Putting gender on the agenda in the refugee “crisis”

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The shadows of two figures walking

By Professor Jenny Phillimore
Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology, University of Birmingham


Violence, insecurity, persecution, and human rights violations have led to the forced displacement of an estimated 68.5 million people (UNHCR, 2018a). Of these, 25.4 million are refugees – the highest number ever recorded (UNHCR, 2018a). As Project Lead of the SEREDA research project (Sexual and Gender Based Violence in the Refugee Context: From Displacement to Arrival) which focuses on sexual and gender-based violence in the refugee “crisis”, thinking about gender is an integral part of my work.

Certainly, what we find in the SEREDA project is a profound gender imbalance. Women and children refugees are the main victims of Sexual Gender Based Violence (SGBV). By refugees, we mean forced migrants whether allocated refugee status, asylum seeking or internally displaced.
Today, on International Women’s Day, we have launched a series of working papers focusing on some of the key aspects of the gendered refugee experience. This has been co-authored by SEREDA team members from the universities of Bilkent, Uppsala, Melbourne and Birmingham so that they can contribute to the debate about gender balance:

1. What is the nature of SGBV? Authored by Saime Ozcurumez, Hannah Bradby and Selin Akyuz
2. Defining SGBV in the refugee context, authored by Andrew Simon-Butler and Bernadette McSherry
3. Monitoring and reporting incidents of SGBV across the refugee journey, authored by Siân Thomas, Hoayda Darkal and Lisa Goodson
4. What responses, approaches to treatment, and other supports are effective in assisting refugees who have experienced SGBV, authored by Karen Block, Hala Nasr, Cathy Vaughan and Sara Alsaraf
5. SGBV and refugees: the impacts of and on integration domains, authored by myself, Sandra Pertek and Lailah Alidu. 

The first paper ‘What is the nature of SGBV’ brings to light the nature of SGBV, outlining the different facets of SGBV and the constraints that can cause gendered presumptions. Saime, Hannah and Selin show how refugee status is inherently gendered and argue that the Refugee Convention omits gender as an overt rationale for protection.

Paper 2, ‘Defining SGBV in the refugee context’ highlights how key terms relating to SGBV have been defined and how these terms may apply in the refugee context. Paying attention to international law, Andrew and Bernadette highlight the absence of broadly accepted definitions of SGBV which mean that what constitutes such violence can be contested and leads to situations where SGBV is not identified, reported, redressed or prevented.

The third paper focuses on the monitoring and reporting of incidents of sexual and gender-based violence across the refugee journey. Siân, Hoayda and Lisa consider the barriers hindering the accurate recording of SGBV cases focusing on gender-cultural norms, political, and practical dilemmas associated with self-reporting SGBV incidences.

In addition, paper 4 explores the responses, treatment and other supports that are effective in helping refugee survivors recover from SGBV. Karen, Hala, Cathy and Sara find limited evidence about what works in supporting recovery for refugees. Although multi-level and multi-sectoral interventions are generally regarded as necessary, lack of research into their efficacy means there is less evidence for their effectiveness than for psychological interventions so more work is necessary given the scale of need.

In the final paper the long-term effects of SGBV on refugee resettlement is explored by myself, Sandra and Lailah. Although there is limited evidence, that which exists shows that women in particular experience physical and psychological problems, which impact on their ability to work, learn and make connections. Recovery appears to be gendered, with many women reluctant to disclose experiences for fear of being shunned or subject to further abuse.

Perhaps most importantly, this paper highlights that SGBV does not end for women after resettlement. Insecure asylum accommodation, inhumane asylum processes, destitution and unbalanced power relationships mean that refugee women continue to be vulnerable to sexual, physical and symbolic violence even in countries that are meant to be offering a safe haven.

Looking across the five papers, it is evident that SGBV is an inherent part of the refugee experience but one that has been neglected. Given that millions of refugee women are affected it is time to pay SGBV much more attention. Over the next two years, the SEREDA team will be doing just that. We will be interviewing refugee survivors and the people who work with them in Australia, Turkey, the UK and Sweden. We will run workshops to develop and share ideas and report our findings to governments and leading humanitarian agencies with a view to putting gender and violence against refugees squarely on the global agenda.

SEREDA is funded by the Europe and Global Challenges Programme.

The four universities are working in Partnership with Doctors of the World (UK and Europe), Foundation House (Australia), Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) (Turkey) and Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC).


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