The safest prey: When refugee camps become sites of violence

By — February 21, 2012

Even war is safer than this.

Imagine it: Your family attacked. Your house teeming with soldiers. Your options running out. A protected area for victims of war sounds like a wise place to flee. But as too many women and girls have discovered, conflict itself can seem relatively calm once the violence of refugee life begins.

“Safe” areas for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), intended to provide respite from torture, murder, and rape—from Darfur to Bosnia to Pakistan—are rife with torture and rape. As the UN Refugee Agency describes it, women and girls trying to escape war face “the rigors of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference, and frequent sexual abuse—even after reaching an apparent place of safety.”

Children climb a tree in one of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. (UK Department for International Development)

While the problems in these camps are well known among aid organizations and some news outlets, there is no warning—or alternative—for the thousands of women globally who flee to them each year.

But why is it that communities meant to provide shelter and support for those attacked during war instead place women in jeopardy?

Largely, it’s due to the fact that they aren’t communities at all. As Jennifer Hyndman, associate director of York University’s Center for Refugee Studies in Toronto, explains, IDP camps have unstable populations, with constant new arrivals disrupting whatever nominal social structures exist. Unlike in established towns and villages, refugee camps are sprawling collections of tents and individuals who have little connection to one another. And the moment social relations are destabilized, says Hyndman, so too is protection from rape.

The sudden decline in socioeconomic status that refugees experience also leads to increased attacks, says Hyndman. Loss of financial stability can make women vulnerable to blackmailing by camp guards. Because there are corrupt patrolmen who withhold food and cooking resources from inhabitants, women are often told they must submit to rape in exchange for vital supplies.

An Amnesty International report on displaced women and girls in eastern Chad highlights another connection between decreased agency and increased sexualized violence. Young girls and women, write Amnesty’s experts, “sell the firewood they collect at nearby markets to try and supplement the meager assistance they receive.” What’s more, the job of collecting wood is usually delegated to women due to custom, and because “men judge that women are less at risk of being killed by the armed groups” that roam near the camps. Instead of being killed, the women are raped.

Women and girls are also targeted as a form of payback, Hyndman, as well as UNICEF, reports. Because basic resources can be scarce in the camps, women are often forced to fetch food, firewood, and water from surrounding areas. Local populations often perceive these women as stealing from their land.

“They rape our environment, and, you know, they get raped,” Hyndman recalls a Kenyan police officer telling her. The officer’s job was to patrol the world’s largest camps in Dadaab, eastern Kenya, where, for 20 years, Somali refugees have fled. Dadaab hosts more than 463,000 refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency. When guards like this man view assaults as fair retaliation, they probably don’t prove very keen on protecting the displaced.

Those natural resources the officer spoke of might be less of an issue if refugees had roughly what they needed. But most sexualized violence—more than 90 percent in Dadaab, researchers found—occurs while women scrounge for the food, firewood, and water that camps do not provide. Lack of firewood is such a recognized issue in places like Kenya and Darfur that several aid groups have tried supplying it to women in an attempt to decrease rape during foraging trips.

However, a UN evaluation of one such project in Dadaab found that this prevention measure has not been terribly effective. When households were supplied with firewood and none had to be scavenged, rape increased while women were doing other activities. The evaluators also found that the program was “insufficiently integrated with other rape and violence prevention strategies,” such as increasing the number of female guards.

Hyndman, who has written about Somali refugees in Dadaab as well as displaced women in a host of other regions, questions the need for such fuel in the first place.

“The firewood is needed because of the types of food that are donated to refugees and that they need to cook,” she says. These include rice and wheat flour—rations that can’t be eaten unless heated over a flame.

“Why do you need firewood in a desert when the people are used to camel’s milk?” she asks, using Dadaab as an example. If milk or camels themselves were provided, inhabitants could access nourishment without cooking—and, it follows, without needing firewood.

While doing fieldwork in Kenya, Hyndman saw that refugees who could obtain their own camels kept them nearby, with up to 30 in a herd. If agencies were more sensitive to the traditional food practices of displaced persons, they might find that ready-to-eat meals made life safer for women and their families who have instead been forced to eat burdensome grains.

And there are structural factors that, combined with food scarcity, contribute to the violence. Due to corruption among guards and a lack of oversight, women are often raped by the very men charged with protecting them.

“A security officer forced me to have sex in exchange for cooking oil and pulses [beans] when I was collecting food at the main entrance of the camp,” a 22-year-old woman in the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, recently told a Pakistani human rights group, according to The International Herald Tribune. Women like her who escape fighting in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas often arrive at camps only to face rape or starvation.

“There were three government soldiers with guns. One of them saw me and asked, ‘Where are you going?’” a Liberian woman told the UN Population Fund. “I said I was looking for wood. … Then he raped me.”

And so the testimonies go, in camps all over the world. Due to difficulties in conducting fieldwork—including the understandable reluctance of women to report rape by government soldiers due to the threat of retaliation—solid numbers are rarely given by agencies. But testimonies pour in. Unfortunately, when corruption, unstable living quarters, and the desperate need for food and water intersect to fuel sexualized violence, there are no easy solutions.

What is clear is that we need a greater focus on women and a frank look at the factors that motivate men at camps to rape. Women who have already fled conflict once deserve safe zones that don’t rival the battlefield.