Are women and girls seeking refuge in Europe exposed to special risks? A task force of experts says yes.
In a special report completed recently, representatives from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), described their interviews with women and girls at several points along refugee routes to Europe, visiting the arrival islands in Greece, and points in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia.
According to the report, “findings confirm that women and girl refugees and migrants face grave protection risks.” The report continues explaining the details of these risks and makes specific recommendations to reduce them.
Based on data published by UNHCR at the time of the report, the task force estimates that 16% of the refugees arriving in Europe are women and 24% are children. (An update on data.unhcr.org dated February 2, 2016, indicates the percentage of women has grown to 17% and children to 27%) Recent observations by humanitarian agencies indicate an increase of unaccompanied minors, women traveling alone and of pregnant women.
Report uncovers SGBV incidents
During interviews, many women described harrowing incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). One woman, Fatima*, described being victimized by a man who was supposed to be her protector. Her husband had entrusted her and their daughter to the man, but on the way, he stole her phone, money and documents and then became physically abusive. Upon arrival in Greece, she had to be hospitalized and treated for her injuries.
Other survivors reported being forced into transactional sexual activity by smugglers as payment for transport. One woman, Oumo*, who had no money to pay for passage, said, “I had no choice.”
Many women do not report SGBV incidents for fear of dishonor and reprisals or because of their own reluctance to discuss personal matters. Cases go unreported unless there is serious physical injury that requires medical attention. And because they are traveling with speed and urgency, some women do not seek treatment.
Pregnant women need special support
Pregnancy presents unique challenges, and observers report an increase in the number of pregnant refugees and migrants. This may be because of a presumption that pregnant women will be given higher priority when seeking asylum. Concerned with reaching their destinations, women deny being in active labor and delay getting medical attention. Even when they deliver under medical supervision, they often resume their journeys within hours after giving birth.
Tehmina* was one of those women. She was determined to give birth in Germany, and when labor began in Greece, she simply continued walking. It took intensifying labor and the pleas from her family to persuade her to go to the hospital. She and her newborn left quickly after the birth.
Other groups facing grave protection risks are elderly and disabled women. One mother, Aziza* was traveling with an adult daughter who was confined to a wheelchair. Despite being old and frail, Aziza heroically pushed or carried her daughter along the way — hoping to find a place where she could receive medical attention. When doctors examined the daughter, they predicted that she could make a gradual recovery. But Aziza may not be able to continue her journey. She has exhausted her funds, as well as her frail body.
If you would like to learn more about this issue and the task force’s findings, download the full report here. It makes a compelling case for adding special protection for women refugees and their children.
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*Names changed for protection reasons.