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My research explores the influence of religion on migrant and refugee women who experienced Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) during their journeys. In this post I share what I learnt about the nature of SGBV experienced by my respondents.  

Statistically it is estimated that around 1 in 5 women experience sexual violence in crisis situations (Vu et al., 2014), when reaching Europe this increases to 69% because of additional risk factors, including insecurity, inadequate housing and economic hardship (Keygnaert and Guieu, 2015).

Fieldwork in Tunisia at peak heat hours was exhausting at times, but extremely rewarding. I sought refugee and migrant survivors of violence to speak to me about the role of religion in their lives pre, during and post migration. I arrived to Medenine in Southern Tunisia, a busy town with little infrastructure for migrants. I interviewed 15 Sub-Saharan migrants and refugees of 10 nationalities from West and East African countries, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most migrants were unhappy and anxious about their current life situations in a country in which they did not intend to reside. Many have been frustrated by uncertainty and the long wait for their official legal status and better living conditions. The shelters of temporary residence did not meet migrants’ needs and often negatively affected their health and well-being. I feel it is fair to say that the situation for migrants in Medenine has not been given sufficient attention by the international humanitarian community. Whilst the responsible UN agencies are ‘doing their bit’ and a handful of INGOs play an important role in service provision, the allocation of more resources and better coordination is desperately needed to support the dire and often hopeless situations migrants find themselves in, in the Tunisian context.

En route to Europe, migrants were stopped in Libya and other transit countries, in which they were subject to human trafficking and sexual exploitation by smugglers, militia and/or authorities. Sadly, most women I spoke with, have been exposed to and suffered from sexual and gender-based violence. Women from Congo described how, across all countries of transit (Cameroon, Niger, Algeria and Libya), they have been forced into sexual relations in exchange for travel passes. Often they were not allowed to continue their journey if they refused intimate relationships. Finally, after months of confinement and abuse in Libya, these Congolese women boarded boats for Europe, looking death in the eye. They entrusted their lives to God and believed that God would save them from drowning. They were rescued in deep sea and transported to the nearest hospital in Tunisia, far away from a desired destination – Europe. Many migrants, crossing hundreds of miles in the unknown waters, did not survive the dreadful journeys in search of a better tomorrow.

The accounts my respondents shared with me show that both women and men who undertake these migrant and refugee journeys are exploited and forced into unwanted sexual relationships, often being subjected to kidnapping and human trafficking. These multiple human rights violations, according to my findings, which should not be generalised to all groups of migrants, occur throughout the migrant and refugee journey across all countries of transit.

Some of my early lessons learnt:

  1. Transactional sex for travel passes is demanded by militia, officers of authority, smugglers and traffickers at different points of migrant journeys in all countries of transit.
  2. Rape is systematic across migrant journeys as a tool to control and deceive migrants who await to embark for Europe. Detaining migrants and luring them with a promise of reaching Europe is a deceptive and coercive strategy. Physical and emotional violence are commonly linked to sexual violence.
  3. SGBV against men is reported by some migrants to be equally common as SGBV against women. Men are abused whilst waiting to board boats to Europe. Men are exploited physically and demanded to work for no payment.
  4. SGBV is an outcome of a cross-border organised crime and human trafficking, the moving and selling of human bodies for a financial gain by organised international groups.
  5. Survivors require specialised support and economic opportunities to regain their humanity and dignity, to recover from trauma and to start their lives over.

The need for protection of migrants and refugees and regulation of migration management has never been greater. More coordinated arrangements could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Migrant infrastructure in countries of resettlement, including in transit countries of temporary refuge, needs to be improved to reduce vulnerability of people on the move to further risks of violence. A broader research agenda should further explore the above complexities in order to inform and improve policy and practice.

See my next blog post, which will be posted next week, where I reflect on how religion travels with refugee and migrant survivors of SGBV. I shed light on migrant and refugee SGBV survivors’ faith dimension of their experiences, resilience and vulnerability.


Keygnaert, I. and Guieu, A. (2015) What the eye does not see: a critical interpretive synthesis of European Union policies addressing sexual violence in vulnerable migrants. Reproductive Health Matters, 23 (46): 45–55. doi:10.1016/j.rhm.2015.11.002.

Vu, A., Adam, A., Wirtz, A., et al. (2014) The Prevalence of Sexual Violence among Female Refugees in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: a Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. PLoS Currents, 6. doi:10.1371/currents.dis.835f10778fd80ae031aac12d3b533ca7.

Blog written by Sandra Pertek, SEREDA Project Researcher, University of Birmingham

Read more about the SEREDA Project in the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS).