Famine refugees face increased violence, aid groups say

An influx to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is causing a spike in sexual violence, NGOs say.
Recently-arrived Somali refugees walk amongst makeshift shelters on the outskirts of Dagahaley Camp, outside Dadaab, Kenya. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Humanitarian organizations in the Horn of Africa say they've seen a dramatic increase in violence against women as more people make the journey to refugee camps in East Africa.

An influx of people at Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley camps, collectively known as Dadaab refugee camps, is also causing increased violence in the camps, according to aid agencies in the region.

A UNHCR report says sexual and gender-based violence against women in Dadaab has quadrupled in the past six months. This year 358 cases were reported from January to June. Last year 75 cases were reported in the same time period.

Alexandra Lopoukhine of CARE Canada says women are especially vulnerable during the journey to the camps, when they often travel with only their few belongings and their sick children. It is then that many of them are robbed or sexually attacked.

"Women have told me about being raped on the way to the refugee camp," Lopoukhine says. "We're noticing a lot of trauma among the refugee population."

Lopoukhine, who has been in Dadaab for the past three weeks, says 80 per cent of the people arriving at the camps are women and children. Men often stay behind to tend to the remaining cattle or a sick relative. The spike in assaults is likely caused by an increase in the number of refugees making the journey to Dadaab, says Lopoukhine.

"Before January we saw two to three hundred people registering a day. Now it's in the thousands."

A report from CARE International states the number of reported cases of rape in the camps has more than doubled. Last year 66 cases of rape were documented by the agency from January to July, compared to 139 cases in the same time period this year.

CARE International implements many of the aid programs in Dadaab, including one-on-one counseling for victims of sexual violence.

Increased risk in camps

Equally distressing is the number of women facing the threat of violence in the camps, says Sinead Murray of the International Rescue Committee.

The IRC operates medical clinics and counseling centres in the Hagadera camp in Dadaab. Murray says they've also noticed an increase in sexual violence against women, particularly in the month of June.

Because land is scarce in the already overcrowded camps, new arrivals are forced to settle on the outskirts of the camp, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

These women are particularly at risk when they leave their homes in the camp to search for firewood.

"There's a fear of going to the bush because they think they are going to encounter violence," Murray says. "Many women say that there are men in the bush and these men have guns and they're going to attack."

The search for firewood, which is used for cooking, can take all day.

Erin Patrick of the Women's Refugee Comission says the refugees are often competing with local residents for scarce resources.

"The local population also depends on firewood. It creates tension and increases the risk that women face when they leave the camp to collect firewood," says Patrick.

Programs to address the issue have been in place since the late 1990s, says Patrick. But they don't provide women with enough firewood.

Social stigma

Murray says the numbers don't tell the whole story. Many women don't report sexual assault because it comes with a stigma.

"Women conceal it to protect themselves from isolation from the community," Murray says. "Young women fear they won't be marriageable because they are seen as spoiled goods."

Those who do report being assaulted are often let down, says Patrick.

"There's a real lack of confidence in the judicial process … the calculation for them just isn't worth it," Patrick says. She spoke with women in Dadaab who have seen their assailants go free after one night in jail.

But Murray is confident more can be done to help women in Dadaab.

"Right now we're focusing on letting them know about the resources available to them. We're handing out kits with whistles and flashlights," Murray says. "We want to reduce the opportunity for future violence."