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

  • 2015•11•02

    Marija Obradovic

    Photo: © UN Photo/Tobin Jones

    Globally today, we are witnessing an “inexorable intensification of violence” in the world’s armed conflicts. The result is that there are currently 59.5 million refugees worldwide.

    And amongst that violence, the brutalization of women is a deplorable and persistent trend. Spotlighting the issue, senior UN relief official Kyung-Wha Kang earlier this year pointed to the fact that when militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) have captured territory in Iraq and Syria, they have used and punished women to demonstrate their power. Women have been repeatedly raped, forced into marriage and sold into slavery. Nigerian women and girls have given harrowing accounts of their experiences at the hands of Boko Haram, she added.

    “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 brutalized 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 largely a matter of policy not adequately implemented, and world events prove that implementation should be prioritized.

    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 wasrecently 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 organizationCaritas 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, traumatize 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.

    Obviously, too many states and the UNHCR itself are failing to live up to these obligations. The 2011 UNHCR strategy tackling sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) focused on improving three areas crucial for providing protection for potential and actual victims.

    The first area that seeks improvement is data collection and analysis, which has to be supported by research projects conducted in consultation with field offices and with full participation of stakeholders. This would help to accurately map the existing risks of SGBV and obstacles that the stakeholders encounter in accessing the protection services.

    The second challenging area was found to be at the management level. Here the Strategy reaffirms the need for further training and raising awareness of the UNHCR staff regarding SGBV, gender inequality and discrimination. Moreover, this strategy stressed the need for allocation of sufficient resources for meeting the long term needs of survivors of SGBV. Lastly, the UNHCR has to increase the cooperation among the relevant actors. Recognizing that the actions against SGBV require a multi-sectoral approach, the UNHCR should aim to strengthen the existing partnerships with other UN agencies and  develop close cooperation with governments and different organizations to improve prevention and response to SGBV.

    When assaults are made by peacekeeping forces and humanitarian staff, they represent the abuse of power. International actors have recognized the need to stop sexual assaults committed by the troops and other personnel and, in 2000, the United Nations Security Council adopted the Resolution on Women, Peace and Security. The Resolution states that a gender perspective has to be introduced (where the implications for women and men of any planned action are assessed) into peacekeeping operations. Further, the Resolution recommends that the existing code of conduct has to be amended in a way that prevents sex crimes by introducing adequate control and accountability mechanisms. Lastly, it expresses the need for gender-diversification of the peacekeeping troops, military observers and civilian police.

    The 2008 UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls restates the need for the implementation of codes of conduct that eliminate sexual assaults by humanitarian and authority personnel. It also suggests additional training for the staff on prevention and response to the assaults, but in practice too few recommendations are in effect.

    Nevertheless, 15 years following the Resolution, the problem still exists in the camps.

    Access to justice

    In the case of sexual assault, it is important to react properly and enable access to justice, legal remedies and reparation. However, women in camps have fewer chances to access justice than men in cultures where a woman’s status is subjected or tied to a man’s. Forced migration can increase discrimination against women and worsen the opportunities for satisfying their legal claims, leaving victims with no reparation.

    The UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees has clearly stipulated that refugees will have free access to the courts of law on the territory of all Contracting States. One should bear in mind that international conventions and agreements once adopted by the state become part of its legal system and often have a priority compared to domestic laws. Thus, formally, there are no legal obstacles for the successful implementation of this norm.

    In addition to domestic laws of the hosting country, displaced persons are also subjected to rules of the camp, which can be developed by or together with the camp’s residents. These rules present a mix of customs adapted to the camp setting, and have a critical role in IDP camps within the countries with failed legal systems. As a case in point, the camps in Sierra Leone apply a similar set of rules. In addition, UN principles and guidelines also have an important place in dispute resolution in camps, as they provide standards that should be followed, although they are not legally binding.

    The use of different legal sources in the camp, however, further complicates the process of securing efficient legal protection for women. With camps lacking administrative staff dedicated to providing counseling and legal support, the victims are disabled in addressing their legal claims. To that end, a recommendation of the “UNHCR Comprehensive Protection Framework on Accession to Justice for Sexual and Gender Based Violence Victims and Survivors” can be helpful, if implemented adequately, because it calls for the expanded role of and regular visits by mobile courts.

    The realm of human security has reached a point where the main issues are effectively regulated at large. The aforementioned international rules are clear, and UNHCR, together with international NGOs, make sure to fill in any gaps and provide guidelines for tackling the issue of sex crimes. However, it is clear that having detailed regulation means nothing without effective implementation. States have to abide by the rules crafted at the UN level, show support to those who are failing to cope with the surging number of immigrants and find a long-lasting solution of the core problems driving the immigration crisis.


    Creative Commons License

    Protecting Female Refugees against Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Camps by Marija Obradovic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

    Based on a work at