The continuum of violence in forced migration: acknowledging it and acting on it

Isabelle Auclair
Isabelle AuclairIsabelle Auclair holds a PhD in anthropology. She is the current tenured faculty member running the Claire Bonenfant Chair on Women, Knowledge and Societies and professor in the Department of Management at Université Laval (Quebec), where she teaches courses on feminist approaches and methodologies, equality, diversity, and inclusion issues in the workplace, as well as the integration of an intersectional feminist analysis for managing international cooperation projects. In addition to teaching, she is involved in a wide variety of research projects, including those that focus on the crossroads between systems of oppression and the violence continuum, most notably with regard to forced migration.
Lorena Suelves Ezquerro
Lorena Suelves Ezquerro• A graduate in social work from the universities of Zaragoza (Spain) and Toulouse (France), she worked for many years as a social and crisis worker for migrants in Spain. Based in Quebec since 2007, she is currently completing a PhD thesis in anthropology at Laval University (Quebec), analysing the effects of spousal sponsorship policies in Quebec by means of a feminist approach. She co-founded the Comité de femmes immigrantes de Québec to campaign against violence against women and racism in all its forms, alongside inspiring women.

On top of the difficulty or distress they experience when leaving, migrants endure all kinds of violence throughout their exile. For the authors, recognising the existence of this “continuum” of violence is an essential step in reducing its prevalence.

According to the latest data from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)[1]UNHCR, Figures at a glance, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/flagship-reports/globaltrends, there are 82.4 million people worldwide in a process of forced migration due to conflict, violence or human rights violations. Of these, 48 million are internally displaced, 4.1 million are asylum seekers in another country and 26.4 million have been granted refugee status. This historical number of people forced to move within their own country or seek asylum in a host country is continually increasing. A common factor shared by the migration routes they take is the presence of a continuum of violence. This violence, be it physical, sexual, organisational, structural or otherwise, is experienced through each of the three stages of migration, namely premigration, displacement and postmigration[2]Isabelle Auclair, Le continuum des violences genrées dans les trajectoires migratoires des Colombiennes en situation de refuge en Équateur, thèse de doctorat en anthropologie, Université Laval, … Continue reading.

At every stage, people in situations of refuge (displaced persons, asylum seekers, refugees, or people in a precarious situation) count on the existence of and services provided by organisations whose mandate is to support and protect them. However, the measures and services in place do not always take into account the effects of different systems of oppression (sexism, cis-heteronormativity, racism, colonialism, classism, ageism, etc.) that can exacerbate violence or create new forms of it. In this context, acknowledging the existence of the continuum of violence and the different systems of oppression that characterise it is a first step towards changing practices to better support people in refugee situations.

In this article, following a contextualisation of the research project on which this reflection is based we will present accounts of the violence experienced during the second stage of migration. Although violence manifests itself throughout the migration trajectory, the role of international organisations is a priority in the displacement stage, in order to break the continuum of violence. 

“We used an analysis framework that combined continuum of violence and intersectional feminist analysis.”

Contextualisation of the research on the continuum of violence

Within the scope of feminist studies on forced displacement and refugees, the research project “The continuum of gender-based violence in refugee situations: an analysis of the context in Quebec” [3]Project financed by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et Culture (FRQSC), https://frq.gouv.qc.ca/societe-et-culture set out to understand how systems of oppression influence the production and change of violence that affects the migration trajectories of people seeking asylum in the Quebec City area. At the methodological level, we used a qualitative approach. Data was collected from thirty-eight people in shelters in Quebec City and from sixty-three people working in organisations providing services to these groups. The profiles of the persons in refugee situations were varied in terms of gender identity, sexual orientation, age, country of origin and migratory status. More specifically, twenty-six people had refugee status, nine were asylum seekers and three held precarious migration status.

To analyse the depth and diversity of the stories that we collected, we used an analysis framework that combined continuum of violence and intersectional feminist analysis. Intersectionality[4]Patricia Hill Collins, Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, John Wiley & Sons, 2020. is an essential tool for analysing the co-construction of systems of oppression (for example sexism, cis-heteronormativity, racism, capitalism, ageism, and ableism[5]Cis-heteronormativity “is a system of oppression that affects transgender people, sometimes referred to as transphobia. It manifests itself on the legal, political, economic, social, medical and … Continue reading and for understanding how they affect people’s lives. One such effect is the emergence or exacerbation of violence. The concept of a continuum of violence[6]Liz Kelly, “The continuum of sexual violence”, in Women, violence and social control (p.46-60), Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1987., for its part, allows us to look beyond the hierarchy of abuses. Rather than focusing on a single form, the continuum aims to understand how violence (structural, organisational, intra-family, physical, sexual, etc.) is bred. To this end, the continuum facilitates the exploration of violence that is not commonly studied with the aim of deepening the analysis and identifying any subsequent actions required.

Violence experienced during the displacement stage

The displacement stage spans the time from when the decision to leave the country of origin is implemented (a decision that is generally enforced rather than of a person’s own free will and planned) up to the arrival in the country of refuge. The duration of this stage varies considerably. It can take a few hours or a few days depending on whether people are moving within their country of origin or seeking asylum in a country bordering the country they are leaving. For others, this stage may last several years and involve periods in transit countries and refugee camps while they are waiting to be accepted into another country. Regardless of the duration, violence is a given for people undertaking this process. It is violence that drives the search for a safe place to live, a country of refuge. However, clearly not only does previously experienced violence continue throughout the displacement stage but further violence specific to this stage also emerges. Such violence is influenced by the methods of transport and entry into the country of refuge, the context of the transit country and the social groups to which the person belongs.

Methods of transport

Several methods of transport are used along migration routes. Whether walking or even swimming or taking trains, buses or boats, the means of travel have an impact on the violence experienced. Consequently, for people travelling on foot over vast distances (sometimes across several countries), the results show that the journey is influenced by gender, health status and whether they have dependents. Those who survive these journeys are mostly young, healthy men, travelling without dependants. One asylum seeker who crossed several countries between Haiti and Quebec said that he had to leave his family behind. He explained:

“There are places, like in forests, when a person is sick and nothing can be done for them. So if you see your wife or son getting sick… it’s sad. It’s a really hard journey… even to cross, sometimes we cross… death.” (Asylum seeker from Haiti, 2019)

“The journey is influenced by gender, health status and whether they have dependents.”

For women and non-binary or transgender people, displacement is often accompanied by sexual and gender-based violence. Sometimes these people are forced to make life-threatening choices even as they try to protect themselves. A refugee from El Salvador said she felt compelled to cross a river despite not knowing how to swim for fear of being raped and murdered because of her gender identity. She said:

“I don’t know how to swim but I was afraid because I look like a woman, I have breasts… are going to want to rape me, and once they find out I’m not what they want, they’re going to kill me and throw me in the river, so it’s better that I cross the river. They might rape me and then after raping me also kill me if they found out I was a trans woman.” (Refugee from El Salvador, 2019)

Means of entry into the transit country

In addition to methods of transport, the means of entry into transit countries come with specific difficulties and violence. Several people we met said that they preferred to take unofficial routes rather than entering through border crossings. The reasons underlying this choice are linked to the fear of being refused entry into the country but also and especially to the violence associated with border crossings. At the borders, organisational violence – which refers to discriminatory organisational practices that promote impunity, psychological violence and sexual violence have been documented. These forms of violence include the refusal of valid identity documents, strip searches by border officers, the arbitrary detention of young women during which they are sexually assaulted, demands for sexual favours by military personnel, police or humanitarian officials in exchange for crossing the border, theft and extortion, sexist, xenophobic and racist attacks, the list goes on.

Insecurity in refugee camps

Once the border has been crossed, the reality and the violence experienced in the transit countries will depend on whether people are in refugee camps. According to the accounts that we collected, these camps, which should be safe spaces, do not always fulfil their mandate. Indeed, structural, organisational, physical, psychological and sexual violence were all reported. A climate of insecurity and danger reigns, particularly for women, people who are more vulnerable because of their age or health status or people from marginalised ethnic groups, the targets of various forms of violence. This violence is perpetrated by other people in refugee situations, but also by people in positions of power who come from organisations whose mandate is to protect them. This not only exacerbates the violence, it also erodes trust in institutions. The story of a Burundian refugee who passed through a camp in Tanzania speaks volumes in this regard:

“In the refugee camp, the Tanzanians who work with us, they can take advantage of it to rape us… because they have the right, like the police, the people who work for the organisations . They’re going to abuse us because they have rights over us… because we’re in their country… and we can’t even go to the police or get a lawyer… so it’s going to stay in our hearts… we’re going to cry on our own, there’s no one to help us…” (Refugee from Burundi, 2019)

Although camps are supposed to be temporary, most stories – supported by statistics – show that people often spend several years or even decades there. The same goes for some people who, without being in a camp, remain in transit countries pending the assessment of their asylum application. This long wait, the difficult access to services and violence have significant effects on physical and mental health. One health worker said:

“Most of the people we see come directly from refugee camps. Their lives have been on hold for several years. The hygiene conditions are not good. Some people have had diseases since birth; others suffer from diseases that have been ignored or mistreated, etc.” (Nurse in a Quebec organisation, 2019)

The harsh reality in transit countries

Most people who arrive in transit countries, whether into or outside of refugee camps, have little information, scant support networks and few resources. These factors hinder access to protection and justice services and only exacerbate the violence that they experience. The lack of a visa or refugee status also hampers their chances of economic autonomy. Stereotypes associated with this status have discriminatory effects, as explained by a Rwandan refugee:

“We have the identities of refugees with expiry dates. To get a job or to give a job to someone who has papers that are going to expire… it’s difficult. That’s on top of the racism and xenophobia.” (Refugee from Rwanda, 2019)

Given these circumstances, people entering the labour market are vulnerable to abuse. This is especially the case for women and more particularly for trans women and/or women of colour. They mainly occupy jobs in the care and domestic services sectors which reproduce the gender and international division of labour. These are generally informal and underpaid jobs in which financial exploitation, harassment and sexual violence are commonplace.

This violence is not exclusive to the labour market. Street harassment, groping on public transport, racist and sexist remarks and discriminatory practices are experienced on a daily and repetitive basis. The intersection between sexism and racism is particularly significant in this regard. A Cameroonian asylum seeker recounted how violence in Latin American transit countries had a re-victimising effect:

“When I sat next to someone, they would start to open their zipper, to make suggestive remarks… Every time, it reminded me of my rape, it made the scenes reappear… I couldn’t heal my inner wounds. So I couldn’t walk alone on the street because I was sexually harassed literally every day.” (Asylum seeker from Cameroon, 2019)

This daily sexual violence is exacerbated by organisational violence, particularly when protection services are inadequate or promote impunity. A refugee from Ivory Coast explained:

“When you go out on the street you are at risk of being robbed, hurt, assaulted, your blood will flow… and the police aren’t going to do anything, they will come, but they won’t do anything.” (Refugee from Ivory Coast, 2019)

People in positions of authority can sometimes even be the perpetrators of violence. Various people reported cases of corruption in organisations whose mandate is to protect people in refugee situations. For example, a Syrian refugee claimed that, in one of his transit countries:

“To get into the United Nations office, you have to pay the security guards in the building, you have to give money to all the officials and all the people who work around the United Nations office. I had no choice if I wanted to hand in my papers and get my family out of there.” (Refugee from Syria, 2020)

Organisational violence often takes the form of discriminatory practices that are implemented, reproduced or tolerated by organisations. Although this is not always motivated by malicious intent, the effects are negative nonetheless. Thus, in the process of assessing files for refugee protection, the need to repeatedly recount the violence that has been experienced, present evidence of this violence and endure endless waiting periods contribute to re-victimisation and the exacerbation of psychological violence. Asylum seekers live in constant uncertainty and fear about how their cases will be received. This is certainly due to a lack of knowledge of the processes, but it also indicates an extreme difficulty in accessing information relative to the progress of their file. Many people stated that they felt abandoned by the organisations. Several participants also highlighted the fact that procedures ought to guarantee their protection rather than being limited to administrative procedures, as one Colombian refugee testified: “I think the shelter is just paperwork, but you’re not helped in a humanitarian way” (refugee from Colombia, 2019).

“Many people stated that they felt abandoned by the organisations.”

In conclusion, the research results show that the continuum of violence in the displacement stage erodes the trust of people in refugee situations towards organisations whose mandate is to support and protect them. This exacerbates their reluctance to use services in transit countries. It should be noted that some respondents did report situations where workers’ empathy and commitment were significantly positive in their migration experience. However, these stories referred to commitments that were often perceived as being individual and in which the professionals went beyond their mandate. In this context, it seems important, first of all, to acknowledge the continuum of violence and the systems of oppression that characterise it in order to adopt safe organisational practices that will allow us to break this continuum.

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys

ISBN of the article (HTML) : 978-2-37704-865-6

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1 UNHCR, Figures at a glance, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/flagship-reports/globaltrends
2 Isabelle Auclair, Le continuum des violences genrées dans les trajectoires migratoires des Colombiennes en situation de refuge en Équateur, thèse de doctorat en anthropologie, Université Laval, Québec, 2016, https://corpus.ulaval.ca/jspui/bitstream/20.500.11794/26920/1/32592.pdf
3 Project financed by the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Société et Culture (FRQSC), https://frq.gouv.qc.ca/societe-et-culture
4 Patricia Hill Collins, Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, John Wiley & Sons, 2020.
5 Cis-heteronormativity “is a system of oppression that affects transgender people, sometimes referred to as transphobia. It manifests itself on the legal, political, economic, social, medical and normative level. In the latter case, it is a question of cisgenrenormativity” (Alexandre Baril, « Sexe et genre sous le bistouri (analytique) : interprétations féministes des transidentités », Recherches féministes, vol. 28, n° 2, 2015, p. 121-141). Ableism is a form of discrimination, prejudice or even negative treatment towards people with disabilities (visible or invisible) mental or physical (Dominique Masson, « Femmes et handicap », Recherches féministes, vol. 26, n° 1, 2013, p. 111-129).
6 Liz Kelly, “The continuum of sexual violence”, in Women, violence and social control (p.46-60), Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1987.