Combatting sexual abuse in countries of refugee asylum


Although education of refugee women about their human rights has given rape victims in some countries of asylum sufficient knowledge and confidence to report and combat sexual abuse, there are many obstacles to protecting refugee women and girls from sexual violence. The reluctance of the victims to speak of the experience often includes unwillingness to press charges against the attackers. In such cases, the criminal justice system provides little recourse, and in consequence the rapist commits his crime with impunity. In many cases the main reasons for silence may be to avoid the stigma and negative social consequences, already discussed, of being seen as a rape victim, but also the desire to forget, to avoid reliving the traumatic experience in her mind. The small likelihood of success in court is also a factor. In some countries, unless the victim has overwhelming proof, judges are more likely to accuse her of provoking the attack than to convict the accused. Moreover, lodging a complaint against persons in positions of power or influence may be seen as futile and also dangerous to the victim's family. Other reasons why refugee women hesitate to speak out while in the country of asylum include the real or perceived potential for recrimination by camp authorities, security officers or other refugees; the unsympathetic attitude of the authorities, public prosecutors or the refugee committees responsible for the administration of justice; the possibility that resettlement might be delayed by a court case; and the lack of effective protection against further attacks by the accused. Women and girls in detention may be afraid to seek redress while they are still in the power of their abusers. Effective legal action may be impossible without proper documentation and without legal counsel.


States need to protect and defend the victims, as well as to punish the perpetrators of sexual violence against refugees. The authorities responsible for protecting refugees and for enforcing the law must be informed of sexual violence, recognize it as a crime and take effective action against it, even when it is committed by government officials or the armed forces, or when the circumstances are otherwise politically embarrassing. Despite the difficulties, prosecutions can be effective in punishing and deterring attacks, as evidenced by the successful efforts of the Royal Thai government, assisted by UNHCR, to punish pirates who had attacked Vietnamese asylum-seekers.

For effective protection, however, legal action needs to be accompanied by practical measures to prevent attacks on refugee women and girls. Again, many of the measures required are set out in the Guidelines. These include suggestions concerning camp design; the participation of refugee women in decisions affecting security; avoidance of detention or closed facilities; training for UNHCR, host-country and NGO staff, border guards, police, armed forces personnel and others who come into contact with refugees; support for law enforcement activities; employment of female field, protection health and social services staff etc. Access by UNHCR to refugees and asylum-seekers in border areas which refugee women must cross to enter the country, as well as in reception centres, refugee camps and settlements, is an important practical protection tool.

Constrained by:
Exploiting women refugees
Type Classification:
E: Emanations of other strategies
Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions