SEATTLE, Washington — There are more than 25 million refugees worldwide who oftentimes have no other option but to seek shelter and safety in refugee camps. In these spaces, which should offer as much security as possible, many women and girls face sexual assault as co-ed bathrooms and shower facilities with no locks and poor lighting become places where assaulters can target vulnerable victims. The Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act will make refugee camps safer.
The Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act
In January, Democratic Representative Grace Meng from New York introduced the Refugee Sanitation Facility Act of 2019 (H.R. 615). On Monday, May 20, 2019, the House of Representatives passed the bill that will direct the Department of State, “to ensure the provision of safe and secure access to sanitation facilities, with a special emphasis on women, girls, and vulnerable populations” in any U.S. supported facility.
Representative Meng originally introduced the Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act in December 2018, but the 115th Congress never enacted it. However, within nearly three months of Meng’s second proposal, 40 democrats and two republicans co-sponsored the bill. If passed into law, H.R. 615 would require the development and implementation of procedures requiring safe and secure access to sanitation facilities from any international and non-governmental organizations receiving refugee aid from the U.S. Its implementation would cost less than $500,000 from 2019 to 2024.
Women in the Refugee Camps
The Women’s Refugee Commission reports that displaced girls, especially those who have been subjected to conflict and war, are doubly vulnerable to “exploitation, abuse and sexual violence.” Amnesty International confirmed similar findings after interviewing more than 100 women and girls in a refugee camp in Greece.
These female refugees spoke of the fear they have when using the sanitary facilities within the camps and how they try to avoid them, sometimes using buckets to relieve themselves. The lack of locks and poor lighting in these co-ed spaces lead to immense anxiety and fear, especially for those who are already survivors of sexual assault. In a press release on May 22, Rep. Meng stated, “[N]obody should have their safety jeopardized in order [to]care for their most basic hygiene needs.” Representative Meng highlighted the importance of H.R.615 noting the co-ed public restrooms that oftentimes lack locks and well-lit paths.
Global Support for H.R. 615
The Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act of 2019 would take a momentous step towards providing dignity to populations that already endured political instability, war, violence and crisis. In additions to Representative Meng, the proposal has 42 co-sponsors and a bipartisan push from Chairman of the Committee Representative Michael McCaul and the Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel. 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 Act.
The Refugee Sanitation Facility Safety Act of 2019 is an 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 Republican-majority Senate before it can move on for the President to sign into law. The Senate received the bill on May 21 and referred it to the Committee on Foreign relations.
– Keeley Griego