Increased vulnerability of Gender Based Violence in refugee settings – lack of provision, choice and acceptance

UNHCR defines Gender Based Violence as ‘violence that is directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex’ (2003). It encompasses violence occurring in the family, within the general community, and perpetrated or condoned by the State and institutions. In general it would appear there is limited provision supporting survivors of gender based violence in refugee settings, following the pattern of gender in emergency settings as ‘nice to have’. For example, the Women’s Refugee Commission found there was no consideration of GBV in routes through Europe (2016). Refugees’ accentuated vulnerability and the low standards accepted in host nations can mean that GBV still has limited awareness, resources and recognition in these contexts.

GBV is considered to be rooted in unequal power relations (UNHCR 2003, Hunnicutt 2009). In refugee settings, a post-conflict and militarised environment subjects women, girls, men and boys to a higher risk of gender based violence (UN Women, 2013). Refugees have a forced dependency on others, and the environment accentuates gendered power hierarchies. Additionally, they are more likely to have experienced gender-based violence in their home countries due to conflict. A refugee’s current situation and experiences prior to leaving their country can change their frame of reference, leading to an increased likelihood of enduring abuse in order to meet daily survival needs (Miller, 2011).

Abuse can be committed against survivors by other refugees, host communities and aid workers. There have been documented cases of humanitarian aid workers committing rape and violence against women and girls inside camps (Miller, 2011). Academic studies of peacekeepers have analysed associations of masculinity with prostitution and sexual violence in camps (Highgate & Henry, 2004). It is found that women and other beneficiaries are ‘othered’ in ways that undermine personhood by officials (Highgate & Henry, 2004). Additionally, officials have an altered frame of reference, with a power to restrict freedom of others they would not have in normal situations. It is not only women and girls who are at risk of GBV, men and boys are also at risk, particularly children (under 17). In some incidences boys have been found to have a higher prevalence of sexual violence than girls (UN Women, 2013). This violence stems from the same underlying factors as violence against women, linked to hierarchies of power and gender identity (Dolan, 2014).

Refugees face further vulnerabilities on their journeys. Many travel with limited resources, are in the hands of smugglers and, hence, are at risk of exploitation whilst other refugees may have been trafficked (Human Rights Watch, 2016). In both cases individuals can face violence, forced labour and detention (Human Rights Watch, 2016). Also, when refugees arrive at their destination they still face increased vulnerability. From experience, many UK asylum seekers are still at risk of destitution, have limited networks and arrive with scars from previous traumas. The limited networks, resources, and services available in all refugee settings means individuals are often reliant on others, which immediately limits the power they have to control their own lives, increasing their risk of exploitation.

In the case of women and gender-based violence, academics discuss resistance to the full inclusion of women within the protection of the Refugee Convention. Musalo & Knight discuss how violations can be belittled, or that granting asylum to women is ‘meddling’ in other cultures or societies (Musalo & Knight, 2002). Bailot, Cowan and Munro (2009), through analysing asylum and the criminal justice system, found that the underreporting of rape and victims’ inability to tell their stories is made to reflect negatively on them. Bailot et al (2009) state there is a tendency to regard factors such as late disclosure and inconsistency during a person’s asylum claim with suspicion. This demonstrates that those suffering from sexual violence, gender-based violence or other forms of torture and extreme abuse can be more at risk of losing credibility, thus adding to their vulnerability. The nature of applying for asylum is that you are proving your right to refugee status by demonstrating you are telling the truth and that you cannot return to your country of origin.

Musalo & Knight (2002) state the reasons for hostility towards claims of gender-based violence are complex, but the key is the fear of opening the borders to a high influx of people. The recent political climate in Europe and the US Presidential elections have shown this fear is real and prominent today. Duffield (2006) discusses the pattern of western countries’ refugee policies to be that of enforcing containment, thus limiting the number of people coming in, by having a focus abroad. The limited action taken in acting on the Dubs Amendment in the UK demonstrates how policies can be agreed upon, but action is often slow and unwilling. It is not bold to predict that harsher refugee policies and practices will only marginalise those most vulnerable, including those subjected to gender based violence.

Refugees face limited capacities resulting in an increased vulnerability. Whilst they show tremendous resilience, there is limited ownership of their lives which puts them in danger. Additionally, a highly militarised, gendered environment accentuates and skews power relations. There should be more services and policies that foster improved wellbeing, choice, and autonomy for refugees to limit the forced dependency. Training in gender and power relations should be provided to those working in refugee settings, to understand their positions and how to increase the control individuals have over their own lives. A shift towards a policy of acceptance and compassion is also needed in order to change excuses that arise from an ulterior motive of closing borders and excluding difference.

Storm Lawrence has worked in the youth sector in the UK for four years and continues to deliver training and consultancy in the sector. She has worked with refugees in the UK and abroad: volunteering with young asylum seekers in the UK, contributing to research and working in emergency response in Uganda. Recently completing an Msc in Emerging Economies and Inclusive Development at King’s College London, she has a specific focus on gender and conflict, and based her thesis on Somali women’s involvement in peacebuilding.


Bailot, Helen, Sharon Cowan, and Vanessa E. Munro. 2009. Seen but Not Heard? Parallels and Dissonances in the Treatment of Rape Narratives across the Asylum and Criminal Justice Contexts. Journal of Law & Society 36, 2, 195-219.

Dolan, C. 2014. Into the mainstream: Addressing sexual violence against men and boys in conflict. A briefing paper prepared for the workshop held at the Overseas Development Institute, London, 14 May 2014

Duffield, M. 2006. Racism, migration and development: the foundations of planetary order. Progress in Development Studies 6, 1, pp.68-79

Help Refugees. Update: First Day of Calais Evictions. Date Accessed: 17/11/2016

Highgate and Henry. 2004. Engendering (In)Security in Peace Support Operations. Security Dialogue, 35, 4, 481-498

Human Rights Watch. Date Accessed: 17/11/2016

Miller, Liz. 2011. The Irony of Refuge: Gender-Based Violence against Female Refugees in Africa. Topical Research Digest: Minority Rights, 77-90

Musalo, Karen and Stephen Knight. 2002. Unequal Protection: When Women are Persecuted, It’s Often Described as a Cultural Norm Rather than a Reason to Grant Asylum. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 58, 6, 56-62.

Refugee Rights Data Project, 2016, The Long Wait. Filling data gaps relating to refugees and displaced people in the Calais camp. RRDP.

UNHCR. 2003. Sexual and Gender Based Violence against refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons. Guidelines for prevention and response. Date Accessed 17/11/2016

UN Women. 2013. Gender Based Violence and Child Protection Among Syrian Refugees in Jordan, with a Focus On  Early Marriage.  UN Women. Anman, Jordan.

Hasan, M. 3rd November 2016. Obsessing over Europe’s refugee crisis while ignoring Africa’s is white privilege at work. Date Accessed: 17/11/2016

Women’s Refugee Commission, 2016, No safety for refugee Women on the European Route:Report from the Balkans. Women’s Refugee Commission.

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