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Rape and sexual exploitation should not be the norm for female refugees

Syrian refugees in Turkish refugee camp.
File photo of Syrian refugees in Turkish refugee camp.

The refugee crisis has rightfully been receiving much attention over the past two years. The latest statistics from UNHCR show that the number of forcibly-displaced people is now 65.3 million, which means we have reached record levels. Among them, there are 21.3 million refugees, half of whom are children under the age of 18. All of have suffered the trauma of leaving their homes and forcing themselves into the unknown to better, or in some cases save, their lives. Some experiences are less traumatic than others thanks to the help of contacts and host countries that are relatively easier to engage with than others. However, the dramatic rise in displaced persons has meant that more people every year are undergoing very dangerous journeys, being given little or no humanitarian aid in refugee camps and being separated from their families.

Female refugees are especially disadvantaged. When they leave their homes, they sometimes have other family members with them, and take as much as they can to help them survive. Others escape on their own and are left to fend for themselves, or have to support family members in other countries. They are expected to defend themselves like men, and often take on traditionally masculine labour-intensive jobs to support themselves, whist suffering the disadvantages of the patriarchal system that they are forced to endure.

Sexual assault is a substantial problem in refugee camps all over the world. Girls and women are especially at risk of being raped, beaten and having their belongings stolen because they are seen to be more vulnerable. There have even been cases of exploiting girls and women with so-called sex tourism. This became a widespread concern as early as 2013 when it was discovered that some wealthy Arabs from the Gulf States went to the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan to lure Syrian girls and women into prostitution in the full knowledge that their situation is so desperate that they would be willing to do anything in order to survive. Heart-breaking stories were reported about girls who were the eldest in their families being forced into prostitution to provide for their parents and younger siblings. Fathers have also forced their daughters into marrying richer men in exchange for cash.

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Sexual assault does not stop at the borders of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Those who leave for European countries generally do so because they know of the harsh conditions in neighbouring lands and seek a safer refuge. Their hopes are often shattered very quickly. There have been a number of East Africans attempting to get to countries in the Oceania region. In one incident, two Somali women were raped when they landed in Nauru, a tiny island state in Micronesia; one was left pregnant as a result, bringing attention to a sequence of assaults that have taken place against refugees on the island.

Such events are mirrored in Europe. With little security in refugee camps — tents are broken into very easily — women are at serious risk of being raped. Despite the ordeal of such brutal assaults, justice is rarely available. Some victims don’t feel secure enough to report the rape, or are unable to do so due to language barriers between them and the local police. State authorities are also known to do little to ensure the safety of refugees. The German authorities, for example, have been accused of not doing enough to ensure the safety of women refugees with regards to the issue of sexual assault. Attacks are not only carried out by those who wish to capitalise on the refugee crisis by luring women and girls into prostitution, but also by members of the far-right in the host country, who see rape as a means for revenge and deterrence. The epidemic has become so widespread that it is now not only girls and women who are assaulted sexually or forced into prostitution, but also men due of the lack of initiatives to ensure the safety of refugees.

Of course, all refugees face harsh conditions, not just women and girls. It is, though, impossible to deny that they are at a distinct disadvantage due to their gender, even if they have taken on traditionally masculine roles and responsibilities. They are subject to constant harassment and are more likely to be forced into marriage or sell themselves sexually in order to help their families to survive. This is yet another dimension of the refugee crisis that has to be addressed by the authorities if the most vulnerable are to be protected from sexual predators. We simply cannot accept that rape and sexual exploitation are the norm for any women anywhere, let alone refugees.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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