By Maddison Hall and Kelly Dale

Migration–forced and voluntary –exposes refugees, asylum seekers, internally-displaced persons (IDPs), and immigrants to a number of risk factors associated with sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). As we witness rapidly increasing migration rates and unprecedented levels of displacement, it is critical to recognize the ways in which SGBV and displacement are interconnected. We must also develop policies, programs, and services to mitigate SGBV and support individuals among these populations who have experienced SGBV. It is important to note that while sexual and gender-based violence cuts across all ages and affects people of all genders, women and girls bear a disproportionate amount of the burden of SGBV. As a part of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign, this blog aims to discuss risk factors and outcomes for sexual and gender-based violence during migration and advocate for policies and programs that prevent and respond SGBV.

Migrants may experience SGBV before, during, or after migration. Intimate partner violence (IPV) or forced or early marriage are known drivers for migration; these experiences may encourage individuals to flee or escape their abuse. Embarking on their journeys, migrants are vulnerable to abuse from individuals facilitating transportation, immigration officials, or even legal officers. They may be coerced into transactional sexual experiences to continue forward on their journeys, or some are forced into systems of human trafficking. Refugee and migrant hosting countries may not have sound or accessible legal or social support systems, potentially creating additional challenges for victims to access help. Isolation, poverty, housing insecurity, and unsafe living conditions may put them at risk for SGBV. Within their families, financial stress may be high, and immigration can disrupt cultural norms and power balances. Shifting family dynamics and gender norms and roles may contribute to SGBV as migrant families adapt to different lifestyles and cultures. Outside of their homes, migrants may be compelled to trade transactional sex for job security, food, or favors. Migrant workers, especially those without proper immigration documentation, may experience SGBV from their employers or supervisors in their workplace. Migrant populations encounter a variety of legal restrictions and barriers to their ability to work; even in countries in which refugees or immigrants may be granted the right to work, there may be barriers to accessing jobs in the formalized job market, particularly if there are costly or challenging work permit procedures. The inability to work could threaten men’s sense of self, leading to harmful displays of masculinity, including IPV. Migrants involved in informal job sectors are vulnerable to abuse at multiple levels, including SGBV, and they may be unaware of their legal rights relating to employment.

Migrants, primarily women and children, face unique hardships along their perilous journeys and additional challenges as they adjust and integrate into new surroundings. There are opportunities for the global development community to support them in this process.

  • First, they need access to a spectrum of health services, opportunities for psychosocial support, and access to legal and justice systems that inform them of their rights and provide guidance and support in seeking help.  Migrants need services that address not only their immediate needs, but also support them in addressing the long-lasting effects of SGBV, including sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and poor mental health or mental illness. Robust programs addressing SGBV will provide health services to address all of these outcomes including testing and treatment, emergency contraception, and mental health counseling.
  • Second, effective programs should be designed to overcome common barriers to access. For example, SGBV services should be integrated into existing programs for migrant populations in host communities and refugee camps and settlements as part of the broader range of services for displaced persons. Culturally appropriate approaches and linguistic support are essential to allow equitable access for women and girls of all backgrounds. Refugees and displaced persons, particularly women and girls, may also be unwilling to report SGBV due to fear of deportation, fear of further abuse, or stigma related to abuse. As these populations are often isolated from larger communities, programs must include outreach strategies to identify and serve individuals in need of support.

Unexpected challenges may arise in providing SGBV services to certain migrant populations because of their mobile nature, and original solutions may be necessary to reach these populations. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Lebanon has developed an innovative mobile service delivery approach to provide psychosocial support and community awareness for Syrian refugees who are mobile or living in informal settlements and urban areas in Lebanon. In the absence of established service locations, this approach allows service providers to travel between a larger number of communities and to reach individuals who may be socially isolated. While this service delivery model is not without challenges, a recent evaluation of this method demonstrated it can be used as an effective means to reach isolated populations with SGBV prevention and support services.

WI-HER has over 10 years of experience preventing and responding to SGBV in refugee camps, areas of civil unrest, and in refugee-hosting communities. We understand the unique challenges and needs of women and girls in these precarious situations. We have worked in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya, with displaced populations in Rwanda, and with girls and young women affected by the refugee crisis in Uganda as part of the USAID ASSIST project under the DREAMS partnership.

During the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence and beyond, WI-HER is committed to raising awareness about SGBV among migrants and refugees and advocates improved SGBV support and prevention services for displaced populations. We also encourage increased research to improve these services and understand how these programs can be most effective.  To build that evidence, WI-HER advocates advancement in the collection of sex-disaggregated and gender-sensitive data in the context of migration, the understanding of shifting gender norms in migration, and increased attention on the migration experiences of people of all genders.