Refugee responses, state-like behavior, and accountability for human rights violations: a case study of sexual violence in Guinea's refugee camps.

Author:Farmer, Alice
 
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This Article advocates for better access to justice and a more comprehensive accountability system in refugee camps. Refugee women are frequently subject to sexual violence and sexual exploitation in the country of refuge, and find themselves without ways of redressing these fundamental rights violations. This Article uses the sexual violence and sexual exploitation that was documented in refugee camps in Guinea in 2002 as an illustrative case study of the protection problems faced by refugee women in many parts of the world. The author argues that the host government, UNHCR, and various non-governmental organizations operated together to fulfill state-like functions in long-term refugee camps, but their efforts left accountability, access to justice, and enforcement of women's human rights laws sorely lacking. The movement toward rights based refuge -embraced in varying forms by the aid providers in Guinea--provides a theoretical and practical framework for greater rights recognition, but has not yet delivered a complete response to the specific human rights violations faced by refugee women. If rights-based refuge is to succeed in refugee settings like Guinea, aid providers must make the protection of women's human rights a central concern by instituting a robust, multi-layered system of accountability to which all refugee women have access.

INTRODUCTION

Women and girls in refugee camps around the world are deeply vulnerable to sexual violence and sexual exploitation. (1) Not only are many of these women subject to sexual violence when fleeing their home countries, but they find themselves in desperate need of food or shelter, in perilous security situations, and often without the protection of family members in their countries of refuge. Sexual violence and sexual exploitation, which in many contexts have deep cultural roots, but which are greatly exacerbated in the refugee setting, constitute violations of refugee women's fundamental human rights. In emergency and post-emergency situations, protecting the rights of refugee women is both a task of crucial importance and a task that has not yet been adequately met.

Refugee women lack access to justice and accountability mechanisms. Over the past decade, there have been broad attempts to incorporate human rights norms into refugee responses. Many of the actors that provide relief to refugees--including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ("UNHCR") and a committed cadre of international non-governmental organizations ("NGOs")--have embraced the concept of rights-based refuge. However, rights-based refuge--which recognizes the fundamental human dignity and rights-bearing nature of the refugee--must be interpreted in a more generous and comprehensive manner in order to be fully effective for refugee women. Looking at rights-based refuge through the lens of sexual violence tests the commitment of aid providers to this re-conceptualized notion of humanitarian aid. As of yet, rights-based refuge has not found a way to incorporate fundamental mechanisms for accountability and access to justice. Without these crucial tools for protecting the human rights of refugees, the movement towards rights-based refuge remains incomplete.

The sexual violence and sexual exploitation that was documented in refugee camps in Guinea in 2002 (2) provides an illustrative case study of the problems faced by refugee women in many parts of the world. During this period, Guinea's refugees were cared for by a trio of aid providers--the host government, UNHCR, and various NGOs--that is representative of the actors in camp governance in many other refugee situations around the world. In Guinea, much like in other refugee settings, this trio of aid providers delivers a broad range of state-like functions from security to health care. However, the trio of aid providers in Guinea in 2002 struggled to offer strong mechanisms for accountability and access to justice. Since 2002, many aid providers in Guinea have taken positive steps towards rights-based refuge by finding ways to redress sexual violence and sexual exploitation. However, despite the efforts to incorporate rights-based refuge into aid delivery, Guinea still lacks a comprehensive and durable model for providing accountability and access to justice for refugee women subject to sexual violence. By examining the structure of aid delivery in Guinea, this paper aims to make the case for a more substantial incorporation of accountability mechanisms in refugee settings around the world.

This paper starts by giving a brief overview of the waves of refugee flows into Guinea since 1990. I review the particular protection concerns of refugee women and discuss the responses of the Guinean government, UNHCR, and the NGOs working in Guinea at the time. Second, I examine the parallel human rights initiatives of this trio of aid providers--all of which recognize the rights-bearing nature of refugees--and argue that all three developments lay the groundwork for rights-based refuge, but ultimately fail to offer a complete response to the specific human rights violations faced by refugee women.

Third, I argue that the Guinean government, UNHCR, and the NGOs operate together to fulfill state-like functions in the refugee camps, but that their lack of coordination leaves accountability, access to justice, and enforcement of women's human rights laws sorely lacking. Finally, I conclude that if rights-based refuge is to succeed in refugee settings like Guinea, aid providers must make the protection of women's human rights a central concern by instituting a robust, multi-layered system of accountability to which all refugee women have access.

  1. GUINEA'S LONG-TERM REFUGEE CRISIS

    1. Refugee Influxes and Long-Term Camps

      Since 1991, successive waves of refugees from the West African sub-region have poured into Guinea. (3) More than 90% of these refugees--amounting to more than 500,000 people--came from Sierra Leone or Liberia. (4) Following outbreaks of violence in 2001-2002, scores of refugees arrived in Guinea from Cote d'Ivoire as well. (5) For Guinea, a country of around 9 million people (6) and one that ranks in the bottom 30 countries on the human development index, (7) these refugee numbers are overwhelming. The refugee influx in Guinea is proportional to the United States of America absorbing more than 16 million refugees in a ten-year period. (8)

      As is characteristic of many refugee flows, most of the refugees arriving in Guinea were women and young children unaccompanied by male family members, because many of the men and older boys had been recruited to fight in their home country's conflicts. (9) Many of the women and girls who sought refuge in Guinea had been subject to extensive sexual violence before leaving their home countries of Sierra Leone, (10) Liberia, (11) and Cote d'Ivoire. (12) Guinea was under pressure to absorb huge numbers of refugees and to do so in a way that responded adequately to the horrific abuses the refugees had suffered before fleeing to Guinea.

      Almost all of these refugees flooded into an interior, forested district that curls southwards and juts into Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire. The Forest Region is primarily rural and is one of the poorest areas of Guinea. The area, which has a population that is ethnically distinct from the ruling Soussous (13) and is geographically distant from the capital Conakry, has not seen significant investment in public infrastructure in decades. (14) The enormous influx of refugees exacerbated the already alarming poverty in this part of Guinea. (15) The Forest Region does not have the economic or environmental infrastructure to absorb large numbers of refugees, and the increase in population rapidly led to deforestation and competition for agricultural land. (16)

      When the refugee crisis began in the early 1990s, many of the refugees in the Forest Region were absorbed into local villages. (17) During this period, the impact on the host population was relatively positive. For instance, as the public health specialist Wim Van Damme argues, while refugees were largely living among the host community, the provision of health services to refugees also benefited the host community. (18) As the refugee influx grew, however, and the numbers became overwhelming, many refugees gravitated toward UNHCR camps. Initially, these camps were mostly along the borders, dangerously close to the violence from which the refugees had fled. Some refugees, mostly men with marketable skills, continued to live in the towns of N'Zerekore, Macenta, and Gueckedou, or in nearby villages. However, because many of the refugees were women traveling alone or with young children, they lacked the resources or skills to find means of survival outside the camps. The wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone continued unabated, and so by the late 1990s the camps had become semi-permanent, long-term settlements for hundreds of thousands of people. As with many other refugee situations, finding a permanent, or "durable," solution to this refugee crisis eluded the political actors in the field. (19) The Guinean government, like many other host governments in countries of first asylum, was deeply reluctant to accept the refugees as permanent citizens. (20)

      As more refugees arrived in Guinea, tension between hosts and refugees increased, a phenomenon that had a particularly severe impact on refugee women. The government took various measures hostile to refugee protection, periodically closing the borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia. (21) Resentment among the host communities increased in part because refugees in camps had greater access than Guineans to resources, such as income generating loans, food distribution, and primary education, that lead to the realization of social and economic rights. (22)

      The deterioration in host-refugee relations accelerated when militia violence in the neighboring countries...

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