Addressing the special vulnerabilities of girls in refugee camps
Refugee girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking because of their reliance on adults for security and well-being. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and the Caribbean have detected far more child victims than adult victims of trafficking: per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and 62 per cent in Central America and the Caribbean in 2014.
The UN has recognised that unaccompanied or separated children outside their country of origin are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, including human trafficking. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that:
trafficking of such a child … is one of many dangers faced by unaccompanied or
separated children. Trafficking in children is a threat to the fulfillment of their right
to life, survival and development.
An “unaccompanied” girl is one who is not cared for by an adult who, by law or custom, is responsible for doing so. A “separated girl” is one who has been separated from her parents or primary carer, but who remains with other relatives. In recognition of this, international law affords such girls special rights of care and protection. Importantly, the core human rights conventions – including the CRC – continue to apply alongside the Trafficking Protocol. It is beyond doubt that States have an obligation to address the specific vulnerabilities of girls in order to prevent their being trafficked out of refugee camps.
In order to meet their international legal obligation to address child-refugees’ vulnerability, States must remain cognisant of the need to improve those children’s circumstances within the camp, whilst accepting that children are not a homogenous group. Differences in age and gender are important factors in the extent of a child’s vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation, specifically. Girls are particularly at risk of being trafficked for sexual exploitation.
States must also take specific measures to reduce girls’ vulnerability to trafficking, for example by creating a protective environment for them. The Council of Europe has specified that a “protective environment” has eight key components: protection of children’s rights from adverse attitudes, traditions, customs, behavior and practices; commitment from the relevant government to protect and realize children’s rights; commitment from the government to engage with child-protection issues; the drafting and enforcement of protection legislation; officials coming into contact with children and families must have the capacity to protect children; the relevance of children’s education; establishment of a system for monitoring and reporting cases of abuse; and the introduction of services to enable child victims of trafficking to recover and reintegrate with the community.
States should rely on international legal instruments, policy documents and the recommendations of UN bodies and human rights mechanisms when seeking to ascertain the substantive content of this specific legal obligation. Where possible, the host State should take measures to ensure that as many refugee girls as possible possess relevant legal documentation. In relation to this, States should also seek to restrict travel and identity document regulations, so that it is difficult – if not impossible – for girls to travel either unaccompanied or accompanied by someone who is not an immediate family member if her parent/guardian has not expressly provided permission.
For girls born to women living in a camp, States should ensure that processes are in place whereby the girl’s parent can register her birth with the relevant authorities. The right to birth-registration is enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child. It can reduce a refugee girl’s vulnerability to human trafficking by giving her greater access to her rights.
In addition, States must take steps to protect girls from violence – including sexual violence – perpetrated within the refugee camp or surrounding areas. Recourse to measures utilised to prevent sexual violence against adult female refugees would be appropriate in this instance (see above). Further, States should provide the refugee girl with information in a language which she understands, and bolster enforcement mechanisms with regard to border-crossing.