Sexual Assault Against Refugees

Last updated June 2019

A women’s refugee status can make her more vulnerable to sexual assault and sexual violence in many ways. 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. While 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 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.

When fleeing, the threat of sexual violence “is exacerbated in humanitarian emergencies where vulnerability and risks are high, yet family and community protections have broken down.”[1] These harms are so pervasive that some women take steps to mitigate the high risks they expect to face. For example, when interviewing women fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) heard from multiple women that “they sought out birth control injections or pills before fleeing ‘so that if you are raped, you will not end up pregnant. And you will only have the trauma of the event, but not a baby in the future from the rape.’”[2]

If a women or girl is sexual assaulted prior to or while fleeing, she may not be able to obtain gender-sensitive care at various transit points. When asked about the lack of resources for refugee victims of sexual assault, government officials told the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) that they lacked both the capacity to provide such services and the facetime with refugees to do so. Regardless, WRC holds:

[C]linical care for survivors of sexual violence in transit sites, GBV experts deployed along the route, dedicated safe spaces for women and girls, referral mechanisms in place and cross border case management would provide women and girls with a more realistic opportunity to come forward and access care, regardless of their sense of urgency to reach their destination.[3]

The dangers to refugee women continue after arriving at camps. In regards to single women, the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has found that “lack of simple security measures, such as locks on doors or lights near latrines, creates serious protection problems for single women in camps.”[4] Additionally, women reported to the UNHCR that they had been sexually assaulted in public spaces, including while traveling to obtain firewood, water, and goods from marketplaces.[5] Unfortunately, women are often unable to access complaint mechanisms or other services due to an overall lack of resources.[6]

The situation of Rohingya women and girls in both Myanmar and Bangladesh provides a clear example of the sexual violence that female refugees encounter. In a report on the widespread violence—including sexual violence—against Rohingya individuals in Myanmar, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that women and girls were raped as they tried to flee their villages.[7] These women and girls have faced difficulties obtaining post-assault resources and aid once arriving in refugee camps, with HRW finding that “family members and mostly male camp leaders sometimes prevent women and girls from talking openly about rape…[and] the lack of privacy near tented health clinics in the camp had dissuaded [women] from seeking help.”[8] Additionally, researchers have found that violence against women and girls—including sexual violence—has increased within the camps, exacerbated by “economic pressures, cramped living conditions, male frustration at lack of livelihood opportunities, and lack of legal structure.”[9]

Further, it is important to note that violence against refugee women arises from preexisting subordinating attitudes and discrimination. In an experts’ report prepared for the United Nations in 2002, Elisabeth Rehn and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf note that the violence women experience during armed conflict “does not arise solely out of the conditions of war; it is directly related to the violence that exists in women’s lives during peacetime. Throughout the world, women experience violence because they are women, and often because they do not have the same rights or autonomy that men do.”[10] For example, in studying the conflict in Liberia, The Advocates found that discrimination in law and practice, patriarchal attitudes, polygamous family structures, and the abuse of power have acted as subordinating factors for Liberian women. As a result, women’s human rights violations in Liberia long predated the conflict and contributed to the disposition toward widespread use of violence against women during the war.

In an effort to address these harms, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has created the Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Actions.[11] The IASC urges all humanitarian actors responding to an emergency to assume that violence against women takes place from the outset and respond accordingly, rather than waiting for data and reports.[12] The Guidelines further detail the responsibilities of different key actors, delineating obligations by element—monitoring, implementation, etc.-–prior to and during emergencies.[13]


[1] Call to Action on Protection from GBV in Emergencies, Road Map 2016–2020 6 (2015).

[2] UNHRC, Women on the Run: First-Hand Accounts of Refugees Fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico 44 (2015).

[3] Marcy Hersh & Katharina Obser, Women’s Refugee Commission, No Safety for Refugee Women on the European Route: Report from the Balkans 9 (2016).

[4] UNHCR, Survivors, Protectors, Providers: Refugee Women Speak Out 13 (2011).

[5] Id. at 16.

[6] Id. at 18.

[7] Skye Wheeler, Human Rights Watch, “All My Body was Pain”: Sexual Violence against Rohingya Women and Girls in Burma 18–19 (2017).

[8] Id. at 34.

[9] Md. Arif Al Mamun, Nicola Bailey, Moiyedul Azam Koreshi, & Fariha Rahman, BBC Media Action, Violence against Women within the Rohingya Community: Prevalence, Reasons and Implications for Communication 4 (2018).

[10] Elisabeth Rehn & Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Women, War and Peace: The Independent Experts’ Assessment on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women and Women’s Role in Peace-Building 13 (2002)

[11] Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Guidelines for Integrating Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Reducing Risk, Promoting Resilience and Aiding Recovery (2015).

[12] Id. at 2.

[13] Id. at 18–27.