The Gendered Security of the Refugee Journey
June 3, 2021
The Gendered Security of the Refugee Journey
Thank you to UEA and the Sanctuary University team for inviting me to give my talk today. Norwich has always been a Sanctuary City: 1556 saw the coming of the so-called ‘strangers’, religious refugees fleeing Protestant persecution by the Catholic monarchy in Belgium and the Netherlands, which became, by 1685, an influx of over 4,000 Flemish refugees who greatly contributed to the community of Norfolk weavers.
I have entitled my talk ‘The Gendered Security of the Refugee Journey’, very much to look at the gendered aspects of the migratory journey and status of a refugee.I am dividing my talk into 3 sections: the first looking at the originating country and lack of security in that country; secondly, the situation in refugee camps; and thirdly, the host or receiving country, the rule of law and rights for refugees. But first, let’s look at the statistics and definitions.
The movement of refugees and displaced people has been described as a crisis. The number of people being driven from their homes by conflict or oppression is estimated to be 1 in every 113 people in the world. The sheer number of people would add up to a country the size of the UK. It is estimated that 79.5 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2019, and of that number, 26 million were refugees.
The UN Refugee Convention was ratified in 1951, creating a legal definition of a refugee as someone who is outside their country of nationality due to a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’.This was followed in 1967 with its Protocol. There is no reference to gender,losing sight of the fact that men and women experience refuge differently, but is based on a male paradigm with an androcentric framework.Criticism of the lack of attention to women in refugee policies, led to a change in the 1990s to include women’s protection as a key component of refugee protection and to mainstream ‘gender’.UNHCR’s subsequent Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women and more recent Handbook for Protection of Women and Girls reiterated that CEDAW (Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women) and other human rights instruments ‘provide a framework of international human rights standards for providing protection and assistance to refugee women’. In practice, achieving protection for refugee women, particularly where gender inequality is a barrier, has been much more difficult.
Aid agencies have had a tendency to conflate gender and women. Often women are treated as especially vulnerable and therefore have priority in distribution of aid,whereas men are left out. The very effect of this has a bearing on gender relations. The consequences on relationships that are based on the man being the breadwinner and decision-maker, can often lead to violence. A dominant narrative amongst women’s groups that I have found in my work with SecurityWomen, is that women are considered naturally more peaceable and, in strategies to prevent conflict, there is a major push to support women’s grassroots peacebuilding activity. The men are regarded as potential ‘fighters’,no matter what side they are on or whether neutral, and so policing and peacekeeping which globally is almost wholly male-dominated, is left out of the equation, just not mentioned. We are left with a gap in how civil society joins the dots on preventing violence, ensuring a secure and safe environment for all, and accessing a justice chain which leads to effective and equitable justice for everyone.
UN peacekeeping has not had the rosiest of reviews of its work in the past and has been mired in scandal around sexual exploitation and abuse. The concept of peacekeeping though is a good one, and when it comes to refugees, it is a matter of keeping them safe and secure until such time when they might be able to return home. It is recognised that displaced people will, more often than not, choose to go back to their country of origin if at all possible, and voluntary repatriation remains the most durable of solutions. An example a couple of years ago, was the return of 12,000 refugees from a camp in Ethiopia back to South Sudan.UNMISS, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan enabled the return of the refugees and set up a new peacekeeping base to provide a protective presence for the people resettling.
Regarding the definition of a refugee, another has been added recently, that of climate refugee. Not only is climate change making parts of the world uninhabitable with resultant movement of people, but climate change is increasingly seen as a potential driver of conflict. This adds to the blurring of differentials between refugees and economic migrants: often the reasons for movement and the distinction between forced and voluntary displacement, political versus economic, is unclear.And what of those people who are trafficked or enslaved at some stage along their journey? Today, I am focusing on the category of people who are fleeing war-torn neighbourhoods and/or may be facing persecution for their beliefs and are fearful of their lives and safety.
Firstly, I turn our attention to the originating country:
There are many countries mired in conflict – Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Tigray in Ethiopia – to name a few. There is violence, destruction and fighting. Women and children are disproportionately affected in conflict situations where micro-aggressions and domestic abuses flourish. Often, these are deeply gender unequal societies, and research has shown that where gender inequality is greatest, there is more likelihood of conflict and violence. It’s a catch 22 situation… gender inequality leads to violence, and more violence leads to greater inequality, yet to bring about a peaceful and non-violent existence, we need gender equality. Higher levels of violence and the outbreak of conflict often lead to cases of sexual violence and abuse towards women and girls. In the Bosnian-Herzegovina war, it is reckoned that some 50,000 women and girls were raped in the conflict between 1992 and 1995. Today,the same thing is happening in Tigray in Ethiopia, where sexual violence has created ‘unimaginable’ terror, according to a report by the UK’s International Development Select Committee.Rape in the context of war is not ‘just’ sexual violence: it is an act of hate and an exercise of power. Rapists depersonalize their victims and see it as aright and a weapon of war.Many survivors are too scared to report sexual assault or seek treatment due to stigma and fear of reprisal. According to the International Rescue Committee,women in Tigray are having to engage in sexually exploitative relationships,receiving small amounts of money, food and/or shelter to survive and feed their children. And it does not stop there. When linked to displacement, adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable, and at risk of forced or early marriage. Nearly half of all displaced people are children.
The forthcoming withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is likely to spark bloody reprisals and a surge in migration. Tensions have been rising and more deadly violence is in evidence. Only last weekend, a car bomb was detonated close to a girls’ school in the marginal Hazara Shia Muslim district of Kabul, followed by two more bombs nearby. Over 80 people are reported killed and 147 injured.Pictures of girls’ shoes, notebooks and other school equipment noticeable in the scenes of devastation on our screens. It was no mistake that girls’education was targeted, and in a Shia Muslim area. Western countries will be under pressure to accept refugees from Afghanistan at risk of their lives.
In reading accounts of Dr Ulrike Krause’s research in 2014 about people fleeing violence into Uganda,she retells the different forms of physical violence both men and women experience, and how these are gender specific. Whilst men often were confronted with forced military or rebel recruitment, women were mainly victims of sexual violence and abuse, including rape and gang rape. It should be mentioned here that men too experienced rape but less commonly, and it was particularly under-reported because of the stigma associated with it. Violence not only initiated the flight to safer places, but violence continued to be a challenge and security risk on the refugee journey.
Conflict throws up many disruptions to family life, and life can change in often unexpected ways. Displacement exacerbates disruption to gender relations. The context and nature of the conflict, whether tribal, religion based or dispute over territory, will have a bearing on the gendered outcomes, and of course depends on the nature of gender relations before conflict. There may be an increase in female headed households, with women taking up non-traditional roles and tasks,or it might be that women, who once had well paid and responsible jobs, now find themselves at home caring for members of the family. Men may be called upon to enlist to fight, and sons may become the default male patriarch,determining decisions impacting on their sisters and mother, as has been the case for many Syrian families.
Until such conflict countries are stabilised with adequate protection and security infrastructure, there will continue to be movement of people. And of course there is a need for all the other elements required for human security such as healthcare, housing and education.The limited treatment of cases of abuse, the ineffective punishments of perpetrators and hence the lack of law enforcement, leads to further use of violence. Of course, what is needed are proper justice systems, effective accountability and professional rule of law which takes into account gendered differences and acts upon them. Security sector reform is often not top of the list of actions prioritised because all too often people see the destabilising effect of security forces, rather than their essential stabilising potential. And women need to be equal partners in the decision-making right from the very beginning of any security reform. Reflected in the statistics, one can see the larger the migration, the more hostile the host country.
I would like to dwell momentarily on the situation in Latin American countries. In 2015, UNHCR produced a report entitled ‘Women on the Run’ which emphasised women’s multiple risk factors in South American countries, including threats by criminal armed groups, domestic violence,rape and extortion. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras rank first, third, and seventh, respectively,for rates of female homicides globally.All three countries have passed legislation addressing violence against women,yet, the women interviewed for the report, consistently stated that police and other state law enforcement authorities were not able to provide them sufficient protection from the violence. More than two-thirds tried to find safety by fleeing elsewhere in their own country, but said this did not ultimately help.
The UNHCR report talks of tens of thousands of women – travelling alone or together with their children or other family members – ‘fleeing a surging tide of violence’ in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico.It goes on to say that for most women fleeing to safety is ‘a journey through hell’. ‘After paying exorbitant fees to unscrupulous“coyotes” (people smugglers), many women are beaten, raped, and too often killed along the way’. The previous US Attorney General issued decisions that made it extremely difficult for women fleeing gender-based violence or teenagers fleeing gang violence to be granted asylum in the United States. And yet, we probably have an image of unaccompanied minors in their hundreds gathering at the US border.
Turning to the situation with refugee camps:
It is estimated that out of 25 million refugees and asylum seekers who have fled across borders to escape conflict and persecution, only around 4 million are living in organised camps, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa.Most refugees live in cities, and the largest camps are cities in themselves.According to the World Bank (2017), 60% of all refugees live in urban areas,not camps.
The worst camps I can imagine, and not typical, are the Al-Hol camp and Camp Roj in North-eastern Syria where more than 60,000 men, women and children linked to Isis are detained. Most were captured after the last Isis stronghold in Syria fell in March 2019. The camps are run by the Kurds from Rojava, in what are desperate conditions.Although a few countries have repatriated a few nationals, there is no established legal process to determine guilt or innocence, and 27, 000 of the 60,000 are children, mostly from Syria or Iraq, but around 8,000 from other countries, including the UK.
I mentioned earlier how men are subject to being forced into joining rebel armed groups, and there are a number of examples of how refugee camps are used as a source of such recruitment. One such case was in the Rwandan Hutu refugee camps in Zaire (now the DRC) where Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi,sourced refugee fighters and trained them. The extent to which the refugees are receptive to military activity, has its basis in the context of why they left their country in the first place. If they had been persecuted, this experience is called upon, and often exaggerated, by the rebel army to rally support to their cause and to taking military action.
It could be argued that the humanitarian aid going into the camp, is sustaining and protecting armed militants, and therefore, in effect, perpetuating conflict. An historic example of humanitarian aid sustaining war, was in Tanzania in the camps near the border with Burundi. Burundian Hutu rebel forces, from 1993 to 2005, perpetuated a brutal ethnic civil war in Burundi against the Tutsi dominated government. In 2002, there were 370,000 Hutu refugees living in camps near the Tanzanian-Burundian border, and the fighters would traverse the border, including child soldiers. In the meantime, humanitarian aid kept women and children housed and fed, and in effect enabled the civil war to continue.
Another example is in the largest, most permanent refugee camp in Eastern Kenya, Dadaab, ‘the City of Thorns’near the Somalia border. The vast majority of the inhabitants of the camp are women and childrenand the men come and go, often to fight back home in Somalia. Out of the 330,000 Somalis living in the camp, 100,000 have been born there. The Kenyan government has announced plans to close the camp, and also the Kakuma camp in the north-west, in 2022. Refugees from Somalia and South Sudan will be provided with the opportunity of a free work permit for them to integrate within Kenya or return home.Kenya has stated that the Dadaab refugee camp is a source of insecurity. Some officials have argued that it has been used as a recruiting ground for the jihadi rebels of al-Shabab and a base for launching violent attacks inside Kenya, although conclusive proof of this is not forthcoming.
According to international law, the refugee-receiving country is primarily responsible for ensuring the safety of the refugees and maintaining the civilian nature of the refugee-populated area as opposed to allowing a militarised existence to grow.This entails removing arms and preventing the flow of weapons into refugee areas, as well as protecting refugees from attack and intimidation.
There are places and times when women and girls are particularly vulnerable in camps in Africa, for instance, when collecting firewood, or en route to meeting points such as market places and water boreholes, or when going to school. A point made by David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, is that basic interventions can make a big difference.Lighting can be improved; locks put on latrines; food available in safe distribution areas. A study in the Dadaab refugee camp showed that rapes decreased by 45% during periods when houses were fully stocked with firewood,as opposed to women having to go and collect it and being unsafe getting there and back. Of course domestic spheres can be places of gender-based violence,and a public road can be a dangerous place for a woman to be walking along on her own. A woman’s perspective is often needed to identify potential dangers and suggest simple solutions. The lack of security frequently involves theabuse of power by camp guards, whose mistreatment of refugees, particularly women and girls, reflects their own illicit self-interest.How different might this be if the camps were to train women to be professional security guards? Or the subcontracted security company employed equal numbersof women? Or UN peacekeepers comprised equal numbers of women? Surely, women and girls in such localities would feel safer with female security personnel?
UNHCR issued a press release last year saying that refugee and displaced women were at greater risk from gender based violence even before Covid-19, but that the pandemic had heightened their vulnerability.Refugee women often lack access to public health facilities and other critical social services and are reliant on services available through NGOs and UN agencies. But Covid-19 forced many of those services to close and in camps from Kenya to Bangladesh, humanitarian workers were unable to visit refugees or organize prevention activities.
Gabriela Ferraz, an officer with UNHCR working on gender-based violence (GBV) in Kakuma refugee camp in North-western Kenya, related how they were unable to carry out their normal activities and were forced to start thinking of different ways of reaching people. Gabriela and her colleagues added a WhatsApp account to their hotline number so survivors isolated at home with their abusers could message privately with a social worker. They also organized a monthly radio show that airs on a community station widely listened to among refugees in the camp. Staff cover different topics relating to GBV each month and tell listeners how they can access services through helplines.
A process of adapting programmes on GBV, has occurred in different parts of the world where UNHCR operates. Often, this has involved a shift to online support groups and tele-counselling. In Lebanon, for example, GBV staff moved from running prevention sessions for refugee women in physical safe spaces, to running them online. Women receive internet data to allow them to participate in the online sessions, but there are other barriers to delivering services remotely. In Lebanon, often mobile phones are not in the hands of women and controlled by husbands or fathers, and there is the problem of varying levels of digital literacy.
Over a month ago, on 22 March 2021, a devastating fire broke out in three Rohingya refugee camps in Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar. The fire tore through camps numbered 8, 9 and 10, killing 15 refugees,injuring over 560 and leaving more than 17,000 households without shelter and in need of emergency supplies.The fire destroyed most of the shelters, latrines, healthcare centres and water points in Camp 9, and all of the women’s centres were also completely burnt to the ground.
Women, adolescent girls, and children were highly exposed to the risk of violence and abuse without adequate shelter and well-lit and safe latrines at night. Providing an abaya (an over-garment, like a cloak) is vitally important, as many women who lost their abaya in the fire will not go outside of their temporary shelters during the day to collect relief items and food, or access relief services such as health care. Women are also refraining from using latrines during the day and are only venturing out at night, putting themselves at increased risk of violence under the cover of darkness. This is reflective of the social and gender norms in the Rohingya culture, and an example of how insecurity is experienced differently for women and men.
Before moving on to my next section looking at ‘receiving or host countries’, I suggest that there are many questions to be answered: Are refugee settlements safe places for men, women, boys and girls? Do they provide enough security? Are security personnel adequately trained? And is the equal inclusion of women in security provision being considered? Further research, I would suggest, is needed urgently.
73% of refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries, and of those, 85% are developing countries. Europe has 11% of all refugees and the US just 1% (UNHCR 2016). Reliable data is critical to understand the impact of displacement. Sex disaggregated data is not always available but in the UNHCR report to the end of 2019, it is reported that globally, female refugees in the age group 18 – 49 were 2-4%lower than for men. In contrast, when looking at IDP figures, women’s movement is greater, for instance, 65% in Burundi and 57% in Sudan, and it is estimated that women constitute 52% of all IDPs.
In the US,during the Trump administration, the South West border was in effect closed to asylum seekers. It used to be that if a person showed membership of a social group that was being persecuted in their home country, they could claim asylum.It was the main way that women fleeing domestic violence, and young men fleeing criminal gangs from Central American countries could get asylum. The Trump administration sought to place restrictions on procedural rules and claims.
President Trump put pressure on Mexico to close its borders so that refugees could not travel through Mexico to the US border. A review is being undertaken by the Biden administration, and very recently, the US president raised the cap from 15,000 annually to 62,500, and it will go up to 125,000 next year. The Covid-19 pandemic hovers in the background. Asylum cooperative agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are also under review. Refugee admissions had been dramatically reduced, and, it is reported, community-based infrastructure that sustain refugee resettlement have been decimated,that is, the network of voluntary agencies, their community-based partners and state and local offices. President Biden has lifted restrictions on resettlements from Somalia, Syria and Yemen and provided more slots to arrivals from Africa and the Middle East, as well as Central America.
Biden has some tough choices to make – to let people in to make their claimsor come to an arrangement with Mexico to enforce the borders. In February,9,457 underage migrants were detained in the US which was a 60% increase on the month before. One area that could be improved greatly is in the handling of undocumented migrants.In a recent New School, New York, discussion, Associate Professor, Daniel Martinez, from the University of Arizona, talked about the US border agency (US Customs and Border Protection) as having an organisational culture that dehumanised displaced people. He stated that not only did it require more training for personnel, and for leadership to take responsibility, but in particular, more women and college educated graduates were needed.
The US has a Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in which the US identifies refugees overseas who are being persecuted, vets them, and brings to the US. Texas, Kentucky and Ohio in 2019 were among the top three states that received and resettled refugees. The top ‘sending’ country in 2018 was the Democratic Republic of Congo and nearly 8,000 refugees were resettled in the US that year. A recent research projectfocused on the experiences of Congolese women who were the majority of this group of refugees brought into the States, mainly from one refugee camp in Rwanda. They were found to have disproportionately experienced sexual and gender based violence, as well as poverty and food insecurity, which had led to stress and trauma disorders. Congolese refugee women, arriving in the US, are one of the most vulnerable groups. It was found that of particular concern to them was the lack of finances and unemployment. A comment from a 48 year old participant was as follows: ‘… coming here there is no camp, everywhere you go, you have to pay here and pay there. Getting money is a struggle because we don’t have jobs.’ In fact, out of 20 participants in a focus group, 18 were unemployed and had been resettled in the previous 4 years. Other concerns were related to their health, the well-being of their children and family separation.
It was recommended that entire families where possible should be resettled and reunited,and for resettlement agencies to work closely with Congolese refugee women to improve their job readiness skill set. This would include assistance with job placement, transportation to and from work, and English classes.
In Canada,the refugee system caters for people seeking protection from outside of Canada,and also from within. In 2018, Canada took in more refugees than any other country(28, 100). A notable element of the system, and the larger part, is that of private sponsorship of refugees, which can be groups of people, for instance,church groups, Rotary or private individuals, and this is in addition to the government assisted program. Under the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program, UNHCR identifies refugees and matches them to private sponsors.
In Australia, off-shore immigration processing centres were established, an idea that was recently considered by the Home Office in the UK. The policy is designed to deter immigrants from arriving by boat, and it is a political statement that no person, even refugees, who try to enter the country in this manner will be granted asylum.
In 2015, a report was published which reviewed allegations of rape and sex for favours of so-called ‘processes’ in a processing centre in Nauru. The Australian prime minister at the time, Tony Abbott, commented, ‘Occasionally, I daresay, things happen, because in any institution you get things that occasionally aren’t perfect’.What a damning verdict. Refugees in such places are in a highly dependent situation and particularly vulnerable due to their uprooted foreigner status.The allegation of violence against refugees and sexual abuse, including of children, led to the removal of the asylum seekers and refugees but the centre still exists today.All refugees, women, men, girls and boys all experience violence in the camp differently, and are affected by it, differently.
The security on the island was outsourced. Wilson Security was present from 2012 and probably,the security was almost all-male. I would like to pose to you, that the sexual abuse of refugees would have been less likely to happen and some of the other inhumane practices if the security personnel had been diverse and included women as equals. In 2019, Wilson Security reached a settlement with one of the refugees who was abused: they were being sued for failing to address the problem of inappropriate sexual behaviour by its staff and failing to take adequate action with respect to the safety of women from sexual assault.
The breakdown statistics available today in staff ratios at Wilson Security are not untypical at 88% male: 12% female.
In the UK,the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, put forward new asylum proposals 6 weeks ago and instigated a public consultation on changes to the UK’s refugee policy. In the proposals, migrants who enter the UK illegally would be deported to safe countries such as France and other EU countries. Apparently, hundreds of people seeking asylum in the UK have already been warned they could be removed to other countries in Europe. This is despite Brexit removing Britain’s power to make such transfers and the fact it has no legal agreement with EU nations to take these people back. When the UK left the EU’s single market on 1st January, it also left the so-called Dublin regulation, the legal mechanism that allows EU governments to transfer applicants back to the member states where they first registered.
The UK Government, in the Queen’s speech yesterday, continued to assert they would establish a so-called ‘fairer’ immigration system.The overall approach though has been to create a hostile environment to migrants and the Home Secretary is reported to have said that it was not the Home Office’s responsibility to house asylum seekers. However, the Home Office has entered into 10 year contracts (to 2029) with Serco, Meers Group and Clear Springs Ready Homes in Wales, to house migrants and asylum seekers.These companies that have taken over from G4S, should be subject to a gender audit.
The crisis of refugees is seen in the UK in the form of boats crossing the Mediterranean and hundreds of mainly young men trying to cross the Channel to reach the south coast of England. The male: female ratio of asylum seekers aged 14-34 is around 3:1.The Government has announced it will end the use of hotels and move to using ‘reception centres’ for asylum seekers. I hope the Government will listen to refugee women’s voices to understand their concerns and allow them input to policy decisions. By the end of 2020, the backlog of cases of asylum seekers waiting for an initial decision stands at 52,000
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for ‘receiving’ countries to consider how to reach all communities of refugees with vital information concerning the virus. If certain groups are missed out or do not understand, public advice on preventing infection and transmission, could have wide-reaching implications for the whole of society. And for refugee communities, there could be a greater risk.
In Oslo,Norway, it was found that the virus had hit the Somali group living there particularly hard, not only because of difficulties in communication regarding the virus, but also the group was exposed through front-line work, such as taxi driving and nursing (with men more likely to be working than women). They were also more at risk through congested living conditions and an intra-group care culture.According to Devex global data, the gendered data around Covid-19 says: for every 10 females contracting Covid-19, there are 11 men, and for every 11 women dying of Covid-19, there are 14 men.
Security is not just about keeping women and children safe and protecting them from violence from men, it should be about improving how security is carried out for everyone and to do this, security personnel, including in decision-making positions, need to reflect the society and community they serve, including within refugee settlements and the different places experienced throughout the refugee journey. I suggest there are opportunities for more research into this area exploring how refugee, IDP and migrant camps can be made safer places for men,women, girls and boys. How is security provided and conducted? What training is needed and is gender training considered? Ultimately, the culture of security,that is, in policing, private security, peacekeeping and armed forces, needs to change to include women and girls on an equal footing.
In a conversation I had at the UN in November 2019, I learnt about the work of the United Nations in post-conflict areas. I met a senior UNPOL peacekeeping official who was leading the transformation of policing in Libya. From the grassroots, in all the chaos and fighting, he was rebuilding a law enforcement and justice system which would include equality of gender and human rights. Security should not be the enemy of refugees, but the means in which they are able one day to get their lives back, and the opportunity to build more stable, less violent societies.
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Source: Covid-19 sex-disaggregated data tracker
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