Asylum is not gender neutral: the refugee crisis in Europe from a feminist perspective


Asylum is not gender neutral: the refugee crisis in Europe from a feminist perspective

21. 9. 2015

[Brussels, 21 September 2015] Today is International Day of Peace. However, the persistence of war and conflicts globally urges us to redefine sustainable peace as the presence of human security, justice and equality, rather than the absence of war. Europe has to face the consequences of war and conflicts in other parts of the world, and has a duty to act, not only in terms of addressing the situation of refugees and asylum seekers reaching European countries, but also to promote real peace and security for all on this planet.

This year, we commemorate the 15 years of the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR1325) on ‘Women, Peace and Security’, which stresses the importance to include women in peace negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction, disarmament, humanitarian relief and peace building. It also highlights the increasingly pervasive violation of women’s rights in conflicts, namely the different forms of violence women and girls face, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

In this context, and in light of the ‘refugee crisis’ we are facing now, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) would like to bring everyone’s attention a reality which tends to be ignored by the media and the decision-makers: women and girls fleeing conflicts and war face various forms of male violence in their journey towards a hosting country, as well as multiple discrimination due to widespread prejudices about women refugees and asylum seekers.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that the number of women and children fleeing countries of violence heading for Europe has increased sharply in recent months. Our members from Eastern Europe have alerted us about the current widespread violence against women and girls in transit zones. Here are some examples we feel important to share, to make sure that the national and European responses to the situation include a strong gender perspective, and promote peace for all human beings, including women and girls.

Sexual violence against women refugees and asylum seekers

Sexual violence against women and girls is not related to exceptional situations only: the EU Fundamental Rights Agency reminds us that 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual or physical violence in Europe, and 5% have been raped. Many women flee their country because of a pervasive situation of male violence against women. Moreover, in situation of escape for refugees, male violence is part of women’s experience.

Women are been raped by officials, by smugglers, by other refugees, by traffickers. Our members in Hungary are aware of cases of rape perpetrated by Balkan police. Women Under Siege director Lauren Wolfe reports: “Every single woman I came to meet in my reporting described or alluded to rape—either of themselves or of others—as they traversed the African continent through Libya to cross the sea to Italy.” Due to the prevalent patriarchal structures, they rarely report those cases of violence to the authorities. They therefore don’t get access to any support and justice. They might also face unwanted pregnancies but without access to health care and choice about abortion.

Prostitution and trafficking of women refugees and asylum seekers

In the journey fleeing war and conflicts, women and girls are rendered vulnerable to trafficking and prostitution. Smugglers might link with traffickers to abuse women and girls and exploit them in brothels or other prostitution sites. Women might have to use prostitution as a means to survive during their journey, get a place to sleep or some food. Prostitution seems also to be widespread in the transit zones, and doctors report cases of sexually transmitted diseases.

Sexual and reproductive health of women refugees and asylum seekers

According to UNICEF, 12% of women arriving in Macedonia are pregnant. “We got many stories of women starting bleeding and losing their child, for instance in Greece”. Because of the lack of drinking water in the journey and the transit zones, mostly kids, pregnant women and breastfeeding women suffer from kidney problems. Women refugees and asylum seekers will have trouble finding toilets and sanitary products in the countries they travel through or the countries they arrive to in Europe. In transit zones, some authorities set up showers, but with no hot water, no separation between women and men, and no support for babies’ hygiene.

Women’s organisations mobilise!

Women’s organizations have a long history of peace activism and of solidarity. The EWL webinar on Women and Armed Conflict today illustrates the mobilisation of women’s groups and activists. People who are transiting Europe now need our help, and every one of our gestures actually makes a difference. But this ‘crisis’ also needs to be handled at political level, with clear, relevant and transformative answers.

The European Women’s Lobby has been working on the issue of asylum for many years, and we want to recall the following demands:

Member States should ensure that asylum procedures at borders comply the UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection (Gender-related persecution within the context of Article 1(2) of the 1951 Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugee, 7 May 2002). In particular, guideline n°35 states that “Persons raising gender-related refugee claims, and survivors of torture and trauma in particular, require a supportive environment where they can be reassured of the confidentiality of their claim. Some claimant, because of the shame they feel over what has happened to them, may be reluctant to identify the true extent of the persecution suffered of feared.”
Asylum officials should inform women of gender aspects of the refugee definition thus clarifying that fear of gender-based violence and discrimination may constitute a valid basis for a refugee claim.