Op-Ed: Protect the rights of fleeing and displaced women

By Birgit Wolf*

During the past days, we have been witnessing an unacceptable and horrific situation regarding asylum-seekers on EU territory, especially on the Greek islands. In addition to harsh measures and violent attacks against volunteers, journalists, and refugees, women face violence because they are women. I want to address this on International Women’s Day 2020.

Sexual and gender-related violence against women

The World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018 stated that it estimates one in three women around the world have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. In humanitarian and emergency settings, the risk to women of different forms of violence are even higher, the WHO states. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is a violation of human rights and overwhelmingly affects women* and girls as victims and or survivors.

Acts of SGBV violate several human rights principles enshrined in international human rights instruments. Prevention of and response to sexual and gender-based violence is therefore directly linked to the protection of women’s human rights.

The UNHCR Executive Committee Decision No. 85 (1998), deplores gender-based violence and all forms of gender discrimination against women and girls among refugees and displaced persons and calls upon states to ensure that their human rights and physical and mental integrity are protected and that they are made aware of these rights. Neither these human rights of women refugees are being protected, nor are the women protected or made aware of these rights.

As of December 2019, the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (‘Istanbul Convention’), has been signed by all EU Member States and ratified by 21 EU Member States as well as by Turkey. The Istanbul Convention provides detailed obligations to protect refugee women and female asylum-seekers. According to Article 60 of the Istanbul Convention, gender-sensitive reception and asylum procedures, as well as gender-specific guidelines and sufficient support services for asylum seekers, must be guaranteed.

It is obligatory for every EU member state to establish gender-sensitive interviewing procedures so that those at risk or survivors of violence can be identified and offered the necessary protection and services.

Now, these rights for women and girls refugees and displaced persons are under attack, leaving them in horrific situations.

No safe places, no safe passage 

According to the UN, the systematic rape of women and girls is part of many armed conflicts as a declared strategy of war. It is known that many women in Syria, among others, have left their country for fear of rape and sexual assault. They often flee alone or with their children.

Fleeing women and girls are vulnerable to SGBV not only in areas of conflict but also on their journey, and once they arrive in Europe (Amnesty International 2015, WHO 2016). When we look beyond the borders of the EU, the situation is even worse. For instance, in Libya, we know from Médecins Sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders, the situation is horrific. The teams of Médecins Sans Frontières report on witnessing thousands of people trapped in an endless cycle of violence, although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees called on the Libyan authorities to free people from the detention centers. They also state that there is a lack of support for UN efforts in Libya by the EU countries.

Due to recent developments in Idlib, Syria, and the possibility of Turkey opening the borders, we find increasing tensions on the Greek Aegean islands. European leaders have insisted on Turkey’s deal to stop migrant departures in exchange for six billion euros in assistance. Experts speak about a successful project concerning human aid for refugees. However, Turkey currently hosts both a mass-influx refugee population from neighboring Syria and a surging number of individually arriving asylum seekers of other nationalities, most notably originating from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Somalia, among other places. At the end of March 2018, there were 1 632 508 registered Syrian women citizens in Turkey.

Lack of protection and hosting in EU countries 

According to the Istanbul Convention’s evaluation process, the NGO reports, and the GREVIO report indicate that Syrian women, because of the language barrier and a lack of information about the Turkish legal system, are unaware of the right to seek support, and when they do they may encounter problems in accessing services. Often the Turkish authorities consider it best to leave issues such as violence against women to be dealt with by the leaders of the Syrian communities in the camps.

GREVIO also notes that women refugees fleeing a war zone are particularly vulnerable to violence, in particular, sexual violence and/or sexual harassment, particularly when they are on the move, and forced marriage – unfortunately, is often seen by families as a way of protecting young girls. Both government and NGO sources reported that early and forced marriages are widespread among the Syrian population, particularly among those who live in temporary centers. Furthermore, women in these situations are highly vulnerable and are unlikely to denounce or try to escape from domestic violence for fear of not having anywhere to go.

In 2015, Amnesty International (AI) interviewed 40 female refugees in Germany who fled from Turkey to Greece and then proceeded via the Balkans to Western Europe. They reported physical abuse, financial and sexual exploitation, coercion by smugglers, security personnel or other refugees, and inadequate care for pregnant women

Since the closure of the Western Balkan route, women and girls are at increased risk of SGBV. There is no safe passage to Europe; thus, women and girls become vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers and smugglers as they try to reach Europe by other routes illegally.

Due to the continuous discourse on “Fortress Europe” and insisting on the Schengen obligations, while leaving Greece alone, the situation continues to far from humane. Reception centers on the Greek Aegean islands are extremely overcrowded without adequate sanatory facilities, medical and basic care for the mass influx, without any response and support mechanisms for traumatized or victims/survivors of SGBV.

Once in the EU, they are again trapped in a cycle of waiting, too often in unsafe places for women and children! Often, the receiving EU countries lack gender-sensitive referral and asylum mechanisms.

With the seeking of protection still being seen as taboo, women then fear the shame or risk of being uncared for, face difficult social and bureaucratic hurdles.

EU member states must address the real emergency now, and deliver a working gender-sensitive refugee referral and support system, gender-sensitive asylum mechanisms and stop trapping women and children in horrific conditions and at permanent risk of violence.

 Dr. Birgit Wolf, gender and anti-violence expert, lecturer at University of Vienna, Austria; was volunteering in refugee hotspots at EU border in 2015 (Lesvos, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia)

Sign and share the petition: “Safe places now for refugee women & children.”

European Parliament called to action for migrant women and children

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