IRC Forensic Photographers Help Bring Justice to Refugees on Thai-Burma Border
The IRC in Thailand has introduced a new method to help abused refugee women bring their attackers to justice: forensic photography. Six female refugees at the International Rescue Committee’s domestic violence shelters in the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border recently received training and cameras to document injuries sustained after rape or domestic abuse.
The project is the latest in a series of innovative joint initiatives by the IRC’s gender-based violence program and the IRC’s legal assistance centers to help bring justice to crime victims in the camps housing refugees from Burma, also known as Myanmar.
“Protecting women is not just about providing temporary safe shelter and counseling,” said Abigail Erikson, who manages the IRC’s gender-based violence programs in the refugee camps near Mae Hong Son in northwestern Thailand. “It is also about fighting for long-term solutions to the violence they face.”
One solution is to bring the perpetrator – in many cases the battered women’s spouse – to justice. But unless the victim can produce well-documented physical evidence of her injuries, prosecution is difficult.
“Our staff is often the first point of contact for women who have suffered abuse, which means they are able to secure evidence immediately by taking pictures of the bruises, the black eyes and knife wounds,” Erikson says.
That evidence can then be taken to the IRC’s legal assistance centers, three walk-in offices staffed by lawyers, that help clients bring their cases to the local camp authorities or outside the camps, to the Thai judicial system. Last year, The IRC managed to successfully refer a case of marital rape and two cases of serious domestic violence to the Thai justice system for legal action, previously almost unheard of in a refugee camp in Thailand.
“Forensic photographs, especially if taken soon after injuries have been sustained, can be extremely compelling evidence should a woman decide to pursue justice,” says Barbara Coll, who manages the legal assistance centers in Mae Hong Son. “We have successfully used photographic evidence in a number of the cases in which we have represented clients.”
An estimated 145,000 refugees, mostly ethnic minorities, are living in nine camps strung along the Thai-Burmese border in western Thailand. The residents of these camps have already experienced the loss of their homes, possessions, and in some cases, family members. Many have been living in the camps for years with little or no hope of ever returning home. Unemployment, alcohol abuse and the stress of living in the camps for so long have contributed to high levels of rape and domestic among the refugees. No one knows the full extent of the problem, but women’s groups along the border are unequivocal in their assessment that domestic violence and other forms of abuse against women are endemic in the camps.
Naw Yu Paw, 35, is a volunteer with the IRC’s gender-based violence program. Like the majority of refugees in the Mae Hong Son camps, Naw Yu Paw is a Karenni. She ended up in the sprawling Site 1 camp as a teenager.
“In the camp there was a lot of domestic abuse, but the community was not willing to do anything to help,” Naw Yu Paw says. “I often hid beaten women in my house. With this job, I feel like I can make a difference. I talk to the women and help them get to the camp clinic for medical treatment. And now, with my camera, I can also help bring the perpetrators to justice.”