Refugee report shows women and children face threat of sexual and gender-based violence on migration journey

A stock image of a silhouette of people.
Half of the 82 million people forced to leave their homes in 2020 were women and girls. Image: supplied.

Up 70 per cent of women and children forced from their countries as refugees are estimated to experience sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), says a new international study involving the University of Melbourne.

Many of the women and children experiencing SGBV suffer repeated violence at the hands of different perpetrators, with the harm often occurring before displacement, through conflict and transit to the time they found refuge in a new country.

University of Melbourne Senior Research Fellow, Dr Karen Block, a co-author on the report "Nobody helped me”: Forced migration and sexual and gender-based violence: findings from the SEREDA project, said more than 82 million people were forced to leave their homes in 2020.

“Half of them were women and girls who were at risk of physical harm including broken bones, burns and scarring, forced pregnancy and rape as well as psychological trauma and thoughts of suicide and self-harm,” Dr Block said.

Launched today in Geneva with the International Red Cross, the report is a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, the University of Birmingham, Bilkent University in Turkey and Uppsala University in Sweden. The report is based on interviews carried out between 2018 and 2021 in the UK, Turkey, Tunisia, Sweden and Australia with more than 300 survivors and practitioners.

In Australia, the UK and Sweden, it was found further violence and harm can occur even when women seeking asylum reach a country. This includes exacerbation of existing psychological trauma and exposure to intimate partner violence that may be continuing, or even start, after forced migration.

Immigration detention, insecure visa status, barriers to accessing services, poverty, lack of housing, stigma and racism are all factors which increase risks.

Researchers said the report, which also found some asylum seekers also reported feeling unsafe across journeys and in asylum accommodation because of their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, has particular urgency given the situation in Ukraine.

“With more than four million people, mainly women and children, fleeing Ukraine as a result of the Russian invasion, forced migration is an issue that is confronting us today,” Dr Block said.

University of Melbourne Associate Professor Cathy Vaughan, who led the Australian arm of the study, said the findings are a wake-up call for everyone.

“This report provides multi-country evidence to humanitarian aid organisations, governments, border, immigration and asylum agencies that sexual and gender-based violence against refugees is a global, cross-border challenge that demands urgent attention and new ways of working transnationally to support people when they need it most,” Associate Professor Vaughan said.

The report calls for:

  • Humanitarian and aid organisations to develop programs to address SGBV along forced migration routes, as well as to develop systems to capture data about the complex experiences of SGBV at each stage of the journey.
  • Institutional funders to fund mobile service delivery of essential services for forced migrants on the move – for example, post-rape contraception.
  • The provision of legal routes to remove the need for hazardous journeys.
  • Border, immigration and asylum agencies to develop gender-sensitive reception and asylum procedures and ensure access to safe and secure housing for SGBV survivors.