Academic journal article Refuge

"What Happens There ... Follows Us Here": Resettled but Still at Risk: Refugee Women and Girls in Australia

Academic journal article Refuge

"What Happens There ... Follows Us Here": Resettled but Still at Risk: Refugee Women and Girls in Australia

Article excerpt


Men are affected in the war because men get killed, but women and children, they [rape] the women, they rape the little girls and mistreat the children. Do you understand?

--Resettled refugee woman (2008) (1)

The many risks and human rights abuses experienced by refugee and displaced women and girls in conflict, during flight and in camps and urban refugee sites are now widely acknowledged. These include rape and other forms of sexual violence, beatings, forced marriage and relationships, forced engagement in survival sex, and pregnancy and childbirth as a result of rape. (2) However, there has been significantly less focus on and exploration of the risks and human rights abuses that refugee women and girls might face within countries of resettlement. Resettlement as a durable solution is predicated on the notion that the rights of those resettled will be restored and that, through effective settlement and integration support, the protection needs of refugees, including women and girls, will be addressed. (3) Research in Australia, conducted over a number of years, has shown that some women and girls continue to be at risk of ongoing violence, human rights abuses, and threats to their safety and well-being during their settlement. Many of these experiences are directly related to and compounded by their previous experiences of sexual and gender-based violence that first identified them as women at risk. They include high risks of rape, forced relationships and marriage, survival sex, social exclusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and severe trauma. (4)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Women at Risk (WaR) Program was created to provide resettlement to refugee women who had been identified by UNHCR as at extreme risk and in desperate need of resettlement. They were women "who, either due to their refugee status or to the social mores within the country of first asylum, as women find themselves seriously at risk." (5) In 1988 UNHCR commenced the program in partnership with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for joint sponsorship of up to eighty "vulnerable" women in this new category. (6) By 1992 two additional countries, Australia and New Zealand, had established WaR Programs. Each offered a modest number of places within their overall resettlement programs, with New Zealand offering twenty places and Australia sixty. Several other countries also started to accept women-at-risk cases within their resettlement programs. (7)

However, from its inception, the program struggled to achieve its aim, quotas were never filled, and many of the most at-risk women and girls were not resettled. Research undertaken by the authors over the past twenty-five years in Australia, and in refugee camps and urban settings in eighteen countries has identified some of the key barriers the program faces. These include difficulties in identification of at-risk cases, the dismissive attitudes of some NGO and UNHCR staff towards sexual and gender-based violence, and the low visibility of the program. The research documented not only the multiple risks and human rights abuses experienced by refugee women and girls, but also explored the challenges facing UNHCR and NGO staff in identifying WaR in situations where the vast majority of refugee women have experienced rape and sexual violence. (8)

One outcome of this research was the adoption of a new UNHCR Conclusion on the protection of women and girls at risk, first drafted by authors Pittaway and Bartolomei and adopted by member states at the Executive Committee Meeting of UNHCR Geneva in 2006. (9) A Conclusion is "soft" international law designed to assist governments in their interpretation and implementation of the Refugee Convention. At the request of UNHCR and NGO field staff, they also developed a Women and Girls at Risk Identification Tool to assist in the identification of and response to atrisk women and girls. …

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