By Grace Bennett
In recent months, the international community has increasingly turned its focus towards the flood of refugees fleeing a Syria torn by civil war and violent extremism. The trauma of refugees is far from new, however, with thousands of refugees fleeing Syria as early as April 2011, and 19.5 million refugees reported worldwide at the end of 2014.
One may argue that Western concern is peaking due to the increasing implications of the refugee crisis for Western countries. Western European states especially have seen an influx of asylum seekers, and have been forced to grapple with complex questions of how to greet refugees, how any state can deal with such an influx of downtrodden people, and whether the Schengen Agreement (which created open borders in Europe) is compatible with modern day realities. Few could doubt the importance of finding meaningful answers to these questions. However, in our readiness to help those who’ve arrived in Western states, we must not forget about the millions of people who remain in refugee camps, with little to no chance of escape or migration. Refugee camps present any number of intricate and vexing questions, and it falls on the international community to find sympathetic and meaningful answers. One such question, which deserves all our attention, is how to combat sex and gender based violence in refugee camps.
Sex and gender based violence (SGBV) includes, but isn’t limited to, domestic violence, early or forced marriage, and sexual violence. Unfortunately, refugee camps tend to provide a particular combination of instability, physical and emotional turmoil, and psychological stress as to encourage an especially high level of all three of these forms of SGBV.
Aid organizations often have a difficult time gauging the precise prevalence of sex and gender based violence in refugee camps due to the dual demons of the stigma and instability. In the chaotic and unclear conditions inspired by refugee camps, it is often difficult to complete meaningful or comprehensive studies or assessments. Additionally, there frequently exists an immense stigma on survivors of sex or gender based violence, which discourages them from talking about their experiences.
The information that is available, however, paints a harrowing picture of situation for many refugees. In 2009, the Vulnerable Women’s Project found that female refugees are more affected by violence than any other population of woman in the world. Focus groups run by the International Rescue Committee in 2012 reported that rape and sexual violence are among the most frequently faced forms of violence for woman and girls. Additionally, these groups spoke to the role of stigma in silencing their stories, explaining that women “risk further physical and sexual violence, including death, often from their own families, when reporting GBV (gender based violence)”. Even when women (or men, or boys, who face an equal if not worse stigma) are ready to seek assistance, however, it is often unclear where they should turn. Refugees are in a unique situation of having been ripped out of the social structure to which they’ve grown accustomed to, and placed into a system of instability and insecurity. Traditional systems of aid, including recourses and community support likely no longer exist in the same format, and it can difficult and psychologically burdensome for women to attempt to navigate refugee camp structures to find someone with the willingness and ability to help.
The necessity of combatting SGBV in refugee communities should not need to be stressed. Refugee camps, by definition, house some of the world’s more vulnerable people. In order to aid these people in rebuilding their lives, and protecting their families, refugee camps must be be able to protect them from all forms of violence, especially SGBV, which has markedly long-term physical, psychological, and emotional effects. The UNHRC, as well as other NGOs and organizations, continues to place a great of emphasis on ending SGBV worldwide and has encouraged progress in a number of ways, including encouraging women to report crimes, enhancing support mechanisms for refugee health and well-being, and increasing the level of protection for women in times of conflict. One of the most important aspects, however, involves convincing victims of SGBV that the international community will stand behind them. As we continue to address refugee crises across the globe, the international community must remain committed to the needs of refugees at every step of their journey.