The United Nations is not doing enough to end the crisis of sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps around the world. This crisis won’t be solved quickly, but the U.N. must begin addressing this urgent problem by restructuring refugee camps to provide adequate prevention mechanisms, put more women and refugees in leadership roles, and supply psychological resources for victims. 

Week after week, we see news outlets reporting on various refugee crises around the world. We watch from the safety of our homes as thousands are injured, maimed, or even killed trying to make it across borders. Today there are more than 100 million displaced people, with over 20 million under the purview of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Fifty percent of these refugees identify as women. 

As a Southern California native and a recent college graduate who studied political science and human rights at a women’s college in New York City, my experiences and education have taught me a great deal about the refugee crises happening globally and the tragic negligence of the U.N. In my studies of refugee crises, specifically in Europe and Northern Africa, I have learned of certain atrocities we should be taking note of — and, more importantly, taking action on. We must hold international organizations, including the United Nations, accountable for their failures and demand that they act to defend the rights of refugees.

The serious nature of these crises has put marginalized refugees (such as women, children, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ individuals) in a particularly vulnerable state, increasing their likelihood of being subjected to sexual and gender-based violence. Women specifically continue to suffer needlessly inside (and outside) refugee camps because humanitarian organizations, like the U.N., are not taking appropriate action, despite the number of cases and their awareness of this problem. The U.N. must start restructuring camps by providing single-gender residences equipped with locking doors and maintaining proper street lighting at night. Having access to these basic resources has been proven to reduce crime.

Around 46% of Syrian women have reported feeling unsafe within refugee camps, and more than 75% report mental and physical problems that are directly related to their living conditions. After uprooting their lives in search of safety and prosperity, these individuals should not be faced with protecting or defending themselves from those who purport to help them. The U.N. needs to provide psychological resources within these camps. Current programs intended to implement mental health initiatives receive less than 1% of humanitarian funding.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees were granted their rights, but there is no official enforcement mechanism in place. In her 1973 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor, famously argued that because refugees are stateless, they become “rightless,” meaning there is no institution to enforce their rights or protect them. Several campaigns, including the UNHCR Amani campaign in Jordan, were created to address sexual and gender-based violence within refugee camps. More recently, the UNHCR released a statement urging action to be taken against the increasing number of cases of gender-based violence against women, children, and LGBTQ+ persons in refugee camps in Central America. 

While these are great steps toward recognizing the issue, it is too early to tell whether they will make a significant impact. Some of the most inspiring change has come from women and refugee-led projects. The U.N. should prioritize putting women and refugees in leadership positions. Evidence suggests this could reduce sexual and gender-based violence in camps within their purview, because women-led movements typically address the fears women face.

The U.N. also needs to provide the means for safe and anonymous reporting. Without enforcement or implementation, women are left to their own devices to defend themselves. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has noted the importance of safe and anonymous reporting for victims, citing a 2014 Department of Defense report finding that 62% of service members faced a threat of personal or professional retaliation after reporting abuse. Refugees face similar concerns over consequences or retaliation of reporting without the security of anonymity. 

Despite the prospect of new campaigns, the international community has failed to provide refugees with suitable solutions to protect their human rights, dignity, and security. This failure is exemplified when looking at the perhaps thousands of women who face daily occurrences of sexual assault and harassment. The U.N. must take action to stop this global crisis that is harming vulnerable women.

Maya Gilbert ’22 is a graduate of Barnard College.