Brett Kavanaugh’s name may not have been well known before President Trump nominated him to the US Supreme Court. But many of us were already familiar with one of his cases: a shocking district circuit court ruling last fall that temporarily prevented a 17-year-old Central American refugee from obtaining an abortion. A blistering dissent to Kavanaugh’s decision by one of his colleagues in the US District Court in Washington, D.C., brought the case under the #MeToo umbrella by describing the numerous risks of sexual assault and abuse faced by refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants.
“To escape terrible physical abuse in her family, a seventeen-year-old girl known here as J.D. fled her home country and all she has ever known, and all alone undertook a life-imperiling trek for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles seeking safety,” wrote District Court Judge Patricia Millett . “J.D.’s journey exposed her to a tragically high risk of physical abuse, rape, and sexual exploitation at the hands of other migrants, smugglers, and government officials in every country whose territory she crossed.”
Since 2011, more than 68 million people have fled their homes in search of safety from war, climate change, and human rights violations based mostly on gender, religion, and sexual orientation and gender identity. While most seek shelter in their home countries, over 25 million risk their lives to travel to foreign lands. As media and international aid agencies have repeatedly documented, all face enormous risks of sexual assault and abuse. Although much of the attention has been paid to the risks faced by women and girls, men and boys are also vulnerable, as well as people who are transgender.
Refugees living in camps in Greece, France, and Germany report sexual assaults by other refugees, aid workers, and guards. They also report having experienced sexual abuse and assault at every point along their journey in search of safety.
As much as we might like to believe that this problem is isolated to overcrowded refugee camps located on other continents, it’s also happening within our own borders. Routinely. While we cannot end these abuses overnight, we are not powerless to effect change. Here are three things we can do:
First, recognize the possibilities that this moment brings. The problem of sexual abuse of refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants in US-based detention facilities long predates the Trump administration. But new degradations introduced by Trump that make such people even more vulnerable — separating children from their parents (which makes them easy targets for human sex traffickers and detention camp staff), depriving asylum seekers of their human rights, and attempting to destroy public records related to abuses committed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees — have brought unprecedented attention to the issue.
Second, keep up the pressure. Public outrage over media reports of human rights abuses at the border forced the Trump administration to end its policy of taking children from parents. The public outcry also led to blocking ICE’s attempts to destroy records related to, among other things, sexual assault and complaints of abuse. We know from history that change never comes as quickly as it’s needed. But continued activism and demands for accountability and change from members of Congress will bring reform.
Third, keep the dignity of the individuals caught up in this humanitarian crisis front of mind. Before the facts of her case were ever presented to Judge Kavanaugh, J.D. had already endured significant attacks on her humanity. These included being physically blocked from leaving the detention camp to make a doctor’s appointment and being forced to undergo medical procedures, including an ultrasound, against her will. Another teen, known as J.P. in court documents, who had been raped in her home country — one of the reasons she fled to the United States — was treated similarly. When human dignity is so disrespected, even greater acts of cruelty become easier to commit.
It is impossible to estimate the rates of sexual assault now taking place in the detention camps housing thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants. Although ICE has been required since 2014 to annually release “all aggregated sexual abuse and assault data,” it has never done so. Still, accounts from survivors and civil rights groups make clear that it is endemic.
Channel your anger and despair into action. Share the stories of survivors. Work to ensure that a new Congress is seated next year. Do not accept the status quo as a permanent state.
Gina Scaramella is executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.