Monday 07 March 2016

Refuge for women refugees

The proportion of women and children migrants and refugees has doubled - rising from a quarter last year to over half so far this year. These women face a whole set of additional challenges of violence and abuse than men. Is Europe doing enough to prevent and protect?

The threats facing women refugees

A report from the UN refugee agency and another from Amnesty document the growing number of women migrants and refugees who face sexual and gender based violence from smugglers, security guards, policemen and fellow refugees.

ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images/ New York Times
Women interviewed by Amnesty reported feeling constant fear and told of smugglers or officials giving them the option of food, clothes or discounts in exchange for sex. Women talked of men following and watching them using the bathroom. The fear of rape is so real that some women ”prepare” by taking contraceptives to prevent any resulting pregnancy, reports one EU-migration official. Pregnant women described a lack of basic healthcare and being crushed at border and transit points.

Coupled with little, if any, facilities for these women to report abuse, we must assume the vast majority goes unnoticed and unreported. Al Jazeera for example, reports that the gang rape of two Afghan girls on the Hungarian-Serbian border was only discovered when one of the perpetrators stabbed another to death. The NGO La Strada also speaks of the threat to women from male relatives who find out they have been abused.

Race to the bottom

While a Europe-wide solution is in the works, individual states are taking matters into their own hands. The resulting approach has been labelled by MEP Guy Verhofstadt as a European “race to the bottom, whereby European states compete to become the least attractive for migrants.”

Denmark controversially legalized the confiscation of valuables from refugees and migrants, saying it will help pay for their stay. The same law included another measure which drew less attention but which may help explain why more women are arriving: delayed family reunification. When a father is granted “temporary protection status” in Denmark, his family will now have to wait, in a conflict zone or refugee camp, for three years before being able to join.

So what happens when all European countries start to engage in such deterrence measures? Where the father, uncle or husband used to travel ahead, whole families are now deciding to make the arduous journey to Europe.

What can be done

Today the European Parliament votes on a report on women refugees. Amongst other things the report asks for a European asylum policy which recognizes that even in countries that are deemed safe, women may suffer gender-based persecution that gives them a legitimate right to protection. This report deserves support as an important opportunity to progress European gender equality in addition to improving our protection of some of the most vulnerable women in Europe today.

It also includes a number of concrete measures that draw on UN recommendations for Europe.

First, the UNHCR has criticised European countries for the lack of facilities specifically for women. Amnesty reports women leaving camps to sleep in the open because they feel safer there than in a dorm with strange men. Gender segregated bathrooms and sleeping quarters is a superficial fix, but a meaningful and welcome first response.

Second, UNHCR has called on European countries to improve reporting. Testimonies gathered so far come exclusively from NGOs and the UNHCR. Reporting procedures need to recognize that the women and men concerned are on the move. In other words, it must be possible to follow-up an incidence from Greece in Sweden.

Alongside this are demands for personnel to be better trained to prevent, identify and respond to sexual and gender based violence. The vast majority of EU and Member State officials on the refugee front line are men. As in any profession, a better gender balance should be encouraged here.

Finally, important policies like family reunification, relocation and resettlement should be designed in such way that they limit the number of people who feel they have to take the personal safety risk that it is to be on the move in Europe today. A gender perspective must be included in the overall European solution to stop the ongoing race to the bottom.

Marika Andersen is the Norwegian co-founder of EUPanelwatch, a campaign for more diversity in the public space EUPanelWatch; Brieuc Van Damme is the Belgian chairman of the Friday group, a policy platform for young people from all walks of life FridayGroup; Fabrice Aubert is a French lawyer living in Paris and member of the progressive think-tank Les Gracques