Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Temporary Protection for Refugees Fleeing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Private shelter in rural Haiti
(IntLawGrrls welcomes this post from contributor Kim Thuy Seelinger in honor of World Refugee Day)
People who flee their homes to escape sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) often have few options for immediate, temporary housing. Their need for emergency shelter usually outstrips supply even in well-resourced urban centers in the United States, Europe, and Canada. Even more vulnerable are victims swept up in conflicts and natural disasters. In many refugee camp settings, provision of specialized emergency shelter falls to the overall camp management – often the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or large international humanitarian organizations. In some cases, private donors may fund ad hoc SGBV shelters, as well, operating autonomously and sometimes with more goodwill than guidance.  
Unique challenges
Many of the challenges that arise in these insecure and resource-limited settings are extreme and unique. In addition to severe resource constraints and both internal and external security threats, camp settings also present challenges related to utter lack of privacy – both of individuals and of spaces or structures. It is often impossible to have a “secret” safehouse location. Moreover, transition options are far more limited: a survivor being released from a shelter may have slim relocation or resettlement chances; she may have to return to the same tent or hut she inhabited before fleeing. Without legal status or the ability to move freely within a host country, it is virtually impossible for a refugee survivor of SGBV to fully escape or start a new life.
Protection huts, Dadaab camp, Kenya
Lack of data, guidance
Despite the myriad challenges they face, SGBV shelter programs in refugee camps operate with surprisingly little practical guidance. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee Guidelines for Gender-Based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings: Focusing on Prevention of and Response to Sexual Violence in Emergencies (2005) is relevant, but more aspirational than practical. The UNHCR’s Sexual and Gender-based Violence against Refugees, Returnees, and Internally-Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and Response (2003) is similarly on-point but lacks concrete detail about possible shelter models or operations.
 HRC’s 4-country study 
As part of our Sexual Violence & Accountability Project, the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley's Law School (HRC) is studying existing models, challenges, and best practices in the temporary protection of survivors in forced displacement settings.
Since early 2012, we have been collecting and analyzing data safe shelters and alternative protection mechanisms operating in Kenya, Haiti, Colombia, and along the Thai-Burma border. Through interviews with shelter staff and residents, we are beginning to understand on-the-ground experiences and gather concrete recommendations. We hope to answer the following simple but fundamental questions:
►What models currently provide refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) with temporary protection from SGBV, and where are they operating?
►What lessons are transferable to other displacement settings?
►Might some models work better in certain contexts than in others?

Preliminary learning
Tents at Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya
 Our fieldwork has revealed a diversity of models in both camp settings and in urban centers. We have seen single structure safehouses and dispersed private apartments. We have seen huts encircled by barbed wire and leafy branches. We have seen secret beds in health clinics and legal aid offices, and extra mats on a crowded tent floor.
So far, there appear to be several common challenges faced by these various models. These include:
►Survivors may have countless disincentives to seeking protection outside the home, including the stigma of SGBV, social exclusion for leaving home, the fear of retaliation, lack of resettlement options, and separation from children and support systems;
►Shelter’s exposed locations in camp and lack of relocation options require community buy-in and support for effective transition, which requires obtaining community input in program design, operation, and transition planning;
►Limited law enforcement capacity and disconnect from host country mechanisms can impede survivors’ ability, and willingness to report violence;
►Donor support / relief efforts can have both negative and positive impacts on what support services are provided to whom; funding imbalances can also affect relationships among providers;
►Insufficient tracking capacity limits evaluation of effectiveness;
►Insufficient mechanisms for addressing the specific needs and risks faced by male, LGBT, and disabled residents can create critical protection gaps;
►Diversity of survivors’ feelings, preferences, and needs can outstrip personnel competence or capacity;
►Managing the special housing, psychosocial, and educational needs of children, including both child survivors and minor dependents, can be difficult;
►Managing fraud that may arise due to shelter “pull factors” (better facilities, access to resources, and chances for resettlement than otherwise available, etc.) can be difficult and may contribute to staff cynicism over time.
Shelter staff and survivors have provided frank feedback about their personal roles and experiences, as well. Some staff feedback is predictable: there are never enough beds; it is hard to move someone out to make space for a new survivor; shelter sustainability is difficult; fraud and “double dipping” for benefits are concerns. Other staff feedback is more surprising: there are occasional security breaches by perpetrators; eligibility criteria can fluctuate radically with funding changes; many programs have no way to track residents’ safety once they leave; the work is emotionally taxing and occasionally dangerous - staff members themselves need physical protection and psychosocial support.
Government-run DV shelter, Thailand
Refugee and IDP shelter residents have also shared some predictable thoughts: uncertainty about the future is stressful and causes nightmares; reporting abuse to the police can be intimidating and futile; vocational training would help residents transition to safety; many residents fear retaliation from communities and/or families should their abusers be jailed; mothers worry about their children’s access to education. And, again, some residents shared unexpected insights: some fear sleeping in a shelter with concrete walls (for example, in post-earthquake Haiti); some hope to participate in a shelter’s counseling, prayer, and training programs even after leaving; teenagers sometimes try to escape from the rigidity and isolation of shelter life; fighting among residents can be one of the greatest challenges of communal lodging.
Study outputs
HRC’s (4) country-specific reports, scheduled for release in fall 2012, will summarize the models, challenges, innovations, and insights we’ve accrued from each case study. Our comparative assessment will be published soon after. This assessment will be accompanied by formal recommendations for the UNHCR and other protection-providing entities. It is our hope that our findings will trigger a constructive dialogue about the unique realities of, and options for, emergency SGBV protection in forced displacement settings. We welcome feedback and expertise as we develop our recommendations.

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