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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

The Gendered Experience of Refugees: Time for Action

Written by Jane Freedman 

Commissioned by Bethany Woodson

At the start of 2020, refugees are once again in the headlines, as thousands continue to flee from violence and conflict in their countries of origin. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are currently over 70 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Despite a range of international conventions, policies, and programmes aimed at prioritising gender issues and the protection of women in refugee crises[1], and the commitment by UNHCR and other international and nongovernmental organisations to gender mainstreaming, the reality is that for many women, huge gaps in protection remain at all stages of displacement and forced migration. Women should not be perceived as essentially or naturally more vulnerable than men, but structural and systematic gender inequalities before, during, and after forced migration, act to put them into situations of risk and insecurity. These insecurities faced by women include physical and sexual violence, but also social, psychological and economic forms of inequality and vulnerability.

This lack of protection starts in the failure to foresee or prevent sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in conflict and emergency situations. Frequently, gender-based forms of violence and persecution are a cause for women’s forced migration (Freedman, 2015). Whilst the international community have started to pay more attention to SGBV during conflict, for example, through the various UN Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security, there is still no adequate protection for women against this type of violence

Forced migration and displacement may also make women more vulnerable to SGBV on their journeys, in both countries of transit and destination. As richer countries increasingly try to close their borders to refugees, the journeys to reach these countries becomes more dangerous and expensive. For example, thousands perish attempting to reach the European Union, or the US-Mexico border. These journeys are dangerous for both men and women, but women’s social and economic situations and their gender puts them at risk of particular forms of violence. Research has shown that women are proportionally more likely to die crossing borders (Pickering and Powell, 2017). Increasing numbers of women are travelling alone, or with their children, and these women are particularly vulnerable to violence. The fact that women generally have fewer economic resources than men, can expose them to risks of violence from the smugglers they must turn to for help on their journeys. Additionally, survivors often share stories of being forced into sexual relationships with smugglers when they do not have the economic resources to pay them.

Levels of sexual violence against refugees are massive. NGOs working with refugees in Italy or Greece, for example, estimate that a huge majority of women arriving there after travelling through Libya or Turkey have been victims of sexual violence at some point on their journey. This violence is perpetrated by smugglers, but also by police and border guards in the countries they cross. Women know the dangers they face and may choose to try and find a male partner or travelling companion to protect themselves, but this also exposes them to dangers of violence and exploitation (Freedman, 2016).

For those women who are housed in refugee camps, additional challenges emerge. Refugee camps may be envisaged as zones of protection but may also be zones of violence (Krause, 2015). Various studies reveal the degree to which sexual and gender-based violence is a widespread and global phenomenon in these camps. Problems arise for women both because of material factors, such as lack of resources, and because of the gendered political and power structures that exist within the camps. Although efforts have been made to ensure “safe” spaces for women within some camps, there are still camps where a lack of separate washing facilities, for example, make women feel insecure and expose them to risks of violence. Access to health care, food and other services may be concentrated within one area of the camp, which facilitates the work UNHCR and NGOs staff, but can be inconvenient and potentially dangerous for refugees and can exacerbate women’s workload. This logistical organization may put women at risk of violence, for example when they have to go outside of the camp to look for firewood. The violence and insecurities of life in refugee camps has also been shown to lead to increasing familial restriction and control on girls’ and young women’s mobility. For example, among some Syrian and Rohingya refugees, displaced families in refugee camps have chosen early or forced marriage for their daughters as a strategy to cope with economic hardship or perceived risks of sexual violence (Charles and Denman, 2013). 

Those refugees who arrive in one of the world’s richer countries – Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, etc. – may expect to find better conditions, but often this is not the case. In Europe, the efforts to “control” or “manage” the arrival of refugees, has led to the creation of so-called “hotspots” at the EU’s borders. The idea of these “hotspots” is to assess whether those arriving are “genuine” refugees who should gain admittance and protection in the EU. However, in Greece, since the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, camps such as Moria on Lesbos, have become de facto detention camps, where refugees are trapped, unable to move on to the Greek mainland or to the rest of the EU.

Overcrowding, poor hygiene, and lack of facilities create health risks for women, as well as risks of SGBV. Some NGOs have reported distributing diapers to women too afraid to leave their tent at night to use toilets. These conditions are not found just in Greece, many EU countries have inadequate reception facilities for refugees. In France, for example, a lack of accommodation for asylum seekers and refugees means that many are forced to sleep on the street. There are reports of refugee women who have just given birth, being returned to the streets with their newborn babies when the hospitals can no longer provide beds.

Even those who do manage to find adequate accommodation find it hard to access social, health, and welfare services. There is a major lack of medical and psychological support services for female refugees, and particularly for support for those who have been victims of sexual violence. The traumatic effects of this type of violence are long-term, but many women find it difficult to discuss. And for far too many, there is no suitable psychological support or counselling to help them to recover.

Gender roles and relations may be transformed during forced migration, and while this may lead to increased autonomy and new opportunities for some women, for others this is not the case. There is evidence that forced migration may exacerbate incidences of domestic and interpersonal violence. Too often, women who are victims of these types of violence are unable to access assistance or leave their abusive partner. They may be scared to report domestic violence because of fear of reprisals or of being deported by police if they do not have legal residence papers. They may also find that they have no means of economic survival if they leave an abusive partner.

Women are made vulnerable in multiple ways during refugee crises, but how could this vulnerability be reduced and how could they be better protected? Mounting xenophobia and racism has made it difficult to address these questions in many countries, and governments must act to ensure protection for those fleeing violence and conflict. Current policies are just increasing insecurity and vulnerability for refugees. This must change.

More attention must be paid to anticipating and quickly establishing safe routes for refugees to escape situations of conflict and violence, even when they have no financial resources to do so. The absence of safe routes pushes women into the hands of smugglers and traffickers who can be increase risks of violence. It should be recognised that while women travelling alone (or alone with their children) are extremely vulnerable to violence, women travelling with male partners may also be at risk. Ignoring the fact that male partners and husbands can themselves be sources of violence, or assuming women within families or couples are “protected,” leads to a risk of overlooking domestic and intimate partner violence in situations of forced displacement. Adequate and safe accommodation for female refugees also needs to be addressed. Facilitating women’s economic independence in situations of forced displacement is one way of strengthening their resilience and lessening vulnerability, so it’s necessity to put in place policies and programmes to help these women earn money in a safe and legal way. Finally, perhaps the most vital action of all is listening to women and giving them a platform to express their needs. Treating women as autonomous agents and involving them in decision making would allow them to best define how they want to be supported and protected.

References and Further Reading

Charles, L. and Denman, K. (2013). Syrian and Palestinian Syrian refugees in Lebanon: the plight of women and children, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 14:5, 96-112.

Freedman, J. (2015), Gendering the International Asylum and Refugee Debate. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Freedman, J. (2016), Sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women: a hidden aspect of the refugee “crisis”, Reproductive Health Matters, 24:47, 18-26.

Freedman, J. (2019), The uses and abuses of «vulnerability» in EU asylum and refugee protection: Protecting women or reducing autonomy? Papeles del CEIC, International Journal on Collective Identity Research, 1:3.

Krause, U. (2015), A Continuum of Violence? Linking Sexual and Gender-based Violence during Conflict, Flight, and Encampment, Refugee Survey Quarterly, 34:4, 1–19.

Pickering, S. and Powell, R. (2017), Death at Sea: migration and the gendered dimensions of border insecurity, in J. Freedman, Z. Kivilcim and N. Ozgur Bakacioglu (eds), A Gendered Approach to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, London: Routledge.

About the Author

Jane Freedman is a Professor at the Université Paris 8, France and co-director of the Centre de Recherches Sociologiques et Politiques de Paris (CRESPPA). Her research focuses on issues of gender, migration and violence. Recent publications include: Gendering the International Asylum and Refugee Debate (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and A Gendered Approach to the Syrian Refugee Crisis (Routledge, 2017).


[1] UNHCR’s first Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women were released in 1991, and since that date there have been a range of other policies and guidelines from UNHCR and other international organizations concerning the protection of women during forced migration and displacement, and during humanitarian emergencies.

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