As Americans, half a world away, we are emotionally detached from the refugee crisis and its horrors, so much so that it can seem like a distant, unsolvable problem. Because the discussion about the Refugee Crisis in the United States has primarily focused on refugee immigration and its effects on national security, individual experiences in refugee camps are generally overlooked. For example, sexual assault and gender-based violence are rarely addressed, even though they are actually daily occurrences for countless refugees. These stories go untold because women are paralyzed by shame and fear of stigmatization; these women seek refuge, only to find that asylum does not mean safety. Instead of investing so much of its attention and resources into immigration policies and management, the West should be investing in improving refugee camps, which would make a widespread, swift impact on the lives of people desperately searching for security.
No woman or girl is safe in a refugee camp, because rape is a weapon for war and power. Fleeing violence only to confront sexual assault, women refugees can be psychologically damaged and face perpetual medical problems. Many suffer from sleeplessness, chest and back pains, painful menstruation, hemorrhaging for long periods, and an inability to control urination. Additionally, overflowing refugee camps do not have the resources to provide medical assistance to injured and pregnant women, which makes their environments more harmful because it can lead to risky abortions.
Accurate statistics on the numbers of women refugees who encounter sexual violations are essentially non-existent because, as is the case in the United States, women are afraid to come forward, so rape is extremely underreported. In camps, women who are subjected to sexual violence then they face all of the social, physical, and psychological consequences that come with it, while their aggressors often continue their deplorable behavior under the radar. Some women even prefer to stay in their war torn environments rather than seek safety from refugee camps because of their reputation for sexual violence.
Many rapes in refugee camps occur while women are receiving rations, running daily errands, or sleeping in mixed gendered settlements. There are also reports that members of public officials working in the camps and humanitarian staff also sometimes assault women refugees. A majority of women are also the head of their household because their husbands have died or have left to fight. The culture in refugee camps assumes that men protect and provide for all members of his family. Without a husband, women in refugee camps have no protection, nor do they have a means to work when the camp cannot provide for all of its residents. Usually, settlements are not separated by gender, so women are forced to share sleeping spaces and bathroom facilities with hundreds of other refugee men. Women have fears of being touched while sleeping or being watched while using the bathrooms.
Because the refugee camps are failing to protect and provide for women effectively, women refugees are forced to take extreme measures. These extreme measures have led to abhorrent practices that are now considered a social norm in refugee camps. Single mothers and older members of the family who need to provide for their families have turned to prostitution. They also marry off their younger daughters to men who are able to protect and provide for them. This has led to a rise in child marriage—just a mangled alteration of “permissible” sexual abuse. Even though child marriage is meant to be a solution to combat sexual abuse, it actually has dire psychological effects on girls. Instead of improving conditions for women, these practices actually further degrade their social status, safety, and sexual autonomy.
Sexual assaults have been reported across camps, from Syria to Jordan to Nigeria. Current international policy is so focused on the controversial issue of bringing in refugees to countries, that improving the quality of life in refugee camps has been neglected. At this point, international policy could make a huge, immediate difference by focusing on preventing sexual assault in refugee camps and providing a safer environment for women.