Sexual violence against refugees goes on: Europe must act


Picture of Nicole Gerring
Nicole Gerring

A special focus needed on women and girls

Nicole Gerring is a PhD candidate at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan

Women asylum-seekers leave conflict zones seeking refuge from acute threats, including wartime rape. But Europe is no haven from sexual violence.

The media and non-governmental organisations report how refugees in Europe face threats of sexual violence along migration routes, at ports of entry, at transit sites, in detention, and in reception centres. Perpetrators include smugglers, aid workers and fellow refugees.

Reports suggest that refugee women and girls may be particularly at risk of rape, sexual abuse, trafficking and pressure to engage in ‘transactional’ or ‘survival’ sex, given their vulnerable legal, social, economic and political status. Despite high-level responses to the problem, many reception centres and transit points throughout the European Union lack sufficient security to protect women and girls from sexual violence. It’s time to examine and adopt best practices from around the world to reduce these risks.

In March 2016, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution outlining a series of policy recommendations to boost protection. These included a critical need for separate shower, bathroom and sleeping facilities in reception and transit facilities throughout the EU.

MEPs also called for more female staff members at migration and reception sites, stronger legal asylum routes to reduce the demand for smugglers and the prioritisation of vulnerable people, such as women, children and disabled people, in reception procedures.

Europe is no haven from sexual violence

Reports from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights suggest that many member states have yet to implement the Parliament’s recommendations. Persistent problems include overcrowding at many reception centres, especially those in Spain and Greece. Many facilities lack separate accommodation for children, which may result in children lodging in adult facilities. Other problems include a lack of privacy and security for women and children in reception centres.

These failings create an environment in which perpetrators prey on refugee women and children. For example, Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees reported 18 cases of rape and 13 cases of sexual abuse of children at reception centres in Finland in 2016. As of January 2017, problems of lack of privacy and safety persisted at these facilities.

The refugee crisis in Europe is staggering and poses serious political, legal, logistical and security challenges. However, the gravity of the challenge does not mean that sexual violence should be ignored. States can work with NGOs and other partners to implement programmes modelled on ‘best practices’ to improve reception conditions for women refugees and to fulfil international commitments such as the Istanbul Convention, which provides for the protection of refugee women against violence. Three programmes outlined by the World Future Council, and implemented in Germany, could be replicated in other countries to improve reception conditions for women and girls. These include local protection plans, safe spaces for women and girls, and support for women’s refugee organisations.

Local protection plans are minimum standards for facilities that accommodate refugees. In Germany, the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) worked with the United Nations’ children’s rights agency, UNICEF, to develop minimum standards for its reception and accommodation facilities.

The standards — which pertain to the construction and design of facilities, personnel, standard operating procedures in cases of violence, and monitoring — have been implemented at centres in cities across Germany, including in Hamburg. European states should work with UNICEF, which is conducting an evaluation of the protection plans, to assess how they could adopt similar programmes in cities with high refugee populations.

Other innovative practices include the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for women and girls that can be coordinated by NGOs, aid organisations and other assistance bodies to allow women and girls to have a physical space in which they can discuss concerns such as domestic or gender-based violence and learn about opportunities for counselling and legal and medical assistance.

While there are many challenges to refugee women’s political participation and mobilisation, there is also great unrealised potential

The ‘safe space’ programme in Germany resembles programmes — also known as women’s centres or women’s counselling centres — that the UN Population Fund has promoted, and positively evaluated, in Jordan and Lebanon.

Finally, women refugees are vital partners in reforming asylum policies. Member states should collaborate with organisations such as the European Network of Migrant Women, a network of NGOs that formed in 2012 to advocate for the rights of migrant women in Europe.

Noteworthy domestic groups include Women in Exile, an advocacy organisation comprised of refugee women in Germany, which since 2014 has organized bus and boat tours of German refugee camps to raise awareness of issues such as sexual violence of refugee women. This group demonstrates the resilience of women who collectively work to change policy and practices, even within a highly contentious political environment.

Although there are many challenges to refugee women’s political participation and mobilisation, there is also great unrealised potential. The European Commission should strongly consider using grant funds, possibly through its Daphne programme, to fund projects that combat violence against women and children. Such grants could empower refugee women to provide constructive input into processes to improve travel and reception conditions.

As the Commission prepares to release its revisions to the Dublin Regulation, including an expected end to the ‘first country of entry principle’, it must encourage member states to improve the refugee reception situation for women and girls. Doing so will not only fulfil states’ human rights obligations; it will also increase peace and security in the region and the world by signalling that the EU is committed to protecting the bodily integrity and human rights of women.

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