Causes and Risk Factors

Created July 2009

Causes of violence against female environmental refugees

Violence against female environmental refugees has similar causes and risk factors to the violence women experience as other kinds of refugees, such as conflict refugees. As with other forms of violence against women, the root cause is the subordinate status of women in society, which allows perpetrators to take advantage of women’s extreme vulnerability in these situations with impunity.

Although environmental refugees are displaced by environmental crises and conflict refugees are displaced by armed conflict, the refugee cycle remains the same.  The following are useful classifications for causes and risk factors for violence against women and girls in the general refugee context.

Sexual and gender-based violence during the refugee cycle

During conflict, Prior to flight

- Abuse by persons in power; sexual bartering of women; sexual assault, rape, abduction by armed members of parties in conflict, including security forces; mass rape and forced pregnancies.

During flight

- Sexual attack by bandits, border guards, pirates; capture for trafficking by smugglers, slave traders.

In the country of asylum

- Sexual attack, coercion, extortion by persons in authority; sexual abuse of separated children in foster care; domestic violence; sexual assault when in transit facilities, collecting wood, water, etc.; sex for survival/forced prostitution; sexual exploitation of persons seeking legal status in asylum country or access to assistance and resources, resumption of harmful traditional practices.

During repatriation

- Sexual abuse of women and children who have been separated from their families; sexual abuse by persons in power; sexual attacks, rape by bandits, border guards, forced/coerced repatriation.

During reintegration

- Sexual abuse against returnees as a form of retribution; sexual extortion in order to regularize legal status, exclusion from decision-making processes; denial of or obstructed access to resources, right to individual documentation and right to recover/own property.

Risk factors for violence against female environmental refugees

Refugee, returnee and internally displaced situations 

- Collapse of social and family support structures

- Geographical location and local environment (high crime area)

- Design and social structure of camp (overcrowded, multi-household dwellings, communal shelter

- Design of services and facilities

- Predominantly male camp leadership, gender-biased decisions

- Unavailability of food, fuel, income generation, leading to movement in isolated areas

- Lack of police protection

- Lack of UNHCR/NGO presence in camp

- Lack of security patrols

- Security patrols which do not enforce safety for women and accountability for perpetrators

- Lack of individual registration and identity cards

- Hostility of local population (refugees are considered to be materially privileged)

- Alcohol, drug use/abuse

- Psychological trauma and stress of conflict, flight, displacement

- Disrupted roles within family and community

- Ignorance/lack of knowledge of individual rights enshrined under national and international law

Social norms and culture

- Discriminatory cultural and traditional beliefs and practices

- Religious beliefs

Legal framework and practices in host country and/or country of origin

- Condoning sexual and gender-based violence

- Lack of legal protection for women’s and children’s rights

- Lack of laws against sexual and gender-based violence

- Lack of trust in the law enforcement authorities

- Application of customary and traditional laws and practices that enforce gender discrimination

- General insensitivity and lack of advocacy campaigns condemning and denouncing sexual and gender-based violence

- Discriminatory practice in justice administration and law enforcement

- Under-reporting of incidents and lack of confidence in the administration of justice

- Lack of willingness to effectively prosecute all cases reported to authorities

- Low number of prosecutions obtained in proportion to the number of cases reported

- Police and courts inaccessible because of remote location of camp

- Absence of female law enforcement officers

- Lack of administrative resources and equipment by local courts and security officials

- Laws or practices in the administration of justice that support gender

Compiled from:

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