Young refugee women waiting for a train at a station in Tovarnik, Croatia | Photo: UNHCR/I. Pavicevic
Young refugee women waiting for a train at a station in Tovarnik, Croatia | Photo: UNHCR/I. Pavicevic

The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is driving up levels of violence against refugee women and girls, the UN refugee agency has warned.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said in a statement issued on Wednesday that "as the coronavirus pandemic continues, a lethal mix of confinement, deepening poverty and economic duress is unleashing a renewed wave of violence against refugee, displaced and stateless women and girls."

That day, November 25, marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

"We are receiving alarming reports of sharp increases in the risks of gender-based violence, including intimate partner violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and child marriages," warned UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

More gender-based violence

According to the statement, the UNHCR and its partner organizations recorded an increase in gender-based violence in at least 27 countries. "The sale or exchange of sex as an economic coping mechanism was also reported in at least 20 countries," the UN agency said.

UNHCR also said that it was worried that the number of child and forced marriages could increase among displaced people and refugees, "as a coping strategy by displaced families buckling under socio-economic pressures."

"With COVID's socio-economic impact driving millions of refugees and displaced people further into poverty and destitution, we are extremely worried about the increase in violence against women and girls," said Grandi. "Jobs have been lost, tensions are rising, intimate partner violence is escalating, livelihood opportunities are scarce and movement restrictions are making it difficult for survivors to report abuse and seek help."

Female refugees in danger

The UNHCR pointed to several regions where the situation is particularly worrying.

According to the UN agency, "in the Central African Republic, where a quarter of the population is displaced, one gender-based violence incident is recorded every hour."

Incidents of gender-based violence that affected Venezuelan refugees and migrants in Colombia increased by 40 % for the period between January and September 2020, compared to the same period last year, according to UNHCR. Calls to domestic violence hotlines increased by 153 % in Colombia and 56 % in Zimbabwe. (Both countries have large refugee populations.)

UNHCR also conducted a survey of Rohingyas in the world's largest refugee camp -- Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. 42 % of the refugees reportedly told them that it had become more unsafe for women and girls 'inside the house' since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. "Participants in the assessment described an increase, in particular, of intimate partner violence, resulting from tensions over containment measures, movement restrictions and financial difficulties," UNHCR said.


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