“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.