WASHINGTON — There are more than 25 million refugees worldwide, many of whom are forced to seek shelter and safety in refugee camps. In these spaces that should offer security, many women and girls face sexual assault as bathrooms and shower facilities with poor lighting become places where assaulters target vulnerable victims. In light of these issues, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 615, the Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act of 2019 on Monday, May 20.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY-6), will direct the Department of State, “when providing overseas assistance for refugees, to ensure the provision of safe and secure access to to sanitation facilities, with a special emphasis on women, girls, and vulnerable populations.”
Rep. Meng originally introduced the Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act in December of 2018, but it was not passed during the 115th Congress. In the116th Congress, 42 representatives co-sponsored the bill within three months of its introduction. H.R. 615, if signed into law, would require the Department of State to develop and implement procedures to ensure that both international and nongovernmental organizations that benefit from U.S. refugee and migration financial assistance provide safe and secure access to sanitation facilities. Implementation would cost the U.S. less than $500,000 from 2019 to 2024.
In a press release on May 22, Rep. Meng highlighted the importance of H.R.615, noting the co-ed public restrooms that oftentimes lack locks and well-lit paths. Rep. Meng stated, “these conditions create a lack of privacy and dignity and make women and girls afraid to use the restrooms, fearing that they may be assaulted and subjected to violence while using the bathroom… Nobody should have their safety jeopardized in order [to]care for their most basic hygiene needs.”
With the 42 co-sponsors and a bipartisan push from Foreign Affairs Committee Leader Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX-10) and Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-NY-16), the Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act of 2019 would take a momentous step towards providing dignity to populations that have already endured political instability, war, violence and crisis. Currently, Amnesty International USA, Futures Without Violence, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Human Rights First, Jesuit Refugee Service, Refugees International and WaterAid International all endorsed the Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act.
The Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act of 2019 is a bipartisan effort seeking to preserve dignity and respect for populations who have had no other option but to flee their homelands. H.R. 615 must also pass through the Senate before it can be signed into law. The Senate received the bill on May 21 and referred it to the Committee on Foreign Relations.
– Keeley Griego