Applicability of international human rights law to non-citizen women and girls

International human rights treaties oblige States to ensure the equal treatment of all persons present within their respective territory and/or jurisdiction. This means that the protection guaranteed by international human rights instruments accrues to any woman or girl living in a refugee camp – even if she is a non-citizen of the country in which she is located. The United Nations has defined a non-citizen as ‘any individual who is not a national of a State in which he or she is present.

The term ‘non-citizen’, as used in this report, also applies to stateless persons – individuals who have either not formally acquired citizenship of the country in which they were born, or who have lost their citizenship without acquiring another. The Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines such persons as those ‘not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law.’ 

The rights enshrined in the ICCPR apply equally to all non-citizen refugees. The Human Rights Committee has explained that ‘the rights set forth in the [ICCPR] apply to everyone, irrespective of reciprocity, and irrespective of his or her nationality or statelessness.’ Thus, the general rule is that each of the rights of the ICCPR must be guaranteed to citizens and aliens, without discrimination, by the State in whose territory or jurisdiction they find themselves.

The Human Rights Committee has stated that the term “discrimination” means ‘any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference which is based on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Note, also, that the Committee has highlighted that “equal treatment” does not require that all persons be treated in exactly the same way:

not every differentiation of treatment will constitute discrimination, if the criteria for such differentiation is reasonable and objective if the aim is to achieve a purpose which is legitimate under the [ICCPR].

In this regard, the rights of non-citizens may be qualified by limitations recognised pursuant to the ICCPR. Specifically, the ICCPR permits States to draw a distinction between citizens and non-citizens with respect to two categories of rights: political rights explicitly guaranteed to citizens, and freedom of movement. With regard to political rights, Article 25 of the ICCPR establishes that ‘every citizen’ shall have the right to participate in public affairs, to vote and hold office, and to have access to public services. Therefore, aside from these limitations, the provisions of the ICCPR must be applied equally to protect refugee women and girls within the territory of States of refuge.


International obligation to ensure equal and effective access to justice

Access to justice is both a right in of itself and the means for restoring the exercise of rights that have been disregarded or violated. This means that the obligations on States are multifaceted and require States, at a minimum, to ensure equality before the law, equality in respect of the guarantees of the due process of law and an effective remedy. As a procedural guarantee, access to justice is inextricably linked to all other State obligations and has been described as ‘the individual’s gateway to the various institutional channels provided by States to resolve disputes.


In General Recommendation 33, the CEDAW Committee describes the right of access to justice as “multidimensional”, and has usefully identified a number of indicators to help States comply with their obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. Access to justice encompasses ‘justiciability, availability, accessibility, good-quality and accountability of justice systems and the provision of remedies for victims’. Moreover, States must adopt a gender-sensitive analysis in respect of each of these elements to ensure de jure and de facto equality.


Access to justice requires norms to be justiciable. In other words, States must ensure that rights and correlative legal protections are recognised and incorporated into the law, since only then can victims claim their rights and legal entitlements.All too often, States fail to introduce legislation that captures adequately the different forms of violence against women and girls; failure to do so constitutes a denial of access to justice. Few States have expressly incorporated their obligations in respect of economic, social or cultural rights as set forth in the ICESCR into domestic law. The ESCR Committee has made it clear that States have an international obligation to ensure that the Covenant norms are ‘recognized in appropriate ways within the domestic legal order’ and that ‘appropriate means of redress, or remedies, must be available to any aggrieved individual or group, and appropriate means of ensuring governmental accountability must be put in place.


Access to justice is founded on equality before the law. This means that States have a positive obligation to ensure that domestic laws do not directly or indirectly discriminate against women and girls. In addition, States must ensure that judicial and quasi-judicial institutions apply the principle of substantive or de facto equality to ensure that women and girls enjoy substantive equality with men and boys in all areas of civil and criminal law. In particular, States have a duty to abolish discriminatory barriers to justice including, for example, guardianship laws or practices whereby permission must be secured from family or community members before beginning legal action; gender-stereotyping; different evidentiary or procedural rules between women and men; and the need for parental or spousal authorisation to access education and healthcare (including sexual and reproductive health).


Access to justice is founded on the availability and accessibility of justice systems. It follows that States must ensure that women and girls are not de facto precluded from access to justice which may require additional measures to be taken. As the HR Committee has emphasized, attempts by a person to access the competent courts or tribunals which are systematically frustrated de facto will run counter to the guarantee of Article 14(1) ICCPR. Moreover, failure to address obstacles that prevent women and girls from accessing justice will constitute discrimination. States are required to remove financial and linguistic barriers that preclude a person’s right to access justice and to develop targeted outreach activities about available justice mechanisms in order not to discriminate de facto against certain groups, including women and girls in camps.


Working guide for professionals working with victims of gender-based violence among migrants/refugees

ICAR Foundation developed within the project “EVA IRFAM – There is Hidden Violence Affecting Migrant Women” a working guide for specialists who work with victims of gender-based violence among migrants/refugees.

The guide was developed by the project team, with the support of the Norwegian partner, and is intended to be a working tool for people who work or encounter migrants who are either victims or potential victims of gender-based violence.

It is mainly dedicated to specialists, but it can also be a useful tool for migrants, containing various information of interest to those who have faced/are facing situations of gender-based violence.

The guide contains information on:

  • Categories of migrants vulnerable to gender-based violence;
  • Forms of gender-based violence and the effects of exposure to gender-based violence;
  • National and international legislation;
  • The rights of victims of gender-based violence;
  • Responsible institutions and services offered to victims of gender-based violence.

At the same time, it also contains information on the experience of Norway and the ICAR Foundation in working with gender-based violence.

The work guide for specialists (Romanian version) can be viewed by accessing the following link: .


Press release – Research report regarding the amplitude of gender-based violence among migrants

ICAR Foundation elaborated the research report “Gender-based violence among migrants”, which is the first report on this phenomenon among migrants in Romania.

The research aimed to evaluate the current situation of migrants from the perspective of gender violence and to obtain the necessary information for the development and implementation of measures and work tools aimed at supporting migrants from Romania, victims of gender violence. In this regard, between September 2021 and June 2022, data was collected through questionnaires applied among migrants and public authorities/non-governmental organizations with attributions in the field of migration/violence in the 6 cities with procedure centres and accommodation for asylum seekers (Bucuresti, Rădăuți, Șomcuta Mare, Timişoara, Giurgiu and Galați), as well as by organizing focus groups with migrants and intercultural mediators from Bucharest and Rădăuți.

As a result of the research, it emerged that gender-based violence among migrants is a social problem frequently encountered and little known from a psychosocial perspective. Moreover, there are several reasons (socio-cultural, religious, family) why victims of gender-based violence among migrants are very reserved in discussing their situation. At the same time, the structures and organizations in the field do not have enough information about the contexts and risk factors of gender-based violence among migrants.

The entire research report can be viewed by accessing the following link: .

The report was made within the project “EVA IRFAM – There is Hidden Violence Affecting Migrant Women”, a project implemented by 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 the EEA Grants 2014 – 2021.

The aim of the project is 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 – research raport


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


Obligation to provide for women and girls’ basic needs in refugee camps

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.