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  • Autumn Coalwell

Putting an end to Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in global migration processes

October 10, 2023

[Image source: KCL]

There were 281 million global migrants in the world in 2022, which equates to 3.6% of the world’s population (United Nations, 2022). Humans have always migrated; this is nothing new. However, since the evolution of nation-states and the borders that came with them, migration has become increasingly challenging. Among the myriad of reasons that compel people to leave their homes and migrate, most do so in search of a better quality of life for their family, whether they’re fleeing violence, in search of work, or escaping poverty. International migration is rarely an individual or family’s first choice; instead, it is a last resort when all other options have failed them.

When we examine global migration policy, we see that each receiving country has a different approach to the management and integration (or lack thereof) of migrants and refugees. Despite these differences in approach, one aspect remains the same: the migration process exposes migrants to an increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and exploitation.

Studies of several key migration routes in Europe and North Africa have found that 50-75% of migrant women had experienced SGBV during the migration process (De Schrijver et al., 2022; Keygnaert & Guieu, 2015; Phillimore et al., 2022). Although many countries have programs in place to prevent and report SGBV, these programs are inconsistently applied and may lack the cultural sensitivity that is required to support victims. In several studies, migrants stated that they were not aware of any SGBV awareness programs or resources available to them (Oliveira et al., 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, the provision of resources to migrant and refugee communities was further complicated and, in some countries, put entirely on pause. The majority of SGBV victims report experiencing trauma or mental health impacts, and studies show that trauma can make it more difficult for individuals to learn and adapt. This means that victims of SGBV may have more difficulty integrating with host communities and learning new skills to help them be successful. Studies on the provision of mental health services to migrants have shown positive results, although some migrants express reluctance to utilize these services for fear of being reported to immigration authorities, fear of seeing a male doctor, or a reluctance to share personal feelings and experiences with strangers (Phillimore et al., 2022).

The process of migration makes individuals inherently more vulnerable to SGBV due to the unequal power balance that it creates, and the economic vulnerability of migrants puts them at a higher risk of exploitation. Victims stated that they were afraid to speak out due to the social, cultural, and legal repercussions they could face. In one study, 20% of victims reported that their abuser was a member of the migration support staff; this included case authorities, local officials, lawyers, and the police (Keygnaert et al., 2012). Victims were afraid to report incidences of SGBV for fear that it could complicate the legal migration process. Due to the cultural stigma that surrounds sexual harassment and abuse, many victims stated that reporting the SGBV they had endured resulted in their expulsion from their family or social networks (Keygnaert et al., 2012). In cases where the perpetrator is a family member or a significant other, the victim may not have the financial and social means to escape SGBV.

To put an end to SGBV in migration, culturally sensitive resources need to be made available to migrants on a global scale; this could include documents that explain what SGBV is, how it can be prevented, how it can be reported, and emergency contacts that migrants can reach out to for physical and mental health support.These resources need to be in the languages of the migrants seeking shelter in each region, and they need to be individually crafted to focus on cultural norms, values, and the stigma surrounding SGBV. These resources should be stocked at all migrant and refugee shelters and accessible to those with disabilities. Shelters should provide training to migrant communities on how to recognize, prevent, and report SGBV. An ideal program would train migrants to provide SGBV education to their communities. Host country staff who have regular contact with migrants should be trained to identify and report potential cases of SGBV; if possible, they should also be trained to provide trauma-informed care for migrant communities. Host and transition countries need to track reported cases of SGBV and ensure that the reporting of SGBV does not result in legal repercussions for victims. Host countries and NGOs need to continue (and expand upon) the provision of emergency shelters where migrants can seek refuge, as these centers allow them to escape living situations where they may be exposed to SGBV and exploitation. Finally, culturally sensitive mental health programs need to be available for all migrants. This will be a huge undertaking, and it will involve the participation of host countries and NGOs, but it is necessary. Provision of culturally sensitive mental health services could help migrants recover from the trauma they have experienced and empower them to report and avoid future SGBV and exploitation.

SGBV is an international issue, and we (yes, all of us!) need to take a stronger stance in preventing it. Although many countries provide resources for migrants, these efforts have not been enough to prevent high rates of SGBV. We need to develop a collaborative and integrated approach to ensuring the provision of these resources throughout the migration process. It is essential that we provide support to host, transition, and origin countries and hold them accountable for the provision of resources and education to prevent SGBV.

Wondering what you can do to help?

Here are a few starting points:

  1. Vote for candidates and policies that support safe migration pathways

  2. Donate (if you are able) to NGOs that provide resources to migrants

  3. Volunteer in your free time

And don’t forget to use the most powerful tool that is available to you - Your voice.



[1] Acharai, L., Khalis, M., Bouaddi, O., Krisht, G., Elomrani, S., Yahyane, A., & Assarag, B. (2023). Sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence among female migrants in Morocco: a cross sectional survey. BMC Women’s Health, 23(1).

[2] Belanteri, R. A., Hinderaker, S. G., Wilkinson, E., Episkopou, M., Timire, C., De Plecker, E., Mabhala, M., Takarinda, K. C., & Van den Bergh, R. (2020). Sexual violence against migrants and asylum seekers. The experience of the MSF clinic on Lesvos Island, Greece. PLOS ONE, 15(9), e0239187.

[3] Bradby, H., Papoutsi, A., Hourani, J., Akyuz, S., & Phillimore, J. (2023). Something is (still) missing? Feminist services for forced migrants surviving sexual and gender-based violence in Sweden, Australia, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Women’s Studies International Forum.

[4] Calderón-Jaramillo, M., Parra-Romero , D., Janeth Forero-Martínez, L., Royo, M., & Carlos Rivillas-García, J. (2020). Migrant women and sexual and gender-based violence at the Colombia-Venezuela border: A qualitative study. Journal of Migration and Health, 1-2, 100003.

[5] Chowdhury, S. A., McHale, T., Green, L., Mishori, R., Pan, C., & Fredricks, I. (2022). Health professionals’ perspectives on the impact of COVID-19 on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and SGBV services in Rohingya refugee communities in Bangladesh. BMC Health Services Research, 22(1).

[6] De Schrijver, L. D., Nobels, A., Harb, J., Nisen, L., Roelens, K., Vander Beken, T. V., Vandeviver, C., & Keygnaert, I. (2022). Victimization of Applicants for International Protection Residing in Belgium: Sexual Violence and Help-Seeking Behavior. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(19), 12889.

[7] Freccero, J., Biswas, D., Whiting, A., Alrabe, K., & Seelinger, K. T. (2017). Sexual exploitation of unaccompanied migrant and refugee boys in Greece: Approaches to prevention. PLOS Medicine, 14(11), e1002438.

[8] Freedman, J. (2016). Sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women: a hidden aspect of the refugee “crisis.” Reproductive Health Matters, 24(47), 18–26.

[9] Keygnaert, I., Vettenburg, N., & Temmerman, M. (2012). Hidden violence is silent rape: sexual and gender-based violence in refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 14(5), 505–520.

[10] Oliveira, C., Keygnaert, I., Oliveira Martins, M. do R., & Dias, S. (2018). Assessing reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence, causes and preventive strategies, in European asylum reception facilities. Globalization and Health, 14(1).

[11] Oliveira, C., Oliveira Martins, M. do R., Dias, S., & Keygnaert, I. (2019). Conceptualizing sexual and gender-based violence in European asylum reception centers. Archives of Public Health, 77(1).

[12] Phillimore, J., Block, K., Bradby, H., Ozcurumez, S., & Papoutsi, A. (2022). Forced Migration, Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Integration: Effects, Risks and Protective Factors. Journal of International Migration and Integration.

[13] Phillimore, J., Pertek, S., Akyuz, S., Darkal, H., Hourani, J., McKnight, P., Ozcurumez, S., & Taal, S. (2021). “We Are Forgotten”: Forced Migration, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, and Coronavirus Disease-2019. Violence against Women, 28(9), 107780122110309.

[14] Rodríguez-Martínez, P., & Cuenca-Piqueras, C. (2018). Interactions Between Direct and Structural Violence in Sexual Harassment Against Spanish and Unauthorized Migrant Women. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(2), 577–588.

[15] Tan, S. E., & Kuschminder, K. (2022). Migrant experiences of sexual and gender based violence: a critical interpretative synthesis. Globalization and Health, 18(1).

[16] United Nations. (2022). International migration. United Nations.


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