UNHCR initiates systems to protect refugee women and children from violence

Sunday 22, June 2008 BUDAPEST/LJUBLJANA, June 22 (UNHCR) – When the teachers of eight year old refugee girl Alicia* noticed marks of beatings on her body, they set in motion the standard procedure for such cases in Hungary. They informed the management of the refugee centre where she lives, the […]

Sunday 22, June 2008

BUDAPEST/LJUBLJANA, June 22 (UNHCR) – When the teachers of eight year old refugee girl Alicia* noticed marks of beatings on her body, they set in motion the standard procedure for such cases in Hungary. They informed the management of the refugee centre where she lives, the police and the relevant authorities.

Cases of violence against women and children may happen anywhere and most societies have developed adequate prevention and response mechanisms for persons at risk. It is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR’s) role to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are not left outside these mechanisms.

On World Refugee Day 2008, 20 June, the UNHCR’s Regional Representative for Central Europe, Lloyd Dakin signed a document in Slovenia that will guarantee exactly that: a mechanism to handle cases of sexual and gender-based violence when they occur among refugees or asylum seekers in Slovenia. The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on Sexual and Gender-based Violence were signed by the Government of the Republic of Slovenia, UNHCR and all the relevant Non-Governmental Organisations.

It is part of a world wide UNHCR campaign to establish institutional protection mechanisms in all locations where refugees and asylum seekers are accommodated and the High Commissioner has made a personal commitment to ensure that SOPs are established in the 118 counties where UNHCR is operating.

In Central Europe, this project is well under way. In November 2007 Slovakia was the first country in the region to have SOPs signed by all stakeholders. In February, March and April 2008, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania followed. Slovenia signed in June and in Hungary the drafting process is being completed.

Referral system saved refugee girl

“In large refugee camps in African and Asian countries UNHCR itself is the primary provider of protection and assistance and therefore responsible when it comes to setting up reporting and referral systems for sexual and gender-based violence,” says Lloyd Dakin, UNHCR’s Regional Representative.

The Central European context, however, necessitated a different approach. “Here, the governments already have systems in place to deal with such cases,” says Dakin. “Our task was to make sure that refugees and asylum seekers are covered by them as well.” It took months of negotiations and drafting and the will of all partners involved to come to a joint understanding of mechanisms for prevention, monitoring and evaluation that are contained in the SOPs.

In UNHCR’s view, agreeing on the text of the SOPs is only the beginning. “We have reached a common understanding on the roles and responsibilities. The next step is to make sure that each resident of each refugee facility in the region and every staff member knows what to do if someone has been the victim of sexual or gender-based violence or there are reasons to suspect that such a problem exists in the community,” Dakin pointed out.

Many Forms of Abuse and Coercion

Sexual and Gender-based violence encompasses sexual, physical or psychological violence directed against a person on the basis of gender or sex. It includes acts of domestic violence, but also rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the community, intimidation at work and school, trafficking, forced prostitution and similar acts of coercion. While every person can become a victim of sexual and gender-based violence, women and girls are the most vulnerable groups.

Alica’s ordeal was detected at the local school. But if something similar happens within a refugee reception centre the SOPs will now determine how best to deal with that in a swift, efficient and confidential way.

Awareness raising among refugee and asylum seeker communities in Central Europe is the next step of putting the SOPs into practice. Currently posters and leaflets are being developed to explain to the residents the confidential referral system. Their design will not be letter-based but rather will rely on images to make sure that the lack of reading or language skills does not get in the way of efficient protection.

In the case of the refugee girl in Hungary all ended well. Alicia was separated from her distressed and aggressive single parent and placed with a foster family for six months. However, now Alicia is back with her father. With the help of Alicia’s foster parents, he has found a flat and a job and in their vicinity. Tensions have diffused and the situation is normalising as the family integrates in Hungary.

* Not her real name

Melita H. Sunjic in Budapest, Hungary