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Chapter 1 By Force, Not by Choice:
Refugee Women and Asylum-Seekers

Expanded Protections and Recognition

Violence Against Women and Girls

Reproductive Health, Including HIV Prevention

Repatriation, Integration and Resettlement

With a faint voice and half-closed eyes, Hajja tells her story: Five months ago, when she was four months pregnant, she fled her village to seek refuge from a conflict that is still tearing apart the lives of countless people living in Darfur, Sudan. She, her husband and their seven children made the 55 kilometre trek under the scorching desert sun before reaching Kalma camp—a safe haven that huddles along the train tracks near the Chad/Sudan border. They left behind their home, their friends and a life to which they may never be able to return.

Home to over 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), Kalma is the largest camp operating in Darfur. Many of its residents will eventually seek safety in other countries on other continents. But on 10 May, 2005, Hajji gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby at an UNFPA-supported women's clinic run by the Médecins du Monde. Her name is "Hope" and it is a moniker that serves as both an invocation for the future and testimony to all that her family has lost. Hope is also what enables millions of women, men and children to flee conflict, persecution and human rights abuses—despite hardship, uncertainty, fear and violence. But it is force, not choice, that compels so many to abandon their families, homes, communities and the very countries in which they were born.

Although forced displacement entails risks for everyone who attempts it, women and girls face particular challenges—during flight, through temporary refuge and in final settlement. In 2005, there were approximately 12.7 million refugees in the world, roughly half of them women, and 773,500 individuals seeking asylum globally.(1) As well as risks and hazards, however, flight offers refugees an opportunity to escape exploitation, discrimination and persecution. The breakdown of society can also afford an opportunity to rebuild anew on a foundation of equality and respect for human rights. Following the end of hostilities, women refugees play a critical role in building a lasting peace and restoring social and economic order.(2) For many refugee women, reconstruction can offer an escape from discrimination and the opportunity to exercise new-found autonomy. For many, however, it does not.

Women and girls face many dangers and obstacles throughout the entire refugee experience. When schools and medical facilities close, jobs are lost and armed groups seize control, it is largely women and girls who assume care for children, the infirm and the elderly. Many must contend with unwanted and forced pregnancies and have special needs relating to sexual and reproductive health issues. They also often bear a disproportionate share of responsibilities and burdens. Certain groups of women—such as those who head households, ex-combatants, the elderly, the disabled, widows, young mothers and unaccompanied adolescent girls—are more vulnerable and require special protection and support. Although women make up a higher proportion of elderly refugees, their particular needs are often neglected.(3) Many are also widowed and care for orphaned or separated children.



Today, too many women still face considerable obstacles in their attempts to present claims of persecution—a major reason why, unlike refugees, they are usually underrepresented among asylum-seekers. For historical reasons, and because exclusively male delegations did not consider that persecution could be based on gender, the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol did not specifically recognize it as a valid reason to claim refugee status.(1)

In 2002, UNHCR released a set of international guidelines affirming that the international definition of refugees "covers gender-related claims".(2) These include forms of persecution that are particular to women, or that primarily affect women, or occur because they are women—such as severe forms of gender discrimination (i.e., Afghan women under the Taliban).(3) Gender-related asylum claims can include sexual violence, domestic violence, trafficking, coerced family planning, forced abortion, female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) honour killings, forced marriage, punishment for going against social mores and discrimination against same-sex partners.(4) In all cases, individuals seeking gender-related asylum need to satisfy the eligibility criteria for refugee status as defined by the Convention.

Despite these and other developments, officials tend to favour a narrow definition of what constitutes a refugee. This means they are sometimes reluctant to recognize gender-related persecution as grounds for asylum—especially that perpetrated by private citizens and where the state is unable to provide protection.(5) Some argue that violence against women is of too personal a nature to amount to persecution; others fear that all applicants seeking asylum on the basis of discrimination or assault would have to be approved if women were considered a "particular social group". Experience in Canada and the US, however, has proven that this is not the case.(6)

In 1993, Canada was the first country in the world to adopt guidelines that define women as a "particular social group" as put forth by the 1951 Convention. This laid the foundation for gender guidelines in other countries, including Australia, South Africa, the UK and the US.(7) In 1995, the United States Government granted asylum to a woman fleeing FGM/C. It was an important precedent, and the Government subsequently granted asylum on the basis of honour killings and forced marriage.

In 2004, the European Council adopted a directive that, among other issues, recognized child- and gender-specific forms of persecution, including sexual violence. This statute, applicable to nearly all EU Member States, calls for countries to comply by passing and enforcing domestic legislation by October 2006.(8) Although the EU's goal is to establish a common asylum system for all members by 2010, each country currently maintains its own policies. For example, 17 of 41 European countries surveyed during a 2004 UNHCR study recognize sexual violence explicitly as a form of persecution, but the rest had not. Just over half acknowledge that discrimination can constitute a form of persecution while three quarters do not recognize sexual exploitation or forced prostitution in their asylum procedures. Two thirds, however, recognize non-state agents of persecution.(9)

The UK stands out as one of the most progressive European countries when it comes to policies that protect female asylum-seekers. In addition to the 2004 release of Gender Issues in the Asylum Claim, case law recognizes the role of non-state armed groups in fomenting sexual violence.(10) However, even in countries with more progressive policies, application can be inconsistent.(11) The consolidation of EU asylum policies offers an opportunity to strengthen and standardize guidelines for female asylum-seekers.

Nonetheless, men are more likely to apply and be granted asylum than women. In 2000, women accounted for only 33 per cent of asylum applications in Canada,(12) and in 2002, roughly one third in Europe.(13) This is because women are usually not the primary applicants (male relatives are); gendered reasons may make case presentation more difficult (i.e., shame regarding painful experiences of rape or torture, and embarrassment over relaying personal information to male interviewers). Other issues include the fact that women are more likely to be interviewed alongside spouses or other intimate partners when they are not the primary applicant—even when they have borne the brunt of persecution. This is sometimes compounded by interviewer ignorance of how cultural differences regarding female demeanor can influence the interview outcome (for example, reluctance to establish eye contact).(14)

In addition, some national asylum guidelines are more likely to recognize those persecuted by the state (more often men) than victims of non-state persecution (more often women, who are more likely to be threatened by members of their family or community—such as in cases of "honour killings", FGM/C or violent spouses).(15) Even when women are politically active, their involvement is usually "low-level" and not as high profile as men's. Much of it is undertaken from the home, which means evidence for the claim can be harder to gather. Thus, female asylum-seekers may challenge conventional notions of politically based persecution, and are therefore more likely to face barriers when filing a claim.(16)

Failure to recognize gender-related claims—beyond perpetuating uncertainty and fear of being deported back to a threatening situation—has also been linked to irregular migration and higher risks of exploitation. Some women with legitimate claims may opt out of the process altogether and become undocumented migrants instead. And since many countries bar asylum-seekers from legally working, this means many women are forced to take whatever jobs are available—even though this might increase the risk of being exploited and/or trafficked.(17)

Though policies and practices remain inconsistent and vary from country to country, some good practices have emerged for others to draw from. These include gender-sensitive and cross-cultural training that targets officials and includes informing female asylum-seekers of their rights—such as the right to be interviewed separately and confidentially and to register claims independently. UNHCR recommends that a same-sex interviewer be assigned to speak to women apart from other family members in order to allow greater privacy and freedom of expression.(18)

Expanded Protections and Recognition

After many years of ignoring the differing needs, roles and experiences of women and men, the international community is making important strides towards protecting refugee women and girls and advancing their rights.

The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol defines refugees as those who are outside their country of nationality "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".(4) Under international humanitarian law, governments are bound to protect refugees from violence and to safeguard their rights, including rights to education, work, freedom of movement and of religion.(5) They are also bound by the principle of non-refoulement—whereby refugees cannot be forced to return to their country of origin if they have a reasonable fear that doing so will endanger their lives.

Today, various international agreements focus on empowering and protecting women. In 1991, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women. These were established to better address the needs of refugee women and enhance their involvement in decision-making. Guidelines on sexual and gender-based violence issued in 2003 provide additional measures to ensure protection and support survivors.(6) Humanitarian relief agencies have made considerable progress by making reproductive health services more widely available, address¬ing gender-based violence, increasing the enrolment of girls in schools and involving women refugees in camp management.(7)

In recent years, the international community has also undertaken important initiatives designed to protect women from rape during and after conflict, and bring perpetrators to justice.(8) Among the most significant, is the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which defines sexual violence as a war crime—a precedent established by international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.(9) UN Security Council resolutions passed between 1999 and 2003 to protect children during armed conflict also note the needs and vulnerabilities of girls and condemn sexual violence during peacekeeping operations.(10)

Throughout the UN conferences of the 1990s, governments agreed to provide special protection and meet the needs of refugee women. These agreements include the 1994 International Programme of Action on Population and Development and the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In 2000, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325, a landmark decision mandating the participation of women in the peace process and calling for protection and support for women living amid armed conflict.(11) The 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, adopted by heads of state and governments, reiterated the importance of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1325.(12)


Refugees often wind up living in a variety of temporary arrangements. In some cases, they stay with host families or settle in urban areas. For most, however, life continues on in camps. While some provide refuge for a few thousand, others hold far more. (In 2003, Afghans living in Pakistani camps numbered over one million.(13)) And while some refugees remain for only a few months, protracted instability in the country of origin means that this is the exception. As of 2003, the average duration of years spent in a refugee camp was 17 years.(14) A number of Palestinian camps were established as early as 1948 and 1967.(15)

Many refugees arrive at their destinations exhausted, ill and traumatized. Before their arrival, they have often witnessed, if not experienced directly, extreme violence. Even while in the camp, refugees may get caught in fighting between factions, clans or nationalities, and be vulnerable to cross-border attacks. Ethnic or religious differences with the host community can fuel resentment.

Especially at the outset of an emergency, shelter, water, food, medicine and health services may be insufficient for the number of people seeking refuge. Education for children is a major concern: Only 3 per cent of the estimated 1.5 million refugee adolescents in developing countries between the ages of 12 and 17 were attending secondary school based on year 2000 estimates.(16) Girls face particular barriers. This is because women and girls usually spend more time doing domestic work, such as gathering food, fuel and water, instead of going to school or earning an income.(17) In response, more and more educational programmes are specifically targeting girls to ensure they complete their education. For young mothers this can be particularly tough. In 2003 and 2004, UNHCR and the US Embassy paid the tuition fees of young Angolan refugee mothers in the Meheba camp in Zambia. The girls were also offered childcare and the support of older women mentors.(18)

Among some refugee groups, traditional cultural norms can become more entrenched as a result of displacement. This can lead to even more limitations on female autonomy. Afghan refugees in Pakistan, for example, adopted a more extreme form of purdah (the separation of men and women) during displacement that the Taliban then strictly enforced when they returned to Afghanistan.(19) Nevertheless, the active participation of communities and women themselves can help overcome discriminatory attitudes. Particularly vital is to ensure that women, especially heads of households, have access to educational and livelihood opportunities. In Pakistan, Save the Children offers a health and literacy programme for Afghan refugee women living in remote provinces. The German Development Organization (GTZ) has offered literacy courses for the past 18 years in many of the 250 refugee camps it has supported.(20) In Liberia, in 2002, UNHCR provided literacy training for a group of women who would then go on to teach other women. The organization also supported livelihood programmes: In one project, 80 per cent of the 339 refugees receiving skills and income-generating training were women and adolescent girls.(21)

In Ghana's Buduburam camp, Unite for Sight established a unique programme that provides economic alternatives for female Liberian refugees so destitute that they were often forced to trade sex for food.(22) There, female heads of household produce hand-made eyeglass cases for sale on the world market. All proceeds go to fund an eye care clinic for the camp's refugees.(23) Another UNHCR programme provides a small monthly stipend and medical care to registered Congolese refugees living in Kampala, Uganda. These programmes also help send displaced children to school. Most urban refugees in Kampala are widows with three or more children.(24)