Violence against Female Environmental Refugees

Created July 2009

Environmental refugees are people who have been internally or externally displaced for environmental reasons, such as natural disasters, drought, or famine. In an environmental crisis situation, female refugees are particularly vulnerable to violence. From: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons (2003) (PDF, 168 pages). 

 

According to a 2003 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), women and girls may experience violence at any stage in the refugee cycle. These stages include: during conflict or natural disaster (prior to flight), during flight, in the country of asylum (or refugee camps if internally displaced), during repatriation, and during reintegration. The kinds of violence women refugees may experience include domestic violence, sexual assault, abduction, trafficking, and murder. Perpetrators may be family members, other refugees, armed forces, and aid workers.

In South Asia, on 26 December 2004, a devastating environmental crisis occurred.  A powerful tsunami was triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that occurred in the Indian ocean. The tsunami completely washed over small islands and flooded thousands of miles of shoreline in South Asian countries such as Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand. Four East African countries were also affected to a lesser extent.

In a 2006 statement, Senior Adviser to the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement Roberta Cohen reported that the tsunami “...affected 12 countries plus the nationals of many more, and left enormous devastation in its wake – more than 230,000 killed or missing, 2 million persons internally displaced, and the destruction of large swaths of land and property. Further, the United Nations reported that 430,000 homes were swept away, 5,000 miles of coastline devastated, 2,000 miles of road ruined, and 100,000 fishing boats damaged or destroyed.” More than 300,000 people died as a result of the tsunami.  From: the report of the United Nations Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.

Women were disproportionately affected by the earthquake and tsunami. In Indonesia, the death toll was over 100,000, and three women died for every one man. From: Roberta Cohen's 2006 statement. In India and Sri Lanka, many more women died than men. This may have been because women have less mobility when they have elderly relatives and children in their care. Also, in Sri Lanka, girls are not taught to swim and climb trees, which is how many boys and men survived the tsunami. Finally, the tsunami hit at the time many women traditionally took their baths in the sea.  From:  Oxfam International, Oxfam briefing note, "The Tsunami's Impact on Women," (March 2005) (PDF, 14 pages).

 

Another example of an environmental crisis occurred in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Katrina came ashore just east of New Orleans in the state of Louisiana, early in the morning on 29 August 2005. The city was flooded after the hurricane due to breaks in the city's floodwall system. The hurricane destroyed over 500,000 houses and displaced more than half of New Orleans’ population. From: 2007 Journal of Public Management & Social Policy article. A White House report put the death toll at 1,330.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina and lasting well into the reconstruction phase, female environmental refugees (who were internally displaced persons or IDPs) experienced sexual assault and increased domestic violence. Victims included hurricane evacuees, NGO workers, and volunteers. Perpetrators were other IDPs and people taking advantage of the chaos, including acquaintances and family members of victims, as well as complete strangers.  From:  Thornton, William E. and Lydia Voigt, Disaster Rape: Vulnerability of Women to Sexual Assaults During Hurricane Katrina, 13 Journal of Public Management & Social Policy 23 (Fall 2007) (PDF, 27 pages).

Compiled from:

Cohen, Roberta, Measuring Indonesia’s Response to the Tsunami, Statement at Workshop on “One Year after the Tsunami: Public Perceptions and Policy” at Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C. (12 January 2006) (PDF, 10 pages).

Human Rights Watch, After the Deluge: India’s Reconstruction Following the 2004 Tsunami (25 May 2005) (HTML). See especially the subsection on Women and Girls within Section IV, Addressing the Needs of Vulnerable Populations.

Myers, Norman, Environmental Refugees: An Emergent Security Issue (13th Economic Forum, Prague) (22 May 2005) (PDF, 5 pages).

Oxfam International, Oxfam briefing note, "The Tsunami's Impact on Women," (March 2005) (PDF, 14 pages).

Thornton, William E. and Lydia Voigt, Disaster Rape: Vulnerability of Women to Sexual Assaults During Hurricane Katrina, 13 Journal of Public Management & Social Policy 23 (Fall 2007) (PDF, 27 pages).

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons (2003) (PDF, 168 pages).

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR), Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Issues in Focus: Natural Disasters and Internal Displacement (accessed 7 June 2009).

The White House, President George W. Bush Archives, The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned (HTML) (February 23, 2006) (or PDF, 228 pages).

Williams, Angela (lecturer), Turning the Tide: Recognizing Climate Change Refugees in International Law, 30 Law & Policy 502-529 (October 2008) (abstract only).