, UNHCR officials still haven’t referred any more lost girls to the State Department for resettlement.

The UNHCR should be sending workers out in the field in Kakuma to find the young women and girls who are at risk and submit their cases to the U.S. government for resettlement. But, somehow, the UNHCR officials are still foundering. As the officials try to develop what a senior UNHCR resettlement officer called a “mechanism,” for “better identifying the vulnerable cases,” Pia Micklina Peter, one of the few lost girls to make it to the United States, told me about her eight nieces between the ages of 6 and 17 who are stranded in the refugee camp. Two of them lost their 32-year-old mother to kidney disease. “When she was dying, she said, ‘Take care of my kids.’ So I have to go to Kakuma to make sure they are OK.”

At least Peter is trying to look after these girls. Many of the lost girls in Kakuma don’t have anybody. They’ve showed remarkable resilience over the years, escaping from a living hell and surviving in a refugee camp. But now they’re stuck in UNHCR purgatory. Getting out of it may the biggest challenge they’ve ever faced.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2003: This article originally referred to the fee paid by a man to the foster family of his bride as a “dowry.” In fact, it is a “bride price.” A dowry is paid by the bride’s family to her husband. (Return to the corrected sentence.)