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Sexual Abuse Of Refugees

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 happens everywhere.

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 to return.

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 and abuse.

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 crisis.

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.


  1. Convention and protocol relating to the status of Refugees, Geneva, Switzerland. UNHCR, 1967.
  2. World Health Organization. Guidelines for Medico-Legal Care for Victims of Sexual Violence. WHO Press; Geneva, Switzerland, 2003
  3. Sexual and Reproductive Health Sexual Violence. [(accessed last on 24 April, 2019)];
  4. WHO Guidelines for Medico-legal care for victims of Violence, 2003.
  5. Sexual and Reproductive Health, Sexual Violence, WHO
  6. 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, 2014.
  7. Marija Obradovic, Protecting Female Refugees against Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Camps, United Nations University, 2015
  8. Female refugees face physical assault, exploitation and sexual harassment on their journey through Europe� (Amnesty International, 18 January, 2016)
  9. WITW staff, Women in South Sudanese refugee camps face rape on a daily basis, �I�d rather starve�, 2018
  10. Sexual Violence against males in Syria�, Reportage, 11 March, 2019
  11. Marija Obradovic, Protecting Female Refugees against Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Camps, United Nations University, 2015

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