On top of alienating an entire religious community, Trump’s ban on future refugee admissions deepens the endemic gender injustice of warfare.
Trump’s “Muslim ban” is a frontal assault on many universal human rights principles. But the latest temporary reinstatement of the order’s 120-day refugee ban – pending an anticipated October Supreme Court ruling – is already quietly undermining the most fundamental universal humanitarian rule: it puts women and children … last.
The Executive Order is being challenged primarily for discriminating against citizens of six Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – with an arbitrary 90-day travel ban (with arbitrary, potentially illegal exceptions for those with “bona fide relationships” to US residents.)
But on top of alienating an entire religious community, Trump’s even longer ban on future refugee admissions deepens a hidden dimension of the crisis: the endemic gender injustice of warfare.
The ban exposes a brazenly hypocritical convergence between Trump’s War on Women and his War on Terror.
In contrast to the menacing stereotype of male Isis warriors invading US shores, which Trump has framed in his speeches seeking to justify the ban, the demographic realities of the crisis place women in an unheard majority: nearly three-quarters of Syrian refugees who have entered the US since the war began (about 13,000) were women and young children. Women and children under age 14 actually make up most admissions from the top countries of origin for refugees in the US, including Iraq, Somalia and Syria.
While Trump’s ban is supposed to be temporary, four months is long enough to inflict irreparable harm on those facing gender-based violence every passing hour. Women remain deeply vulnerable whether they are escaping military air raids or “safe” in an official refugee camp overseas.
According to US humanitarian organization Tahirh Justice Center, which focuses on gender-based human rights abuse, women face a disproportionate share of the trauma because at every stage in the refugee journey, even outside of the direct conflict zone, they “find themselves unable to get out of situations that might threaten their safety … either because they are in domestic violence situation … internally displaced, or … vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of harm.”
Moreover they face ancillary gender-based human rights violations that tend to explode in conflict situations, including epidemics of sexual abuse and labor and sexual trafficking.
In any society at war, conflict unravels civil society, but the violent aftermath may strengthen institutionalized oppressions. In a 2015 survey of one of the largest Syrian refugee communities, in Jordan, UNHCR observed that since “traditional protection networks have broken down” for women and children, multiple forms of gender-based violence have intensified.
But while military violence had triggered displacement, the primary type of violence against women wasn’t a war crime but domestic abuse, usually within a household. The prevalence of child marriage, which typically targets young girls who have become economic “burdens” to the family, had more than doubled over the already high pre-war marriage rates.
Ironically, the further women “escape” from warzones, the deeper the threats they face on the refugee trail. Across Africa and the Middle East, women, often migrating alone with children, spiral into vast trafficking networks that profit from the overlap of gender and social barriers at the region’s militarized borders.
According to a UN survey of refugees who crossed through the Libyan militia-controlled detention camps, about half of women and children reported suffering sexual abuse, often repeatedly. The phalanx of sexual predation blurs lines between legal and criminal: about one in three reports of abuse involved a violator who was in uniform or associated with the military; incidents often occurring at border crossings and checkpoints. Though both boys and girls faced abuse, attacks on girls were more prevalent, often exacerbated by extreme deprivation.
Currently, advocates hope the Muslim ban’s 120-day timeline will have simply lapsed by the time the Supreme Court reviews the case. In the long run, they’re pushing for a definitive ruling, to send an international message that the president is not above the constitution.
But even if Trump’s ban is ultimately struck down, the administration and Republican Congress will continue to inflict disproportionate harm on refugee women. In May, amid his legal crusade to exclude even more refugees, Trump enacted the “Global Gag Rule,” which restricts humanitarian funding for groups that the administration deems to be in any way facilitating abortion – even if their services focus on basic family planning, or care for rape survivors.
According to the latest analysis of the Interagency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises, several “banned” countries are suffering disastrous gaps in reproductive healthcare.
Women across Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Sudan, including those displaced within borders and those who become refugees in other countries, are in dire need of contraceptives and other essential women’s services; aid groups warn that ongoing social upheaval and displacement is aggravating the gaps in social counseling, family planning and birth control resources.
Rape has become so prevalent on some smuggling routes, women report that traffickers are now in the business of reproductive health, injecting women with contraceptives to avoid pregnancy en route.
As Trump drives to harden the borders of Terror War, he’s quietly expanding his assault on refugee mothers, sisters and daughters – an invisible war on women that, tragically, knows no boundaries.