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As the British government marks the 10th anniversary of the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative (PSVI) with a conference in London, UN Special Envoy for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, said: “There has been some progress … but it has not been nearly enough to meet the needs of survivors, or to deter perpetrators from using rape as a weapon of war in almost every new conflict in the past decade.” We at the SEREDA project share her frustration.

The international SEREDA project was established in 2018 to explore the experiences of forced migrant survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and to identify ways in which survivors could be better protected and supported. We have carried out research with survivors in multiple countries: from the UK to Australia, Sweden, Turkey, Tunisia, Poland and Ukraine and generated additional projects looking at survivors’ experiences in the early stages of COVID and in asylum interviews.

The SEREDA project is unique in its focus on individuals’ experiences from pre-flight through conflict, flight to safety, lengthy journeys in search of refuge and arrival and integration in countries of refuge. Our interviews with nearly 300 survivors show us that many of them experience multiple incidents of SGBV at the hands of different perpetrators, but few receive the protection or support they need. Women and girls form the majority of victims, but men and boys and many LGBTQI+ persons are also victimised.

Many survivors waited years, sometimes over a decade for a decision, living in fear of return to violence or persecution and unable to get on with their lives and be distracted from traumatic memories. They experienced deteriorating mental health as they felt any hope for a decent life ebbing away."

Jenny Phillimore, Professor of Migration and Superdiversity – University of Birmingham

A key finding from the SEREDA project is that we need not only to prevent SGBV in conflict, but also along the continuum of violence that runs from conflict to refuge. At the moment, once forced migrants escape a conflict situation and cross a border in search of refuge, they become illegal, falling foul of cruel border regimes and a de facto absence of safe and legal routes to resettlement. There is no protection for survivors as they seek safety. Many cross through multiple countries in search of refuge - victimised by perpetrators including local border guards, police, local people, smugglers, traffickers, and fellow migrants who know they can operate with impunity. Lack of access to post-rape prophylaxis can leave women pregnant, with HIV or other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Without food and shelter some are forced into transactional sex in order to feed themselves and their children.

Many of our interviewees reached ‘safety’ in countries like Sweden and the UK, but continued to suffer and be exposed to violence as asylum systems placed them in mixed gender accommodation where they faced constant harassment. Lengthy asylum interviews undertaken by male caseworkers were not trauma or gender informed and generated great distress leaving women feeling suicidal but without access to psychological support. Many survivors waited years, sometimes over a decade for a decision, living in fear of return to violence or persecution and unable to get on with their lives and be distracted from traumatic memories. They experienced deteriorating mental health as they felt any hope for a decent life ebbing away. Often survivors became destitute as asylum housing and support was withdrawn following rejection of a claim. Living on the streets or relying on others for favours, their vulnerability to SGBV once again increased. Only the intervention of grassroots organisations protected survivors from further abuse. These organisations often provided survivors with their first decent immigration advice - enabling them to appeal asylum decisions and eventually gain leave to remain and finally secure a chance to be safe.

We endorse the UN Special Envoy for Refugees’ call for action, but we ask that Governments and humanitarian organisations acknowledge that SGBV does not just happen to refugees in conflict. Protection and support are needed for individuals across the whole of their forced migration and into refuge. Forced migrant SGBV survivors must be treated with the same care and respect that we would offer those outside of immigration systems. Fundamentally until we have ‘safe and legal’ routes to protection for those seeking refuge, forced migrants will be abused with impunity whether on journeys or in destination countries.

Jenny Phillimore, Professor of Migration and Superdiversity – University of Birmingham