Few reports of rape or sexual assaults in refugee camps have been made public. But the number of unreported incidents is high, and it is time to act, DW’s Beate Hinrichs writes.
Long corridors to the bathrooms, no lockable shower or toilet cubicles, common areas with no privacy - that's the reality in many refugee centers. This is not an environment in which women and children who have fled brutality can feel protected from violence or sexual assault, and indeed they are not.
In fact, women and children are particularly vulnerable in refugee centers. When traumatized people are forced to live together in such confined spaces, violence is often forced upon the weak and vulnerable. Out of shame, the abused often remain silent.
What's more, victims have no opportunity to retreat, no social networks, and more often than not they are unable to speak the language of the countries in which they find themselves and do not know where to go for help. The offenders could be anyone: a violent partner, abusive roommate, refugee center staff who hold a master key, or volunteers who prey on vulnerable children and sexually abuse them.
Asylum versus protection
Such news does not often make the headlines. The number of unrecorded cases is estimated to be high, and the alarm has been sounded by professionals working in counseling centers and shelters for migrant women, the German Institute for Human Rights and the federal independent commissioner assigned to investigate child sexual abuse. Protective measures are urgently needed.
This includes changes to the way centers are structured: dedicated areas for unaccompanied women and single mothers, for example. The state of Hamburg is looking to erect protective tents in a large camp that will be for women only - an ad hoc solution as affordable housing is scarce. In addition to that, operating permits will require refugee centers to have mandated safety measures that would be regularly controlled by the authorities, just as is the case for homes for disabled persons and daycare centers.
Equally important are the legal guidelines. Complicated asylum and immigration laws run counter to protective laws with good intentions. In cases of domestic violence, for example, the police can force the perpetrator to leave a house, but what happens when the offender is legally obliged to remain in the refugee center and is only allowed to change accommodation with the relevant authority's permission? And what happens when a woman is at risk of being attacked and needs to seek shelter in a refuge in another city, but is also legally required to stay in the town? Or when a woman's visa is tied her partner's and she is afraid of being deported if she leaves him?
Committment to human rights
These are just some of a growing number of complex issues that arise with each new case of violence, rape or sexual assault against a woman or child. This is an issue that had not previously received widespread attention, there are few discretionary powers to do anything about it, and there is often a long process through official channels that have, which does not guarantee the immdiate and adequate help needed by women and children affected by violence.
Such questions have to be asked, even when many communities are overstretched to accommodate the new arrivals. For the future, however, we need to examine the standards we put in place when we house and care for women and children: the housing we build for them, how sensitive and qualified employees are, what kind of support is offered, the availability of trusted people on-site, and which authorities are responsible for which emergencies.
Incidentally, this is not discretionary. This is our moral duty. Protecting against gender-based and sexual violence is part of the international human rights agreements Germany has signed and ratified.
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