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.


Obligation to prevent the trafficking of women and girls out of refugee camps

Human trafficking is a widespread, criminal activity practiced throughout the world. Virtually all States are affected by human trafficking. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, women make up 51 per cent of the total number of trafficked persons, whilst girls make up 20 per cent. Trafficking in persons is linked to sexual exploitation, labor exploitation, forced labor and slavery, and the removal of vital organs. Increasingly insidious are ‘new forms of exploitation’ facilitated by human trafficking. Examples given by the CEDAW Committee include:

sex tourism, the recruitment of domestic labor from developing countries to work in developed countries and organized marriages between women from developing countries and foreign nationals. ….

Trafficking constitutes a principal threat to women and girls fleeing conflict. In her 2016

report, the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons noted that

[t]he journey of female migrants and unaccompanied children is particularly hazardous. Thousands of such women and children have disappeared, presumably abducted for purposes of trafficking related exploitation. Sudanese and Somalian refugees and asylum seekers fleeing conflict, including numerous unaccompanied children, have been kidnapped or lured from refugee camps or while traveling, sold and subsequently held captive in Libya or in the Sinai desert activities are those considered to address the root causes of trafficking. Key to this are

two requirements, as prescribed by the Trafficking Protocol:

  • States Parties must establish comprehensive policies and measures to prevent and combat trafficking itself, and protect victims from “re-victimisation”; and

  • States Parties must take steps to ‘alleviate the factors that make persons, especially women and children, vulnerable to trafficking, such as poverty, underdevelopment and lack of equal opportunity’.

The establishment of policies and measures to prevent trafficking itself The UN Security Council has encouraged Member States to develop and use early warning and early-screening  frameworks of potential or imminent risk of trafficking, with special attention to women and children (especially those who are unaccompanied). The Special Rapporteur on trafficking has deemed it essential for refugee camps to have ‘a registry of all people living in the camp, to serve as a preventive measure against abduction’. She has also advocated for the establishment of ‘reporting desks for missing persons’ and ‘the immediate commencement of investigations when someone is reported missing’.

In the 2016 report of her country visit to Jordan, the Special Rapporteur on trafficking commended the prevention measures and practices employed by the Jordanian authorities in refugee camps. These measures included the registration of marriages and divorces in the camps by religious courts and civil registration authorities, at no cost to the refugees in question. This helped to reduce the risk of child and forced marriage, and marriages resulting in sexual exploitation. The Special Rapporteur also highlighted the effectiveness of Jordan’s cooperation with the UNHCR in the management of the refugee camps, including the identification of trafficking risks and training of relevant personnel.

The Special Rapporteur has further indicated that the potential or imminent risk of trafficking is ‘systematically linked with conflict’. As mentioned above, it is crucial that States carry out a risk assessment to prevent gender-based violence. The Special Rapporteur has argued that States should recognise any imminent risk of trafficking as a form of conflict related, gender-based violence. In such cases, the appropriate preventive measures should be automatically implemented. The necessary indicators would entail vulnerabilities to trafficking such as poverty, lack of income, the practice of transactional sex (including the exchange of sex for food) and the lack of access to services. Evidently, all such indicators frequently arise in refugee camps (as is further discussed below). Camps which have been established near conflict zones would be a particular target for human traffickers.

States cannot plead ignorance if they fail to implement the measures necessary to prevent trafficking of women and girls out of refugee camps. Human trafficking mostly involves non-State actors, and States’ due diligence obligations are therefore all the more critical. According to the Special Rapporteur, the standard of due diligence should be triggered ‘as soon as the State authorities know or ought to have known about trafficking taking place within its territory or jurisdiction, by either State or non-State actors, regardless of whether the State is party to any specific anti-trafficking convention’.

Successful prevention of trafficking also requires the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators.300 Unfortunately, the worldwide number of trafficking-related prosecutions and convictions remains low. According to the U.S. Department of State, there were fewer than 10,000 convictions worldwide for human trafficking between 2016 and 2017. It is even less likely that a State will successfully prosecute traffickers who prey on women and girls in refugee camps – especially if those camps are informally established or poorly resourced. Nevertheless, States must endeavor to implement measures which identify and combat traffickers and trafficking networks – including in relation to State agents and security forces that may be complicit in trafficking out of the camp.


Press release – Final conference – disseminating the results achieved within the project “EVA IRFAM – There is Hidden Violence Affecting Migrant Women”

The ICAR Foundation is organizing on May 29, 2023, starting at 10:00 a.m., the final Conference to disseminate the results of the project “EVA IRFAM – There is Hidden Violence Affecting Migrant Women”. The event will take place in Bucharest, at the Holiday Inn Bucharest-Times Hotel.

Representatives of public authorities and non-governmental organizations active in the field of migration and violence, intercultural mediators, and other interested parties are invited to participate.

The purpose of the conference is to disseminate the results achieved within the project, which contributes to increasing the capacity of migrants to recognize and get out of situations of gender-based violence. Within the project, support services were provided to victims/potential victims of gender-based violence, capacity building sessions were organized in which specialists from public institutions and non-governmental organizations were trained to identify, intervene, and prevent this phenomenon, as well as an awareness campaign with migrant youth to improve knowledge about gender-based violence. At the same time, it was also made the first research report on this phenomenon among migrants, which contributed to the development of the ICAR Foundation as a resource center on gender-based violence.

The “EVA IRFAM – There Is Hidden Violence Affecting Migrant Women”, project implemented by the ICAR Foundation in partnership with Health and Human Rights Info, with the financial support of Active Citizens Fund Romania, programme funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through EEA Grants 2014 – 2021, was implemented between April 1, 2021, and May 31, 2023, and benefited from funding in the amount of 249,751.50 euros. The aim of the project was to increase the capacity of migrant women, youth and LGBTIQ people to recognize and get out of GBV situations by providing support services, an awareness campaign and training of specialists working for public institutions at national level in identifying, intervening, and preventing this phenomenon and the development of the ICAR Foundation as a resource centre on GBV by making the first research report on GBV on refugees in Romania and developing a working guide for specialists.

About Active Citizens Fund Romania
The Active Citizens Fund Romania programme is funded through the EEA Grants 2014-2021. The overall objective of the Grants is to reduce economic and social disparities, and to strengthen bilateral relations between 15 beneficiary countries and the Donor States (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). The programme is administered by a consortium composed of Civil Society Development Foundation, Romanian Environmental Partnership Foundation, Resource Center for Roma Communities, PACT Foundation and Frivillighet Norge, acting as Fund Operator designated by FMO – Financial Mechanism Office of the EEA and Norway Grants. The objectives of the Active Citizens Fund Romania are to strengthen civil society and active citizenship and to empower vulnerable groups. With a total allocation of 46,000,000 euro, the programme pursues a long-term development of the civil society sector sustainability and capacity, stepping up its role in promoting democratic participation, active citizenship and human rights, while strengthening bilateral relations with organizations from the Donor States, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. For more information about the Active Citizens Fund in Romania, please go to For more information about the EEA and Norway Grants, go to

EVA IRFAM_Press release_final conference



UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security calls upon ‘all parties to armed conflict to respect the civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements, and to consider the particular needs of women and girls, including in their design.’ However, in determining the gendered needs of women and girls, it is important that those within refugee camps are not treated as lacking agency.

Meaningful participation is a pillar of WPS; it should continue to be applicable within such camps. Accordingly, refugee women must be accorded participation and representation in the decision-making processes leading to the design and implementation of all camp policies, including those relating to the delivery and distribution of services and measures for prevention of and protection against violence.

As with all other persons, refugees are entitled to an adequate standard of living. This includes adequate food and housing, as well as physical and mental health. Refugees who have fled conflict frequently arrive in the host country traumatized and in need of medical treatment. Women and children have particular health and security needs and may suffer gender-specific, adverse health consequences if these are not addressed. They are also very vulnerable to exploitation and violence whilst living in refugee camps.

The life of a refugee is typically characterized by dependency ‘on others for such basic needs as food, clothing and shelter’. Refugees’ confinement to camps may, in itself, have implications for their socio-economic rights (ESC rights). For example, where camps are located in remote and/or poor areas of the country of refuge, access to wage earning employment may be limited. Worse still are situations in which refugees’ rights of free movement to and from the camp are restricted, as is the case for inhabitants of the Dadaab camp in Kenya. Refugee women, in particular, have few economic opportunities to build their livelihoods; their earning options are often limited to low-paid and low-skilled informal work, whilst they also bear the responsibility for unpaid family labour.  This dire socio-economic context increases the risk that refugee women might engage in transactional sex to support themselves and their families. Lack of security or social restrictions on the movement of unaccompanied women may cause refugee women to confine themselves to their tents.

International legal instruments 

Prima facie, the 1951 Refugee Convention is limited in protecting the ESC rights of refugees. First, the Convention only applies to those countries which are States Parties (either to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol). Secondly, it does not refer to certain ESC rights, such as an adequate standard of living or physical and mental health. Lastly, refugees may only be able to access entitlements under the Convention when the domestic authorities have formally recognised them as refugees. 

International human rights law provides a more comprehensive protection regime for all people in refugee camps, encompassing civil, political and ESC rights. In particular, some of the core rights enumerated in the ICESCR (including, for example, the right to water, food, shelter and health) take on added significance for those who have been forcibly displaced. These rights are particularly pertinent to refugee women, who usually take on additional obligations of providing for other vulnerable family members, including the young and the elderly. The core of a rights-based approach to refugee assistance is the ‘identification of a certain standard of treatment to which an individual refugee is entitled’.

Before elaborating on the relevant standards pertaining to ESC rights of non-citizen refugee women and girls, two preliminary clarifications are made regarding the general principles of ICESCR interpretation. The first relates to the concept of “progressive realization”; the second to the concept of a “minimum core” of obligations.

Concept of progressive realization

Progressive realization should be interpreted such that it captures a “pattern of improvement” which obliges States to ensure a broader enjoyment of ESC rights over time. The ESCR Committee has emphasized that steps taken by States to fully realize ESC rights ‘should be deliberate, concrete and targeted as clearly as possible’ towards meeting their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the rights set out in the ICESCR. While States enjoy a margin of discretion in selecting the means that are available for implementing their obligations, the burden remains on the State to demonstrate that measurable progress is being made towards the full realization of rights. In addition, States cannot deliberately pursue retrogressive measures. 

In addition, the concept of progressive realization mandates that a States Party also comply with certain obligations which are independent of the level of resources available to it. These obligations include non-discrimination and equality in the delivery of social services (reaffirmed in Article 3 of the CEDAW) and the efficient use of available resources. Concretely, the international prohibition on discrimination requires States to ‘improve the de facto position of women through concrete and effective policies and programmes’, including in the context of the refugee camp.

Minimum core obligations

The concept of a “minimum core” of obligations is a doctrinal advance on the ICESCR. It may be distinguished from progressive realization by the higher standards to which States are held. The minimum core is the baseline of the obligation to progressively realize rights: the identification of certain essential obligations helps to ensure that States provide people with the basic conditions under which they can live with dignity. This, in turn, provides a “bottom line” for State responsibility. 

The primary international sources for the doctrine of minimum core obligations are the General Recommendations and Comments issued by various treaty bodies, such as the ESCR Committee. Such Recommendations and Comments, whilst not legally binding, are highly persuasive. According to the ESCR Committee, the minimum core of the main economic, social, and cultural rights has become customary international law and is therefore binding on all States, regardless of whether they have signed or ratified treaties protecting those rights.


Protecting Female Refugees from Gender-Based Violence in Camps – international involvement

The experiences and rights of refugees are often discussed and subsumed under the broader consideration of human rights. However, when addressing the experiences of refugees, gender cannot be ignored. People’s experiences, in general, depend on one’s gender. This is only exacerbated when in conflict and recovery zones, like refugee camps, where women are significantly disadvantaged.

There is a pervasive epidemic that is plaguing almost every single refugee camp around the world: sexual and gender-based violence against women. In a recent report, the International Rescue Committee found an overall increase in violence against women following the start of the COVID-19 epidemic and quarantines. There was a 51% increase in sexual violence, 73% increase in intimate partner violence, and a 32% rise in early and forced marriages. These women enter these camps hoping to escape the horrors that have overtaken their homes, but are met with continued violence. The reality is that they often risk being targeted by perpetrators, sometimes by those they thought were there to protect them, such as border security forces and refugee camp workers. In a 2018 interview with Amnesty International, a Syrian national displaced in a Greek refugee camp expressed her fears and concerns over her safety, describing her experience as unsafe and uncomfortable. These fears are propagated during everyday activities, like taking showers, which have become dangerous missions with broken locks and cramped spaces. These women often endure appalling conditions while simultaneously dealing with past trauma and abuse. While over four years have passed since the interview, these issues remain and persist worldwide for internally displaced persons (IDP) in refugee camps. 

Cox’s Bazar, a port city in Bangladesh, is home to one of the largest refugee camps, with over 800,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing violent persecution in Burma (Myanmar). According to data from the International Rescue Committee, one in four Rohingya women in Bangladesh refugee camps has been affected by gender-based violence. Women in these camps have faced increased unpaid care work and more significant risks to their physical and mental health – which became more pronounced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Women have minimal and ineffective access to lifesaving services and support. Since there are no formal justice systems and crime and power-based violence pervades with impunity, women are terrified to seek help from those who oversee the refugee camps. However, this is not unique to the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp. According to a research series published by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the scope and applicable policies of the legal framework in refugee camps are extremely stringent and limiting – further fostering fear and apprehension for those who seek charges against those who have wronged them. For women in refugee camps, it has become a never-ending cycle of trauma and abuse. 

Despite resolutions and declarations at the highest level aimed at protecting female refugees, current reports demonstrate that gender-based violence is a persistent and deep-seated problem. Organizations like the United Nations (UN) have repeatedly taken steps to try and combat violence against women, especially displaced women. Some of these consist of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Resolution on Women, Peace, and Security. Both aim to mitigate violence against women in camps. The latter recommended an amendment to the existing code of conduct that prevents sex crimes by introducing adequate control and accountability mechanisms. Moreover, the resolution acknowledged the need to prevent assaults committed by border forces and aid workers by diversifying peacekeeping troops, civilian police, and military observers. Although policy is already in place, the situation of violence against displaced women is ongoing due to ineffective implementation. 

The main issues in human security are effectively regulated, and the regulations are relatively detailed. However, time has shown that detailed regulations mean nothing without effective implementation. The UNHCR and other international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have worked to ensure the provision of guidelines for combatting sexual violence, but states have to abide by these rules and actively implement the policies. Moreover, camps lack administrative staff dedicated to safety, counseling, and legal support. Since shelters and counseling centers for victims are consistently overpacked and lack the necessary support services, the risk of revictimization is high. Further, victims cannot address their claims to a court and are victimized once again by the system supposedly created to aid them. The complex and stringent use of legal sources available at camps often complicates securing protection and validation for women. The roles of mobile courts must be expanded, and visits to the camps must become more routine and accessible to victims. Furthermore, access to shelters and counseling centers need to be equipped with the necessary support services, like interpreters, in order to avoid risking the isolation and alienation of victims. 

The human rights and dignity of displaced women must be safeguarded. Policies are often already set in place, but it is up to the camps and the host countries to act and actively implement these policies. The UNHCR must form a committee whose sole purpose is monitoring policy implementation in refugee and IDP camps to ensure the safety of its residents.


Gender-based violence at all stages of migration

Women and girls are likely to experience a continuum of gender-based violence at all stages of migration, from bullying and verbal, physical and psychological abuse to sexual violence. Incidences of violence often take place not once but multiple times, along the route in the country of origin, while in transit, on arrival in the country of destination and upon return. Along certain migration routes, the risk of gender-based violence is particularly high. For instance, in one study conducted with migrants who had travelled along the Mediterranean route from Northern Africa to Italy, it was estimated that 90 per cent of the women and girls who participated in the study were raped at some point during their journeys. In addition, some migrant women, particularly those who are using irregular channels, face increased risk of becoming victims of trafficking in persons, especially for the purpose of sexual exploitation, as well as labor exploitation and domestic servitude.

The threat or experience of gender-based violence can be a factor compelling women and girls to migrate. In the Horn of Africa, for example, women and girls migrate to escape gender-based violence and other harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage. In some instances, women’s decision to migrate can lead to increased risks of violence from parents or guardians, intimate partners or community members that do not agree with their decision. 

Migration policies and laws often reproduce or reinforce gender inequalities. Gender-specific restrictions and bans, including those that aim to protect women and girls from risks of exploitation and abuse, may result in further limiting women’s and girls’ opportunities to access regular migration channels, thereby increasing their risk of gender-based violence along irregular and riskier routes. Gender-based violence is committed by a variety of actors including smugglers, human traffickers, authorities (i.e. police and border guards), intimate partners or other migrants. Smugglers are key perpetrators of violence against migrant women and girls worldwide; a survey of nearly 2,000 respondents who experienced or witnessed gender-based violence revealed that along the East and Horn of Africa migration corridor, smugglers were responsible for 90 per cent of such incidents. Often using ‘go now, pay later’ schemes, smugglers charge exorbitant fees for migrants to continue their journey, often resulting in debt bondage and increasing migrant women’s risk of forced labor, sexual exploitation, including forced prostitution, and survival sex, i.e. providing sex as ‘payment’ for safe passage.

Aware of the high risk of gender-based violence, many migrant women take precautions as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancy in cases of rape. For Eritrean women transiting through Libya on their way to southern Europe, it was reported that such precautions not only included taking injectable contraceptives, but also in some cases traveling while pregnant or with younger children in an effort to prevent the risk of experiencing violence. However, it is unknown whether this increased the risk to the children with whom they were traveling. Furthermore, many married women migrating through North Africa do so separately from their husbands, as they are aware that if their husbands attempted to intervene if they were being assaulted, they would likely be killed.

In countries of transit or destination, migrant women, especially those who are undocumented, often lack access to decent work and social protection. They are therefore more likely to accept deplorable working conditions, with many working in the informal economy with limited or no labor protection, exacerbating their risk of gender-based violence, abuse and exploitation in the workplace.Migrant women are less likely to report cases of gender-based violence for fear of losing their job, partner or residency status. For example, in the United States, low-paid migrant farm workers and janitors are often subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault by their supervisors, which they tend not to report for fear of repercussions.

Migrant women whose residency status is dependent on their partners are at high risk of intimate partner violence and domestic violence, and do not report such incidences for fear of deportation. Furthermore, sponsorship systems, such as the Kafala system found in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, place migrant women in situations of heightened vulnerability, as they cannot freely enter or leave the country or resign from or change employment, forcing them to endure violence and harassment.

In addition, migrant women who are victims of trafficking may not report their situation of exploitation due to fear for their personal safety and of reprisals from traffickers, as well as due to the fear of being treated by state authorities as criminals or offenders. Rather than respecting the safety and rights of trafficking victims, authorities often use the threat of criminal and administrative charges, including deportation, in order to get them to coercively assist in investigations.



Gender and migration are intersecting factors that mutually affect each other. Migration can have positive and negative effects on migrants depending on their individual characteristics and conditions. Likewise, an individual’s gender influences their experience of migration, including the risks and vulnerabilities involved in their journey.

Migration has the potential to create positive outcomes and contribute to women’s empowerment. It can open opportunities for: higher income, asset ownership, self-esteem, decision-making power and new autonomy. On the other hand, gender and migration can intersect to produce negative outcomes, such as multiple forms of discrimination, exploitation, and stigmatization. Migration may also offer women and girls an opportunity to escape situations of gender-based violence in their countries of origin.

Gender-based violence (GBV) is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and that is based on socially ascribed (i.e. gender) differences between males and females. It may be physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, financial and/or psychological. It can occur in public or in private and individuals of all genders can be victims. It disproportionately affects women, girls, and those of diverse gender identity or diverse sexual orientation (LGBTQI) persons because of underlying gender inequalities. Worldwide, an estimated one in three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime.

GBV can be a factor that drives migration from countries of origin. According to a report by Support Kind (2018), GBV perpetrated by family members, gangs and drug traffickers forces many women, girls, and LGBTQI individuals to leave El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. GBV, particularly sexual violence, is used to maintain control over territories and populations, as gang members punish women, girls and their families for not complying with their demands. An average of less than 10 percent of GBV cases in the region result in convictions. As they are unable to gain protection in their countries, many women, girls and LGBTQI individuals migrate in search of safer living conditions.

Migration does not cause GBV. However, during their journey, some migrants face situations where they are more vulnerable to violence. Numerous factors influence a person’s risks and vulnerabilities throughout their migration journey. Alongside gender, a key factor is whether the migration route is safe and regular.

Unsafe or irregular migration routes increase the risks of GBV, including human trafficking. Migrant women, girls and LGBTQI individuals are disproportionately targeted by human traffickers. According to the 2019 Trafficking In Persons Report, traffickers in the Caribbean target migrant women, particularly from Jamaica, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic. In Costa Rica, LGBTQI persons, particularly transgender Costa Ricans, are vulnerable to sex traffickers. Women and girls from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries have been identified in Costa Rica as victims of sex trafficking and domestic servitude.

At their destination and for those who return to their countries of origin, other intersecting factors, including a migrants’ financial insecurity, awareness of their legal rights, and language abilities influence their vulnerability to GBV.

Gender norms and unequal power relationships are the root causes of GBV against women and girls as well as men and boys and those of diverse gender identities. Perpetrators seek to exploit inequalities in order to exert power, coerce and deceive their victims. Recognizing these causes is central to developing effective interventions.

A human rights-based and gender-responsive to migration governance is crucial for reducing GBV. Ensuring that the lives of all migrants are protected, and they have access to justice reduces their vulnerabilities and alters the culture of impunity in which perpetrators believe they will not face punishment.

GBV can cause short, medium and long-term physical and mental health consequences for survivors. Understanding how gender intersects with migration and addressing the root causes of GBV will create greater equality and human dignity throughout the region.


Protecting Female Refugees against Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Camps

“While entire communities suffer the impact of armed conflict, women and girls are often the first to lose their rights to education, to political participation and to livelihoods, among other rights being bluntly violated,” Kang said. “Simply, crisis exacerbates gender inequalities.”

So it is that female refugees across the world are highly vulnerable to all forms of sexual and physical violence. In addition to the dangers women face from contesting armed groups, once on the move from the conflict zone, they are also at risk of being brutalised by human traffickers or even border security forces. Even after exiting the conflict zone, safety can be elusive. Staying in a refugee camp within the country of origin or seeking protection elsewhere brings serious threats to women’s security, freedom and health.

The international community has long resolved to end this scourge. Yet, despite declarations and resolutions, current reports show that protecting female refugees from gender-based violence remains a complex problem. This challenge is solvable, however, as it is largely a matter of policy not adequately implemented, and world events prove that implementation should be prioritised.

Brutal borders, camps no shelter

People able to escape the fighting in their homeland can still meet grave danger, and even death. Already this year, over 2,500 of those people have died or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean. Those who survive can still face the shock of finding the nightmare has not ended because they are being pushed back to sea by nations unwilling to let refugee boats land, as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have done in recent months.

As the number of people fleeing violence continues to mount, deteriorating practices at borders and in detention camps in countries can mean refugee women who evade being made captive by armed groups and human traffickers, nonetheless risk being legally detained such as in one of the twenty-seven immigration detention centres in Turkey and Greece that can hold irregular migrants and asylum seekers for more than eighteen months.

Equally frightening threats exist in refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, as explained by a UNHCR report: “In many refugee situations, particularly those involving the confinement of refugees in closed camps, traditional behavioural norms and restraints break down. In such circumstances refugee women and girls may be raped by other refugees, acting either individually or in gangs, and self-appointed leaders may thwart attempts to punish the offenders. In certain camp situations, unaccompanied women and girls have been known to enter what are called ‘protection marriages’ in order to avoid sexual assault. The frustration of camp life can also lead to violence, including sexual abuse, within the family.”

Alarmingly, this abuse is not only perpetrated by male residents of the camp but can come at the hands of national migration administration or humanitarian staff. A 2002 report showed that girls were sexually exploited by humanitarian agency staff and security forces in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, yet this problem has still not been stamped out. A French soldier was recently accused of child abuse in Central African Republic.

Recently, allegations were also made that hundreds of girls have been raped and sold in a Nigerian IDP camp. In response, the country’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) formed a committee, assembling representatives of different state bodies and the Nigerian Red Cross Society, to investigate the alleged abuses. In July, NEMA released a statement explaining that “what the report erroneously termed as child trafficking was movement of some children IDPs from one camp to another for security reasons and to provide more comfort for the children”.

Imagine finding yourself in a place that was supposed to give you refuge but ends up causing you more fear than the violence that forced you to leave your home? Non-governmental organisation Caritas Lebanon says that half of the Syrian female refugees who sought aid from their workers reported having been sexually abused. And shockingly, Caritas says, many of these women reported wishing that they could return to Syria immediately, despite the ongoing dangers there that caused them to flee.

Range of existing policies

Sex crimes are a serious problem because they violate personal freedoms, traumatise the victim, and often lead to undesired pregnancy, unsafe abortions, complications tied to early childbearing age, or even death.

Astoundingly, the reason for the deplorable situation of violence against displaced women that is still ongoing in camps is simply inadequate implementation of a range of existing policies that aim to protect and prevent women from assaults.

As far back as 1979, UN Member States committed to taking steps to make the world safe and equitable for women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women stipulates that states should employ necessary steps toward eradicating the prostitution and trafficking of women. This norm should be applied to protect women in refugee and IDP camps from assaults such as those that took place in Nigeria and Libya.

In order to secure women’s integrity, the Convention also envisages that women have the right to get married “only with their free and full consent”, which again should be applied in preventing ‘protective’ and forced marriages from happening in camps.

According to the 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, among other guaranteed rights, women have the right to “the highest standard attainable” of physical health and the right not to be subjected to “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. Moreover, the Declaration notes that states have an obligation to protect women, including refugees, and enable them to enjoy the given rights.


What is Smuggling of Migrants?

Migration is one of the great driving forces of human progress and development. The movement of people worldwide has resulted in many stories that have contributed to the shared history of humanity. People have moved all over the globe for a variety of reasons: to increase their economic opportunities; to provide their children with an education; to found a family; to embark on an adventure and to seek protection. Migration, in turn, has led to the proliferation of languages, cultures, cuisines and ideas on an international scale. 

Global migration as it exists today is one of the massive by-products of globalization; the exploitation of this phenomenon by profit-seeking criminals has given it a darker side. The criminal activity of smugglers of migrants undermines the capacity of States to safeguard their own sovereignty and thereby reduces the opportunities available to migrants to move to other countries legally and safely. The cost of the smuggling of migrants is often measurable in terms of lives lost.

Understanding the smuggling of migrants

As more and more people seek to migrate in search of a better life for themselves and their families—sometimes fleeing lack of employment opportunities and sometimes extreme poverty, natural disaster or persecution—a demand is created for services to help them do so. Not all persons who wish to migrate have legally sanctioned opportunities to do so. Profit Seeking criminals take advantage of this fact by smuggling migrants. One reason why the smuggling of migrants occurs is that borders exist; and generally, the numbers of those motivated to migrate far exceeds the limited possibilities for crossing borders. Meanwhile, the abilities of States to control immigration are limited and migration policies often fail to achieve their objectives.

Borders and border control measures Research has shown that restrictive immigration laws, the tightening of asylum policies and reinforced border control measures do not necessarily result in a reduction of irregular migration. In response to improved border control measures, more irregular migrants resort to services provided by profit-seeking smugglers. This in turn fosters the “networkization” and “professionalism” of smugglers of migrants as well as an increase in the prices that they charge for their services, particularly for sophisticated operations such as “visa smuggling” which can be employed to bypass border controls. At the same time, strong law enforcement responses have contributed to the establishment of a variant form of the smuggling of migrants where smugglers offer services that, though low in cost, exact a high price in terms of the dangers they pose to the health and lives of those smuggled. This has resulted in a rise in the death toll in recent years. Virtually every country in the world is affected by the smuggling of migrants, as a country of origin, transit or destination or even as all three.

The smuggling of migrants can be considered within the wider context of irregular migration. Generally the motivations of smuggled persons are no different from those of irregular migrants: they wish to improve their lives and the lives of their family or to escape from a situation of persecution. Relationships that smuggled migrants have with the person or people smuggling them vary significantly; in some situations, the smuggler will act simply as a facilitator by enabling the migrants to reach a destination they themselves have chosen. In other situations, the smuggler controls every aspect of the smuggling process, including the final destination. Often, migrants in this situation will become stranded along the way and consequently unable to reach a particular destination or to return home. In other situations, the migrant and the smuggler will negotiate extensively over matters of travel and destination. 

Vulnerability of migrants to smugglers of migrants 

Many migrants intend to migrate independently of smugglers of migrants. However, as circumventing the restrictions on movement becomes more challenging and as environments in the course of the journey become more unfamiliar, migrants may resort to the services of smugglers of migrants. The more a migrant feels displaced (for example, not knowing the local language is a key alienating factor en route), the greater his or her need for assistance and services will be.

Related concept: trafficking in persons 

“Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

In basic terms, for a person to be guilty of trafficking in persons the following must be present (and evidenced): 

• Act: the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a person.

• Means: the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits. 

• Purpose: exploitation, which includes the exploitation of the prostitution of others and other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery or practices similar to slavery and the removal of organs. The Trafficking in Persons Protocol defines the crime of trafficking in persons as comprising three constituent elements, as outlined in the matrix on the next page.

What are the main differences between trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants? In a significant number of cases it may be difficult to distinguish between a case of trafficking in persons and a case of smuggling of migrants. The distinctions between smuggling and trafficking are often very subtle and they sometimes overlap. Identifying whether a case is one of trafficking in persons or smuggling of migrants can be very difficult for a number of reasons:

  • Some trafficked persons might start their journey by agreeing to be smuggled into a country illegally, but later in the process, may find themselves deceived, coerced or forced into an exploitative situation (for instance, one where they are compelled to work for extraordinarily low wages to pay for the transportation). 

  • Traffickers may present an “opportunity” that sounds more like smuggling to potential victims. They could be asked to pay a fee in common with other people who are smuggled. However, the intention of the trafficker from the outset is the exploitation of the victim. Charging the “fee” is part of the deception and a fraudulent way to make a little more money. 

  • Smuggling may not be the planned intention at the outset but a “too good to miss” opportunity to traffic people presents itself to the smugglers/traffickers at some point in the process. 

  • Criminals may both smuggle and traffic people, employing the same routes and methods of transporting them.


II. Understanding Migration and Displacement

Types of Migration

Internal Migration

“The movement of people within a State involving the establishment of a new temporary or permanent residence. […] Internal migration movements can be temporary or permanent and include those who have been displaced from their habitual place of residence such as internally displaced persons, as well as persons who decide to move to a new place, such as in the case of rural–urban migration. The term also covers both nationals and non‐nationals moving within a State, provided that they move away from their place of habitual residence.”

International Migration

“The movement of persons away from their place of usual residence and across an international border to a country of which they are not nationals.” As for internal migration, this can be temporary or permanent and includes those who have been displaced from their “habitual place of residence”, and people who have chosen to move to a new country. It excludes movements that are due to “recreation, holiday, visits to friends and relatives, business, medical treatment or religious pilgrimages”.

Reasons for Migration

1. Climate Migration

“The movement of a person or groups of persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden or progressive change in the environment due to climate change, are obliged to leave their habitual place of residence, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, within a State or across an international border. “

2. Labour Migration

“Movement of persons from one State to another, or within their own country of residence, for the purpose of employment.”This includes migrants moving within the country and across international borders.

3. Irregular Migration

“Movement of persons that takes place outside the laws, regulations, or international agreements governing the entry into or exit from the State of origin, transit or destination.” It is generally used to “identify persons moving outside regular migration channels.” These migrants may have had no other option but to use these irregular migration channels. It may include: asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, or unaccompanied migrant children.

4. Forced Migration or Displacement

“The movement of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters.”

Displacement or Forced Migration

Forced migration or displacement refers to the “movement of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters. “This migration can be either within their own country or between countries after being displaced from their home country. There are some differences between the different types of displaced persons which we will explore below.

Internally Displaced Person

According to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, an Internally Displaced Person (IDP), are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.” There are two important elements in the IDP definition: the movement is involuntary and takes place within national borders. Prevention of forced displacement and the protection of IDPs is the primary responsibility of the national authority.  

While often referred to as refugees, IDPs do not fall within the legal definitions of a refugee as they remain entitled to all the rights and guarantees as citizens and other habitual residents of their home country and remain under the protection of its government. In many cases, the displacement occurs as a result of the government. This can make IDPs more vulnerable to further displacement and other protection risks, such as lack of access to basic services, family separation, sexual and gender based violence, trafficking, discrimination and harassment.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), at the end of 2021, there were 59.1 million IDPs; 53.2 million as a result of conflict, violence or human rights violations and 5.9 million as a result of disaster. Syria (6,662,000), Afghanistan (5,704,000), Democratic Republic of the Congo (5,540,000), Colombia (5,236,400), Yemen (4,300,000) and Ethiopia (4,168,000) are countries with some of the largest internally displaced populations. 

Asylum Seeker

  • An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been fully evaluated. When people flee their own country and seek sanctuary in another country, they apply for asylum or the right to be recognised as a refugee and receive legal protection and material assistance. An asylum seeker must demonstrate that their fear of persecution in their home country is well-founded.
  • This person would have applied for asylum on the grounds that returning to their home country would lead to persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political beliefs. Someone is an asylum seeker for so long as their application is pending. Not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee is initially an asylum seeker. According to the UNHCR Global Trends 2021, at the end of 2021 there were 4.6 million asylum seekers globally.

In conclusion migration has always existed, and will continue long into the future but the term “migrants” has become more politically loaded over the years, and remains a contentious point of discussion. Consistent public debate is challenging when multiple definitions exist and terminology is used interchangeably. While many individuals migrate out of choice, many others migrate out of necessity and for many they are forced to leave their home. Every migrant is a unique person protected by human rights. Some migrants may have specific vulnerabilities and, as a result, have particular rights because of who they are or what they have experienced (e.g. children, people with a disability, survivors of trafficking, stateless persons and refugees). The use of ‘migrants’ as a label for all should always go hand in hand with recognizing and protecting the rights of each of the specific groups identified above.