Sexual Assault Against Refugees
last updated February 1, 2006

As refugees, women are vulnerable to sexual assault and sexual violence—as well as other forms of violence against women—in many ways. The legal definition of "refugee" is a person who flees his or her country of origin because he or she fears persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This section, however, will use a broader definition of "refugees" as people who have fled their country of origin to escape not only persecution but also events such as, for example, armed conflict and natural disasters. Refugee women may be victims of sexual assault perpetrated during their flight, while in a refugee camp in the host country, and during and on their return to their home countries.

During their flight, women refugees may be assaulted by the military, by gangs, or by other refugees. Women are vulnerable during their flight not only because they lack community supports and infrastructure, but also because they may be required to travel through unsafe areas. As the Special Rapporteur has explained:

Refugee women and girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual attacks whilst in flight. There are reports of gang-rape, forced 'marriages' and sexual mutilation by bandits, members of armed groups or fellow refugees. The need to cross military lines or areas affected by anarchy or civil war in order to reach safety puts women and girls in especially perilous circumstances as they are at great risk of being subjected to sexual exploitation in return for passage to safety, the grant of refugee status, or legal documentation.

From 1998 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1998/54) (26 January 1998).

Women may also be vulnerable to border guards, who may detain and abuse them, or smugglers and pirates, who may exort sex in exchange for safe passage. From United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sexual Violence against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response (1995).

Refugee women are also vulnerable to sexual assault in the host country. As Human Rights Watch explained in investigating abuse against refugees in Tanzania: "[L]ocal residents, military and immigration officials, and police, often view refugee women as easy targets for assault. Fellow refugees also target refugee women for sexual violence. From Human Rights Watch, Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania's Refugee Camps (October 2000).

Women may be particularly vulnerable to sexual assault and sexual violence because of the conditions of dependency that are often created in refugee camps. Refugees, particularly women, are likely to be dependent on others for food or assistance. This dependency renders them vulnerable to demands for sexual access in exchange for such assistance. When "there is no opportunity for work in the camp, or where camp administrative systems do not ensure that women receive their rations, the difficulty of meeting basic subsistence needs often leads women or girls to prostitute themselves in exchange for food, shelter and protection." From 1998 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1998/54) (26 January 1998).

Precisely because of the danger associated with dependency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recommends that women should be given their own documentation. Without documentation, women may "find it impossible to obtain international assistance or work authorization . . . and may turn to prostitution or other illegal pursuits to feed herself and her family." From Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women 23, 41 (July 1991).

Political and ethnic disputes may continue in camps, and refugee women may be raped "because of their actual or perceived political or ethnic affiliations." From Human Rights Watch, Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania's Refugee Camps (October 2000).

Refugee women may be vulnerable to sexual violence because of the design and layout of the camp. As the Special Rapporteur has explained, "[o]ccasions and opportunities for rape are frequent in refugee camps." The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has, for example, identified a number of camp layout and design issues that can increase the risk of sexual assault: "Communal latrines and washing facilities may be at some distance from the living quarters, thereby increasing the potential for attacks on women, especially at night. Most camps are not lit. Night patrols to ensure greater protection may be absent or infrequent." Similarly, firewood or water may be located at a distance from the camp, thus forcing women to leave the protection of the camp and walk long distances through areas that may not be secure. Overcrowding of the camp can also contribute to women's vulnerability. Overcrowding may result in unrelated families being required to live together, thus putting single women living with an unrelated family at risk of sexual exploitation.

Because of the dangers posed to refugee women by camp design, layout and security, the Special Rapporteur and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recommend the institution of preventative measures to increase women's safety in camps. The Special Rapporteur, for example, has noted that

[p]reventative measure such as lighting the passageways to toilets and washrooms, building male and female toilet blocks in separate areas (so that women and girls do not risk going to the forest for privacy), building separate wash areas for women, and changing the layout of the camp would make life more secure for the female population.
From 1998 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1998/54), 26 January 1998; Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women, 11 (July 1991). The location of the camp, as well, can contribute to women's vulnerability. Often, camps are located in areas in which armed conflict is occurring. Camps may be attacked; these attacks "often involve the rape and abuse of women." As the Special Rapporteur explains further, "[s]oldiers are known to have kidnapped refugee children and demanded sex from their mothers as a ransom for their return." From 1998 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Alternative Approaches and Ways and Means Within the United Nations System for Improving the Effective Enjoyment of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (E/CN.4/1998/54) (26 January 1998). Altered social networks can also undermine women's safety. Women may be particularly at risk of sexual violence when they have been separated from their family or because of armed conflict. The traditional mechanisms through which women participated in a society may be absent in a refugee situation. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women, 14 (July 1991). Family structures and traditional behavioral norms
which could otherwise be a basis of stability and protection, are often radically altered in refugee situations. Separation from or loss of members of the family results in female-headed households in which the women are often dependent on external support structures and consequently more vulnerable to exploitation.
From Dorothy Q. Thomas & Robin S. Levi, Common Abuses Against Women, in 1 Women and International Human Rights Law 139, 215 (Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig eds. 1999); Joan Fitzpatrick, International Norms and Violence Against Women, in Women's Human Rights, 532, 549 (Rebecca J. Cook ed., 1994). Reporting of sexual assaults in refugee camps is rare. As is true with any sexual assault,
[t]he strong cultural stigma attached to rape further intensifies the rape victims' physical and psychological trauma. Women in refugee camps and those who are internally displaced who acknowledge being raped may be ostracized, or even punished, by their families. As a result, women survivors of sexual violence often are reluctant to seek medical assistance or to file police reports because they do not want it known that they were raped."

From Human Rights Watch, Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania's Refugee Camps (October 2000). In addition, camps may offer little recourse to justice or accountability for assailants, and "those charged with responsibility for administering it may themselves be implicated in the abuse." Thus, even when women do report instances of sexual assault, "effective responses may not be forthcoming, since international humanitarian organizations, as well as countries of asylum, often ignore or are not adequately trained and equipped to handle reports of rape and other sexual crimes." From Human Rights Watch, Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania's Refugee Camps (October 2000).

Finally, female refugees are also vulnerable to sexual violence during repatriation and reintegration. Population movements may separate women from traditional support networks, or women may be targeted by the government or others within the community for having fled. Without identification cards, women remain vulnerable to sexual extortion during these return and reintegration phases. From United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sexual Violence against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response (1995). In recent years there have been a number of efforts to strengthen the protections offered to refugee women. As discussed further in Sexual Assault: Law and Policy, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued guidelines concerning the protection of refugee women and the prevention of and response to sexual violence against refugee women. From United Nations Department of Public Information, Women and Armed Conflict: Fact Sheet No. 5 (DPI/2035/E) (May 2000).

The World Health Organization also recommends that staff be educated about sexual violence, and UNHCR emphasizes the importance of documenting cases of violence and providing effective medical care and other support services to victims. UNHCR also recommends that refugee women be involved in the creation and implementation of programs that will affect them. From World Health Organization, First World Report on Violence and Health 171 (2002); Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women 11 (July 1991). In May 2003, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees issued revised guidelines on preventing and responding to violence against refugee women. Guidelines for Prevention and Response Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons provides recommendations for the prevention of violence against refugee women, for responding to the health, medical, security, safety needs of victims, for establishing a legal or justice system response to violence against refugee women, and for creating and implementing monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to ensure the accountability of the system. The Guidelines include a UNHCR Code of Conduct in Appendix 1.

In addressing sexual violence against refugee women, it is important to integrate services and support for women who have been sexually assaulted into programs that are offered to all refugees. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees explains, "[e]xperience has shown that a 'problem of association' may result if one specific person is tasked to work only with victims of sexual violence. Anyone coming to see this person might be branded as a 'rape victim' and stigmatized." For example, assistance for victims of sexual violence might be housed within a women's health clinic, although "care should be taken not to set up such groups merely as 'cover' for detecting sexual violence." From United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sexual Violence against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response (1995). As Julie Mertus explains, efforts by humanitarian groups to set up centers in Bosnia to provide assistance to "raped women" failed because "[w]omen refused to identify themselves by that single criterion. Doing so would open themselves up to criticism and shame within their own communities, affecting prospects for further marriage and family life. So instead many women preferred to remain silent, complicating the efforts of protection officers to document persecution." From Julie A. Mertus, War's Offensive on Women: The Humanitarian Challenge in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan 28 (2000).

For a collection of research and reports on sexual assault against women refugees, click here.