Worse than war – rape in refugee camps

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Photo: Peter Biro

Imagine you have traveled hundreds – perhaps thousands – of miles, fleeing death and destruction in your home country, and you have decided to make the journey to one of the refugee camps.

The threat to you might be your house has been blown up by a government or terrorist bomb, and you have nowhere to live.

It might be your husband has chosen to fight for one side or the other, and you fear your family could be targeted at any time.

It could be your whole family is dead, and the only way for yourself and your children to survive is to flee.

Or, you could be a child. You could be one of the last members of your family left, and you decide to make the trip to the safest refugee camp.

In 2015, refugees and migrants coming to Europe travelled a total of 2,018,709,684 miles between them.

Two billion miles. That is the same as 10 return trips to the Sun, or one return trip to Saturn. It is an astronomical figure.

Now, imagine you reach these camps; they could be in Europe, or Kenya, or Pakistan, or Iran. Now you face conflict with various groups, cultural differences, crime, disease, and rape.


Pregnant women face untold risks. Photo: AFP

For many, rape and sexual violence has become a currency; a method by which they procure resources from their families (food, water, clothing), or their safe passage.

This has been noted before, even on the topic of children. Melissa Fleming of the UNHCR said: “From testimony and reports we have received there have been instances of children engaging in survival sex to pay smugglers to continue their journey, either because they have run out money, or because they have been robbed.”

The number of child refugees in the UK has risen substantially, with the number of unaccompanied children – who are the most at risk of rape and sexual violence – now 4029.

This idea of selling their bodies for sanctuary is horrific, and proliferates right across the refugee crisis.

One report found in the refugee camp of Dadaab, Kenya, resources such as food, water and firewood are scarce, resulting in women often being tasked with collecting supplies.

Amnesty International reported men often delegate foraging tasks to women, because they know the Kenyan desert to house those whom they are fleeing.

And whereas men are more likely to be killed, women are more likely to be raped. Women, who are unable to find the resources in the Kenyan desert, resort to visit local communities, who in turn abuse and rape the female refugees.

“From testimony and reports we have received there have been instances of children engaging in survival sex to pay smugglers to continue their journey, either because they have run out money, or because they have been robbed.” – Melissa Fleming, UNHCR

One woman told the UNFPA: “There were three government soldiers with guns. One of them saw me and asked, ‘Where are you going?’

“I said I was looking for firewood…Then he raped me.”

In Dadaab, 90% of rapes occur in these situations, and the likelihood is only likely to continue.

Why? Well, the Kenyan government announced it plans to close the Dadaab camp in 2017. It is the largest refugee camp in the world, with victims of the clashes in Eritrea, Libya, Chad, and Somalia seeking sanctuary.

With the camp closing, some 600,000 people will be displaced, over half of whom are Somalis.


Camp in Dadaab.

As shown above, it is often “guards” or workers – such as the E.E story in Turkey – of the camps performing such acts, or those who prowl the perimeter of the camps. However, it is often going on within them too.

With the diverse cultures clashing, it is often unstable communities which form, leading to violence and bartering in the form of sexual violence.

The population within the camps is almost equal between men and women, so it is not the case a vast swathe of women are under the control of a minority of armed guards. Rather, women and children are surrounded by those who would do them horrific physical and mental harm.

It may even be men sell their wives or daughters, not because they want to, but through sheer desperation.

Even those who we put our trust in, the UN Peacekeepers, are found to have been sexual abusing women in exchange for food and medicine since as early as 2002.

Germany recently announced a €200m scheme to fight sexual abuse in camps, with a number of high-profile cases of the police and security forces attempting to cover-up stories on sexual violence.

Germany, and may other countries, have severe problems. In 2015, 1.1 million refugees entered Germany, and by September there had been 15 cases of sexual assault in one camp.

The initiative in Germany is seeking to provide lockable accommodation (which to any sound mind sounds like the least they should be providing), as well as safe rooms for play and education.

Reforms have been made in the past to increase the number of female security guards in camps, but even these guards can be at risk for a 50/50 male/female camp.


Where do refugees go? Photo: SimonRodgersGuardian

The need for structural change in refugee camps has been an issue for over 20 years, and the situation appears to be getting worse with an increased number of camps and refugees.

The closure of Dadaab will see thousands thrown into the arms of danger, and faced with another long journey to another camp…where they may, again, be subject to the dangers of rape and sexual exploitation.

Sexual violence in camps has largely fallen off mainstream media’s radar, and it should not be. The risk is these camps become worse than the war zones; instead of being sanctuaries, they become death traps.

With little ability to enforce a legal system on an ever-changing population, those guilty of the crimes are being let away with it.

These are people. These are mothers, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons. Imagine it was your family.


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