Georgette Mulheir has been on the front lines of the world’s refugee crises for over 20 years. During her time working in former Yugoslavia, Sudan, Ethiopia, the USA and the UK she has been confronted with the scope of sexual violence perpetrated against women and children as a means of coercion and as a tool of war.
While violence against women is rampant, sexual violence goes largely unreported (and therefore unrecognized) due to fear of reprisal, shame and feelings of powerlessness among victims. Georgette Mulheir has found sexual violence to be more widespread and more difficult to detect among the most vulnerable populations, such as refugees.
In her fight to give a voice to the millions of silent victims of sexual violence, Mulheir has worked directly with victims, most recently in immigrant detention centres in the US during the family separation crisis perpetrated by the Trump administration.
Now, she hopes the Biden administration will learn from her findings in order to protect more women and children fleeing from sexual violence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Georgette Mulheir: Many refugees are fleeing sexual abuse
Sexual violence during wartime and against vulnerable populations has gone largely ignored or accepted throughout history. One of the better-documented cases was the rape of countless women in Japanese-occupied territory during WWII. Even with all the evidence of the so-called “comfort women,” the Japanese government continued to deny and ignore the atrocity, only issuing an official apology in 2015, over 70 years later.
Little has changed, but Georgette Mulheir is one of the activists working to bring this hidden pandemic of violence to light. Most recently, Mulheir worked at the southern US border during her efforts to reunite refugee children with their parents during the family separation crisis in 2018. During her work, she assisted families in a detention facility to apply for asylum in The United States. It was here that she heard stories from migrant women of the widespread sexual violence used as a weapon by gangs against citizens of Central American countries.
One woman, Catalina, was extorted by multiple gangs and required to pay ever-increasing sums of money. When she could no longer pay, gangs broke into her home and forced her to watch the gang-rape of her 9-year-old daughter, Ana.
In another case, a 14-year-old, Daniela, was pursued by a gang member who raped her every day on her way home from school. “Her mother only found out months later when Daniela eventually refused to go to school,” Mulheir recounted. “They could not go to the police, who were in league with the gangs, so they had no alternative but to leave.”
Many of these women walked hundreds of miles on foot with their children to keep them safe from sexual violence and worse. However, when they arrived at the US border, they were separated from their children, resulting in renewed fear and trauma.
Fortunately, the public outcry against family separation resulted in the Trump administration reversing course and allowing families to reunite (though only if they waived their right to a maximum detention period of 20 days, effectively allowing the government to detain them indefinitely).
Georgette Mulheir worked with reunited families, encouraging them to open up about their experiences with violence. This would give them a viable case for asylum. However, she found that many women were reluctant to share their stories.
Problems with Reporting and Recognition of Sexual Violence
It came as no surprise to Georgette Mulheir that women were reluctant to open up about their experiences of sexual violence in their home countries. The vast majority of sexual assaults against women go unreported worldwide. But the silence among refugee women can be especially damaging.
Because so few women and girls are likely to report sexual violence, government responses to these asylum-seekers are inadequate. In order to be given asylum, refugees need to demonstrate a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries. If women don’t report, they may be deported back to life-threatening situations.
Mulheir found that it can take time for women to feel safe enough to tell their stories. They are often terrified that the gang members who assaulted them will find them and kill them for speaking out. Others are unwilling to relive the trauma or feel ashamed. The bureaucratic immigration process does not often provide the right support so refugees feel safe to disclose their experiences.
Thanks to the assistance of hundreds of dedicated US lawyers and activists, women and girls began to open up and tell their stories. Of the thousands of families that passed through the facility where Georgette Mulheir volunteered, 97% were found to have a credible fear of persecution.
Georgette Mulheir: Lack of Recognition of Sexual Violence is “Systemic Failure”
According to Georgette Mulheir, governments today are just as likely as those in the past to ignore sexual violence or act aggressively towards victims. While she was in the US working to reunite families, Christine Blasey-Ford was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on her alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Her testimony was immediately attacked by President Trump and many elected officials, and she suffered ridicule and death threats for speaking out. The very same figures who attacked her then inquired as to why she didn’t speak out sooner.
From the heights of government and the private sector down to the most vulnerable women and girls with no legal redress against their abuse, the official response to sexual violence is woefully inadequate. The world over, women and girls feel they have nowhere to run. And for refugees who are not granted asylum, this is not only a feeling. It’s a reality, and possibly a death sentence.
In recent months, the US government’s response to refugees from Haiti has been as disturbing as during the Trump years. Despite the Biden administration’s condemnation of Trump’s family separation policy and harsh treatment of people seeking asylum at the US/Mexican border, images of border patrol officers on horseback, beating back Haitian immigrants with whips shocked the nation. In Haiti, the government has lost effective control of the country to increasingly organised gangs who use kidnap and rape – particularly of girls and women – to instil terror in the population. Those crossing the border are largely being flown back to Haiti – more than 8,000 in just over a month, including families with children – without first checking why they were seeking asylum in the USA.
Georgette Mulheir urges the Biden administration to recognize the pervasiveness of sexual violence against refugees, particularly women and girls. With adequate care and support, victims will be able to tell their stories and find asylum, where they can begin to heal