What can be done against sexual violence in asylum seekers’ centres?

1 juni 2016

Research confirmed it a long time ago already: asylum seekers run a higher risk of encountering sexual violence. In particular during their flight they are vulnerable to exploitation and rape. But also in shelters the risks are higher and especially women and girls often do not feel safe. The issue of sexual violence and refugees is high on the societal agenda currently. What can we do to prevent violence and to make women in shelters more resilient? What can we learn from these studies and approaches?

In August 2015 four women’s organisations in Germany sent a letter of appeal to German politicians. The message: female residents of a large asylum seekers’ centre (6.000 residents at the time) are being assaulted and raped by fellow asylum seekers at large scale. Women were afraid to go to the toilet at night. Similar incidents also happened in the Netherlands. Recently figures were published that last year 55 reports of vice crimes* in and around asylum seekers’ centres were registered, the majority of which between refugees.

55 vice crimes, a little or a lot?
This was the headline* in one of the major newspapers in the Netherlands commenting on the figures presented earlier by the Minister of Justice. In the article, Hans Boutellier, spokesman of the Knowledge Platform Integration & Society, concluded that the population of asylum seekers’ centres are not significantly more criminal than other groups in society. According to him, circumstances further serve to put the figures into perspective. Crimes are registered far more quickly due to the permanent presence of security staff and civil servants in asylum seekers’ centres, and moreover criminality is typically a ‘young men’s problem’. In asylum seekers’ centres young men are overrepresented.

More vulnerable

Promotion research in 2014 by Ines Keygnaert from the International centre for Reproductive Health (Ghent University, Belgium) demonstrated that refugees, asylum seekers and people without legal stay permits become victims of sexual violence more than others. Not only during wars in their countries of origin or while on the road, but also in Europe: both in and away from asylum seekers’ centres. Hilde Bakker from Movisie explains: ‘People are more vulnerable to intimidation and violence when they’re in a dependent position. Nothing to do with religion or culture, although specific traditional and religious views on women and homosexuality may lower the threshold of using violence. Earlier experiences with violence may also impact on moral boundaries and lead to unacceptable behaviour. I emphasize ‘may’ because it does not apply to most people.’

The vice cases in 2015 took place mainly between residents, as already stated. However, a study by Movisie in 2008 showed that not only fellow residents, but also police, military, staff and volunteers in refugee centres demonstrated unacceptable behaviour. Bakker: ‘I do wonder whether now, when so many centres have to be prepared in a short time, sufficient attention has been paid to the screening of staff and volunteers. For instance by requesting a Certificate of Conduct.*’

More severe complaints

Sexual violence seriously damages victims’ health, well-being and participation in society. Bakker: ‘Complaints usually become more severe when victims remain silent for years about their experiences and do not receive protection and help straightaway. And this often happens, especially in large asylum seekers’ centres. The larger the centre, the more anonymous residents are. And when they hardly know each other, there will be less incentive to protect each other and ask for help. Sexual intimidation often takes place in secret and is difficult to prove. Victims do not easily report it, also because they fear for their reputation, for revenge by the perpetrator(s) and for negative impact on their asylum application.’


At the end of 2002 news messages about assaults and recruitment efforts for prostitutes in asylum seekers centres led to questions in Parliament and eventually to a study by Pharos and TransAct (one of Movisie’s founding partners) together with COA, the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers. One hundred and ninety women and girls in asylum seekers centres were interrogated about their sense of safety and the strategies they had developed to protect themselves and others. The study ‘Surviving on a square metre’ (Overleven op de m2*) concluded that the situation was worrying, in particular for single women and underage asylum seekers. It also found that women in various cultures had a different sense of which situations are unsafe and what are protective factors for women. Women from the Middle-East experienced the presence of men as a threat, whereas single African women looked to the company of men for protection.

The research recommendations are still valid in 2016:

1. Build trust
Withdrawal or isolation reinforces unsafe situations. Staff members are able to contribute to breaking through this isolation, but they need training. It also makes sense to appoint confidential officers.

2. Handle complaints and suspicions carefully
Women indicated that dealing carelessly with complaints on unsafety will reduce the willingness to report to a minimum. Protocols, good cooperation with local police and clear directives on sanctions against perpetrators are needed.

3. Let women be in control of their own spaces
Centres in which women have their own living areas, for instance sanitary provisions and kitchens which can be locked, allow women a significantly larger sense of safety than asylum seekers centres where they have to visit the toilet in the corridor.

4. Stimulate mutual contact
Women feel more protected when they know other people. So organise group activities.

5. Let single women and girls choose where they want to be sheltered
Single women and girls form the most vulnerable group. Therefore it is recommended that they themselves choose in favour of shelter in an asylum seekers centre or in a regular shelter, e.g. a women’s shelter (Blijf van mijn Lijf Huizen)

6. Strengthen collaboration between organisations and staff in the shelter
Discussing signals regarding unsafe situations between staff members can diminish their sense of powerlessness and motivate them to do something about it.

7. Invest in training and information efforts
Training in resilience supports the selfreliance of newcomers. Asylum seekers, both men and women, benefit from information about violence and what they can do against it. With an eye to the differences in language and culture, but also the mutual distrust between residents of an asylum seekers centre, it is to be recommended to provide such trainings to small groups or even to individuals. Staff of asylum seekers centres who are responsible for safety, should also be informed about their responsibilities.

High time to act

The research outcomes from the book ‘Surviving on a square metre were presented to the COA and the ministry of Justice. Bakker: ‘I can imagine that because of the huge influx of refugees the COA,  the ministry and the municipalities were less able to prioritise the safety of vulnerable groups, but instead focused on sleeping, eating and sanitation arrangements. A study by the Human Rights Council showed that basic provisions in shelters is sufficient*. Now the time has come to focus on safety in shelters. Simple efforts already create improvements. Our studies showed for instance that there is a protective effect in properly informing refugees about their rights, sanctions for violence and possibilities to get help. It increases their resilience.’ Bakker is not the only person to call for action to address the safety situation. Researcher Inez Keygnaert recently sounded the alarm bell*: why don’t we assist sexually abused asylum seekers properly?

Joining forces

Several information initiatives are already taking place in asylum seekers centres. A number of methods and materials had already been designed earlier. Bakker: ‘A multimedia information package ‘Violence is not normal’* has been created by Pharos and Movisie together with COA. And there are many information officers in the country who know how to address taboo subjects and who speak the language* of some of the refugees. With some additional training they could be employed to discuss for instance sexual abuse with asylum seekers.’ Successful methods such as Be A Man!* are available. ‘Many civil society organisations and knowledge institutes, ours included, are trying to improve the health and safety situation in shelters. Such a waste! I want to call on everyone to join forces, update the materials we have and not waste time in developing new methods’, says Bakker.

More information

Do you want to know more about combating sexual violence and related courses and information materials? Contact Hilde Bakker at H.Bakker@movisie.nl or call +31(0)655440625.

* These webpages are in Dutch