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Women refugees and asylum seekers on the move in Europe: a current challenge that requires special attention on International Women’s day 2016

On the occasion of International Women’s day, the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality organised, on 3 March 2016, an inter-parliamentary committee in collaboration with the Employment, Civil Liberties and Budget Committees and the Human Rights Subcommittee. This year the focus is on the issue of women refugees and asylum seekers in the EU. This meeting brought together MEPs, representatives of national parliaments of 24 member states, candidate countries and Norway, and some delegates of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) and the European Commission, amongst the others. The debates mainly focused on combating violence against women refugees and asylum seekers, their situation in healthcare, and measures for promoting their integration. The latter point will be better analysed in a further article, while here, the focus is on the topic in general terms, presenting violence experienced by women and the almost non-existent health care provided to them in their trip to and across Europe.

On February, UNICEF has raised the alarm about the fact that “for the first time since the beginning of the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, there are more children and women on the move than adult males.” Children and women now make up nearly 60% of refugees and migrants, against 27% of the end of June last year. Refugee and migrant women and girls are among those particularly at risk and require additional protection measures, as highlighted by the report issued by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC).

In fact, women are among the most vulnerable refugees. They are often the victims of violence and discrimination in their own countries, including forced marriage, rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation, and “honour crimes”. However, on their journeys to and through the EU, they can again become victims of trafficking, prostitution and sexual exploitation.

In his opening speech at the European Parliament (EP) International Women’s day, Martin Schulz, President of the EP, expressed his strong interest in this gender issue, underling that the EU and its Members have to commit themselves to this matter. He also underlined that “refugee crisis” has not an easy solutions nevertheless, rule of law and solidarity, principles that have been put in peril during the last months, are strong bases to build on a possible solution.

Afterwards, several activists and MEPs took the floor at the conference. The words of Nawal Soufi, a human rights activist, thundered in the room presenting the awful reality that migrants face every day. She started her speech showing two bottles of water and a pair of tights: the hand-made life jacket that people, with no money left, use to try to save their life at sea. She talked about a “red Mediterranean sea”, coloured by thousands of silent deaths; the world looks at it and stays silent: “we continue to pretend that it is all nothing”.

This activist, an Italian 27-year-old girl of Moroccan origins, talked about her own trip from a gender perspective: she travelled as a refugee under false identity from Syria to Europe. She experienced violence twice: hit with baton by the border police of two EU Member States. “The travel frequently becomes untenable; people are constantly under pressure and often treated in an inhumane and degrading manner first by smugglers, and then by police authorities.” Nawal Soufi continued saying that she is not worried about refugees in Europe, because one day they will come back home. However, she is really concerned about Europe and its conscience. Thus, she called on the EU to open humanitarian corridors making Europe “permeable” in a safe and legal way.

All refugees face great hardship but women and girls are among the most vulnerable of those travelling to the EU in search of protection from war, human rights abuses and deprivation. Because of their gender, they are often the victims of violence and discrimination. As recalled by Susana Amador, Portuguese representative of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, Rights, Freedoms Guarantees: women refugees are victims twice, as refugees firstly and then for gender-based persecution.

Women and girls are confronted to violence that they have been fleeing from in their home country and violence on the journey, very often from smugglers and traffickers and unfortunately from other refugees. It is a violent situation in itself. Women are vulnerable, particularly if they are on their own. Statistics show that there are now more women coming. The reason could be that men are sent on ahead and then women and children do come later.

UNHCR underlined “single women travelling alone or with children, pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls (…) elderly women and especially persons with disabilities are among those who are particularly at risk”. In fact, as reported by the COFACE-Disability organisation, there are hundreds of disabled women refugees left behind with no access to humanitarian aid. Moreover, there are dozens and dozens of reports telling how women, and especially women with disability, are often exposed to sexual violence and psychological assault.

Rachael Reilly, representative of the Women’s Refugee Commission, exposed one of this report at the conference. She presented different cases experienced by some women interviewed. A Sub-Saharan woman, for instance, told that in Greece she was asked to have sex for obtaining a passport. Rachael Reilly added that, in emergency camps along the Balkan route, women are afraid of being subject to violence: there are no separates toilets, showers and, sleeping and safe places for women. Some migrants’ women told that they stopped eating and drinking not to go to the toilet. Women are in danger because there are thousands of people mixed up with no organisation. However, violence is even experienced in reception centres. As underlined by Mina Jaf, a Belgian social worker, a pregnant Nigerian woman, living in Brussels, was sexually abused by an operator of her reception centre.

These points are reiterated in the joint report conducted by UNHCR, UNFPA and WRC which underlines that, “despite attempts by UNHCR and partners to ensure well-lit and gender segregated reception facilities and shelter, many lack private, safe water, sanitation and health facilities and sleeping areas for women and children, exposing them to potential or further sexual and gender-based violence risks.”

Thus, the study comes up with a set of recommendations for governments and EU agencies to fight against this sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV):

  • establish a coordinated response system within and across borders that protects women and girls;
  • acknowledge the protection risks and put personnel and procedures in place specifically to prevent, identify, and respond to SGBV;
  • ensure response to SGBV that recognizes women will not stop to report SGBV or access services; and
  • provide legal pathways to protection, especially for women, children and SGBV survivors, including effective family reunification and prioritization of these refugees with specific needs in relocation and resettlement opportunities.

As regard to gender healthcare, the debate at the Parliamentary International Women’s day underlined that woman’s category is the most exposed during the trip. Directives for asylum seekers at national level envisage that once recognised as refugees, women have the same rights to receive healthcare as national citizens. The problem is that sometimes legislation remains on paper. In emergency centres, there is a lack of health facilities and most of the time police officers, doctors and interpreters are males: this represents an obstacle for women.

Moreover, due to the high rate of pregnant women, there is the need of pre and post-natal services, women care centres and safe spaces to leave children while their mothers receive medical care and assistance. Furthermore, Daniela Aiuto, Italian MEP, highlighted that the language barrier is a great obstacle: there is a lack of linguistic support and limits in the administrative structure. Thus, women often struggle to adequately explain their symptoms during the medical interview. Fortunately, she concluded, this gap is often fill in by NGOs and volunteers, but this is not enough. “The EU is called directly into play, more than ever before.”

Mary Honeyball, a UK member of the S&D group, underlined that a concrete step towards could be taken rising awareness. “People need to know that this is going on. This kind of pressure can lead to improvements.” The English MEP has drafted an own-initiative report on women refugees, highlighting the need for gender-sensitive measures as part of broader reforms on EU migration and asylum policies.

According to this report, once women are accepted in an EU country, their special needs are often not fully addressed throughout the asylum process, including the fact that they are often travelling with young children. “We need to make sure that the centres where they arrive are run properly”. Thus, she called for new European measures that could grant women access to proper legal advice or the right to request female interviewers and interpreters. Reception centres should include separate sleeping and sanitation facilities for women as well as trauma counselling and appropriate health services. She even highlighted that having been the victim of violence due to being a woman should be considered a valid reason for seeking asylum in the European Union.

The women’s rights committee adopted the non-legislative report of Mary Honeyball on last 28th January. All MEPs will debate and vote on the report tomorrow, on 8th March, a symbolic date to underline another time the EU new commitment on this gender issue.

On 8th March 2016, the International Women’s Day allows us to give voice to the silence of women migrants. It is a renewed opportunity to express our indignation about their situation. Anyway, this day allows us to stand together with all those women who dare to speak up, sometimes at their life’s risk, against the violence suffered at our borders and at our doors.

Let us raise our voice hoping that this can turn into real actions and decisions…and in 365 “women’s days” per year.

Adele Cornaglia

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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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