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Reflections on the Borders: Are we moving backwards? The multiple jeopardy of gender-based violence, migration and COVID-19

Reflections on the Borders: Are we moving backwards? The multiple jeopardy of gender-based violence, migration and COVID-19

 The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination and inequalities - in gender, class, geography, ethnicity, race, and citizenship status - have devastating impacts on migrants health.   

In times of emergency, Gender based violence (GBV) is known to increase, as has been seen in the COVID-19 pandemic. Migrants are a group particularly vulnerable to GBV, facing a unique set of risks which may present before, during or after migration exacerbated by factors such as inadequate legal, state or social protective contexts. 

The third Borderings webinar provocatively questioned; ‘are we moving backwards?’ as they addressed the multiple jeopardy of migration, GBV and COVID-19, and, importantly,  how we can respond.

 The Triple Burden

Terry McGovern, Professor and Chair at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, opened the discussion by contextualising the unique vulnerabilities of migrants to GBV, including the disruption of social support networks, changed gender norms and family dynamics, and reduced economic opportunity. Tension between host country laws and international standards to determine the scope of access and rights can also widen health inequalities in the context of GBV in migrants. The result is a high prevalence of GBV. A meta-analysis of studies in humanitarian settings has suggested 21% of female refugees or displaced women in complex humanitarian situations experience sexual violence, but this is likely an under-estimation as GBV amongst migrants is often unseen and unreported.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened these vulnerabilities and created new risk factors. Countermeasures for COVID-19 have led to reduced access to existing preventative protection resources and reporting mechanisms, with individuals spending more time at home, coping with additional stresses and financial hardship. 

To further demonstrate the impact of COVID-19 on GBV in migrants, Terry highlighted the rapid assessment conducted by herself and her team at the Global Health Justice and Governance group. They found increases in GBV as a result of the pandemic, with migrants identified as one of the vulnerable populations severely impacted. National governments were underprepared to address the GBV crisis, and the pandemic put tremendous stress on an already weak GBV prevention and response system, she continued., There was widespread confusion regarding service availability, especially for migrants, and GBV services were not deemed essential throughout the pandemic. 

Terry concluded by reminding us that this remains a justice and human rights issue, and we must prioritise vulnerable groups such as migrants at risk of GBV in the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

What are the risks and where?

Next, Ligia Kiss, Associate Professor in social epidemiology at the Institute for Global Health at the University College London, unpacked the specific risks for GBV in migrants at origin, transit and destination in the context of COVID-19.  

At the country of origin, migrants face tighter border controls and travel restrictions due to COVID-19 mitigation measures. In turn, it has become harder for those to escape GBV in their country of origin For those in transit, COVID-19 has led to travel restrictions and reduced safety of routes,  which both increases  exposure to GBV for migrants and makes it more difficult to identify and rescue GBV survivors. Using the case vignette of adolescent Nigerian female migrants to Europe via Libya, Ligia highlighted the GBV risks in this population identified. Perpetrators of GBV in this population included smugglers, armed militias, officials and employers, leading to high risk of GBV across the journey. This risk was heightened by the closing of Libya's air and land borders as a COVID-19 measure leading to many migrants being stranded in Libya, unable to escape GBV by multiple perpetrators. 

Abuse and Exploitation of Female Migrant Domestic Workers in the United  Arab Emirates | ICFUAE | International Campaign For Freedom in the UAE


Building on Terry’s comments, Ligia also noted that the migrants in destination countries experienced lockdown measures with reduced access to services, increasing their risk of GBV whilst reducing support available. Looking specifically at live-in female domestic migrant workers in Gulf countries, Ligia illustrated the high levels of forced labour, emotional and physical abuse, and sexual violence perpetrated by employers and their families. 

Lastly, Ligia highlighted the impact on GBV responses for migrant survivors through the vignette of displaced Yazidi women and girls in Northern Iraq who were survivors of sexual slavery. Here, travel restrictions, online communication and re-defining of funding priorities with COVID-19 had led to interruptions in service provision and a decrease in the  availability and quality of services for GBV survivors. Ligia concluded that the high risks of violence, exploitation and abuse for marginalised and often invisible populations have become even higher with COVID-19. 

Policy and political dimensions 

Ines Keygnaert, Assistant Professor in Sexual and Reproductive Health at the International Centre for Reproductive Health at Ghent University, moved on to discuss the policy and political dimensions of GBV, migration and COVID-19. 

Ines began by delving into ideologies and definitions shaping policies on GBV, and where migrants fit into this. Ines explained that current GBV definitions in policies/laws do not often cover the full GBV spectrum and are not evidence-based or sufficiently updated. She highlighted how GBV policies reflect rape myth acceptance and are based on the “Ideal Victim Theory” which sees women as victims, men as assailants and occludes migrants in the framework of an “ideal victim”. Indeed, GBV against migrants is often seen as collateral damage of migration, and remains unaddressed  in migration policies. 

COVID-19 has further pushed migrants experiencing GBV out of the picture. Prior to COVID-19, policies on GBV care provision did not sufficiently meet the needs of migrants. However, COVID-19 saw many governments take a public health approach centred on their own citizens first. Despite the increased risks of GBV faced by migrants, the long-lasting ill-health consequences and cumulative trauma, has led to migrants being left with no care, control or protection. 

Ines finished by highlighting the need to remove the othering and bordering approaches from public health and policies targeting GBV, reminding us that we need healthy people to build a healthy society.

Solutions and implementation

Lastly, Jozef Bartovic, Technical Officer at WHO Regional Office for Europe, gave  a practical perspective on  solutions to reduce the multiple jeopardy of GBV, migration and COVID. 

Jozef drew attention to  the new WHO Technical Guidance, “Strategies and interventions on preventing and responding to violence and injuries amongst refugees and migrants” which examines the evidence and brings guidance and recommendations for governments to use. Policy considerations in the guidance includes ensuring safe passage for migration, addressing causes of violence in transit and destination countries, identifying victims and providing care and protection, investigating and prosecuting perpetrators and strengthening the knowledge base. As has been discussed throughout the webinar, political and public rhetoric of “othering” migrants has been a challenge in the roll-out of the guidance. Jozef underlines that issues around political commitment need to be addressed in order to make progress on reducing GBV in migrants. 

Jozef concluded by asserting the importance of providing information and solutions that are relevant to a wide range of actors, highlighting the WHO tools and guidance which are aimed at both clinical and medico-legal levels as some ways to ensure that GBV in migrants can be tackled from multiple angles.  


This webinar highlighted the multiple jeopardy of migration, GBV and COVID-19, and exposed the unique and multifaceted vulnerabilities that migrants are facing. A call was made to move away from restrictive policies fuelling public and political rhetoric “othering” of migrants and towards inclusive, responsive GBV legislation and solutions sensitive to the specific needs of migrants.

A multi-sectoral approach must be taken to mitigate risk of GBV in the country of origin, during transit and in the host country with appropriate access to high-quality services for migrants who are GBV survivors. It is a human rights issue of equity and justice to ensure that GBV in migrant populations is prioritized now, and going forward beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. 

You can watch the full webinar here.

For questions or queries relating to the series please contact Imogen Bakelmun at i.bakelmun@ucl.ac.uk.




About the author

Lucy Singh is a medical doctor and research fellow in Gender, Migration and Health with the UCL Lancet Commission on Migration. She is particularly interested in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the context of forced displacement, and how health systems can enable an inclusive, gender-sensitive and equitable approach in ensuring SRHR for migrants and refugees.