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.