The United Nation says that:
The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An
unprecedented, 65 million people from all around the world have been forced from
their homes by conflict and persecution by the end of the year 2016. Among them
are nearly 23 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
Refugee in a general sense means a displaced person that has been
forced out of his own nation and has no means to get back. However, legally, a
refugee may be defined as any person who owing to well-founded fear of being
persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a
particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his
nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself
of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being
outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events,
is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
The United Nations Human Rights Convention says that Sexual and gender-based
violence (SGBV) refers to any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will
and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships.
It encompasses threats of violence and coercion. It can be physical, emotional,
psychological, or sexual in nature, and can take the form of a denial of
resources or access to services. It inflicts harm on women, girls, men and boys.
Thus, sexual violence and such grave crimes committed against the already
vulnerable refugees is an unimaginably cruel and violent act that breaks all
codes of conduct that any human being must follow. It is a violation of Natural
Justice and every possible moral guide that we follow and obey.
The Prevalence Of Sexual Violence In Refugees
Sexual violence is a major health, judicial, and societal concern and can have
numerous serious short- and long-term physical, psychological, and social
consequences for victims, but also for family members, peers, and assailants. It
is a global and serious public health and human rights problem. Sexual violence
occurs all over the world, in all cultures, at every societal level, among
people from all genders, and in all age categories. Regardless of the context in
which SV occurs (during war and conflict, within an intimate partnership or
larger family or community structure), it is considered a deeply violating and
painful experience for those affected .
Sexual violence can be broadly defined as a range of behaviours including sexual
harassment, sexual violence without penetration, and attempted and completed
rape, and can occur in a myriad of contexts and relationships . It includes
victimization, perpetration, and the witnessing of transgression and violent
sexual acts, taking place between strangers or in close and intimate
relationships, motivated by individual or political reasons, in the context of
conflict, exploitation, or targeting of a specific group.
A South African woman is waiting in line for an aid package, distributed by an
aid worker from the United Nations. War has left her without access to food,
water or clothing, and she needs this package to survive.
The aid worker offers her the package – in exchange for certain favours.
This is a hypothetical situation, but the issue of sexual abuse and exploitation
in exchange for aid is very real. This scenario is known as survival sex.
Reports Of Sexual Violence In Camps
The brutalisation of women is a deplorable and persistent trend. Spotlighting
this issue, senior UN relief official Kyung-Wha Kang 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.
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.
Equally frightening threats prevail in refugee camps 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.
Governments and aid agencies are failing to provide even basic protections to
women refugees traveling from Syria and Iraq. The research conducted in 2016 by
Amnesty International, a London based Non-Governmental Organisation that does
work focusing on Human Rights,
shows that women and girl refugees face violence, assault, exploitation and
sexual harassment at every stage of their journey, including on European soil.
The organization interviewed 40 refugee women and girls in northern Europe who
traveled from Turkey to Greece and then across the Balkans. All the women
described feeling threatened and unsafe during the journey. Many reported that
in almost all of the countries they passed through they experienced physical
abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by
smugglers, security staff or other refugees.
Amnesty International’s crisis response director said that, After living through
the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to
find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin
this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little
support or protection.
Women also said they had to use the same bathroom and shower facilities as men.
One woman told Amnesty International that in a reception center in Germany some
refugee men would watch women as they went to the bathroom. Some women took
extreme measures such as not eating or drinking to avoid having to go to the
toilet where they felt unsafe.
Women at the largest refugee camp in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, say they risk
being raped, kidnapped, or killed every day when they go to collect the firewood
they need to cook and feed themselves and their families. Based on interviews
conducted by the U.N., it’s estimated that 70 percent of women living in such
Sudanese camps have been raped.
If you’re in the forest to collect firewood and the soldiers see you, they will
rape you. But what are we supposed to do? said Nykeer Mut, the women’s leader
of one of the camp’s zones.
Trading Sex For AID
Survival sex is an abuse of power between international humanitarian aid workers
and local people. It is the most offensive form of sexual exploitation and it
An official report, Voices of Syria, 2018, reveals some women in refugee camps
have to offer sexual favours in return for aid packets from UN workers. Some
women are afraid to go to distribution points to pick up aid packets because of
fear of sexual exploitation and abuse. In 2015, French peacekeepers were accused
of forcing children as young as nine to exchange
sex for food in the Central African Republic. A later report revealed there were
more than 200 victims of sexual abuse in the Central African Republic alone.
Allegations involve rape, sexual violence against both adults and children, and
exchanging aid for sex.
Yet this is not a recent or an isolated problem. Sex scandals have blighted the
international humanitarian aid sector on and off for more than 20 years. In
particular, sexual exploitation and abuse has been reported from almost every
area in which the UN operates.
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, aid giving and authority personnel. It also suggests additional
training for the staff on prevention and response to the assaults, but in
practice few suggestions are in effect.
Nevertheless, years after the Resolution, the problem still exists in the camps.
Sexual Violence Against Men And Boys
Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) has released the study: ’More Than One Million
Pains: Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys on the Central Mediterranean Route
to Italy, broadening the scope and seeking to fill the gap of research on
sexual abuse of men and boys that constitute 87.5 per cent of the refugees and
migrants who entered Italy through the central Mediterranean route.
The research conducted in Rome and Sicily include interviews with humanitarian
personnel, service providers, guardians as well as refugees and migrants reveals
widespread sexual abuse and violence in Libya: Sexual violence is used for
extortion, subjugation, punishment, and entertainment, and frequently involves
elements of profound cruelty and psychological torture. Sexual victimization is
usually not a single event: findings suggest that refugees and migrants are
repeatedly exposed to multiple forms of sexual violence by a variety of
perpetrators in contexts of impunity.
While females remain the primary victims of sexual violence in refugee camps,
the rape and sexual abuse of male detainees by the aid givers, authorities and
others is more widespread than commonly understood, representing not just a
serious violation of human rights but another powerful disincentive for refugees
Everyone knows about rape in detention. When someone returns from interrogation
bleeding from behind, you know exactly what just happened. Sexual violence
against men is rife in Syria.
Although limited research on sexual violence against males in these camps has
been done, in areas where it has been undertaken, sexual violence against men
and boy refugees has been known as ‘regular and unexceptional, pervasive and
widespread’. For example, in certain conflict-affected regions of the DRC
(Democratic Republic of Congo) a survey, population based, learned that 23.5% of
men experienced sexual assault.
One of the main striking elements about the accounts on wartime sexual abuse
against men is that the stories seldom come from the survivors. Even people who
have recovered from their injuries are not only unwilling to share their stories
but also in denial of the gendered and sexual nature of the abuse and torture.
This is the case in all such scenarios due to the strong taboo surrounding
sexual violence and moreover, sexual violence against men. Even the agreements
and the conventions for peace emphasise mainly on women who are victims of such
abuse but are almost ignorant to the men that fall prey to such violent torture
Sexual Violence- Beyond Gender
Sexual assault, violence of any kind against one’s body is heinous and
unacceptable. It is a direct violation of basic Human Rights which are entitled
to all people irrespective of gender, citizenship, refugee status or any other
factor that may be found. No individual must go through such violating acts
against his/her own body. As a student of Feminist Jurisprudence, I deeply
understand the need for equality and the adverse effects of discrimination,
especially on the basis of sex. Refugees all over the world are victims of
exploitation and sexual violence; men, women and children alike. When the
peacekeepers and saviours themselves turn into monsters that strip you off your
dignity and rights, where does one go?
Who is the next person that these helpless men and women must trust?
International Humanitarian Law even today does not have adequate specific
provisions that are enforced to curb this issue faced by refugees globally.
The laws and rules that are available are poorly executed as there is no place
for the complaint to reach.
Such blatant disregard and ignorance towards such a grave and heinous crime is
simple unacceptable and must change.
One of the major successes of International Feminism in the 1990s was to
transform the human rights discourse to a gender-neutral one. Human rights are
also Women’s rights.
Women face sexual violence on a daily basis everywhere in the world and so do
men! Gender neutrality and Equality beyond gender, race and creed is the way
forward to a peaceful existence in this world.
Access To Justice
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.
In the case of sexual assault, it is important to react carefully and enable
access to justice, legal remedies and reparation. However, women and men in
camps have fewer chances to access justice. However, 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. It is to be kept 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 counselling 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
The implementation of these rules is important beyond measure. The law and the
legal system exists so as to eradicate such inhumane activities and ensure
equality prevails. The people who are helpless are the ones who need the helping
hands of Law the most. Unfortunately, they are the farthest from it.
The presence of such crimes and the fact that millions of men, women and
children are, even today, victims to these crimes is a miserable failure on the
part of law and on the part of us as citizens of this world.
- Convention and protocol relating to the status of Refugees, Geneva,
Switzerland. UNHCR, 1967.
- World Health Organization. Guidelines for Medico-Legal Care for Victims
of Sexual Violence. WHO Press; Geneva, Switzerland, 2003
- Sexual and Reproductive Health Sexual Violence. [(accessed last on 24
- WHO Guidelines for Medico-legal care for victims of Violence, 2003.
- Sexual and Reproductive Health, Sexual Violence, WHO
- Keygnaert I. Sexual Violence and Sexual Health in Refugees, Asylum
Seekers and Undocumented Migrants in Europe and the European Neighborhood:
Determinants and Desirable Prevention. Ghent University; Gent, Belgium,
- Marija Obradovic, Protecting Female Refugees against Sexual and
Gender-based Violence in Camps, United Nations University, 2015
- Female refugees face physical assault, exploitation and sexual
harassment on their journey through Europe’ (Amnesty International, 18
- WITW staff, Women in South Sudanese refugee camps face rape on a daily
basis, ‘I’d rather starve’, 2018
- Sexual Violence against males in Syria’, Reportage, 11 March, 2019
- Marija Obradovic, Protecting Female Refugees against Sexual and
Gender-based Violence in Camps, United Nations University, 2015