from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Women Migrants Step Out of the Shadows in Europe

January 29, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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The experiences of women in world affairs are often invisible. We commonly see men as the central actors in the world, with women appearing only in our peripheral vision. Mainstream news, reports, and research about Europe’s migrant crisis have largely left the stories of women untold. But important new research conducted by Amnesty International reveals that women migrants fleeing from Syria and Iraq to Europe face a high risk of violence, both sexual and physical, throughout their journey.

The canary in the coal mine for these recent challenges was the sexual exploitation of women from Africa and Eastern Europe in earlier waves of women escaping conflicts and economic instability—for example, in Nigeria, Libya, the former Yugoslavia, and former satellites of the Soviet Union (following the fall of the Berlin Wall). Now that the gaze of the western media (and powerful human rights groups such as Amnesty) has begun to turn to women who are fleeing Syria and Iraq, policymakers should develop more effective solutions—not only for women fleeing the Middle East, but also for those who enter Europe from more marginalized regions of Africa.

According to the New York Times, “[a]mong the more than one million migrants who have entered Europe over the past year, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond, men outnumber women by more than three to one, United Nations statistics show.” But for those women who make the trip, the migration route from Turkey to Greece and then Greece north toward countries like Germany and Norway is reportedly rife with sexual abuse, exploitation, harassment, and violence. Besides lacking safety and privacy when they were forced to sleep and shower in the same quarters as men, women told Amnesty they were exploited for or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff within camps, and other migrants. Some women also reported being beaten or harassed by security and police officers in transit centers and along the routes in Greece, Hungary, and Slovenia.

Amnesty is calling for European governments to set up better services such as single-sex and well-lit toilet facilities and separate sleeping quarters in transit camps as well as take more steps to protect women and girl migrants. A recent United Nations report suggests additional steps to prevent sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and to protect women in refugee camps and transit centers. These recommendations call for the European Union to establish a coordinated response system across borders that protects women and girls; implement procedures and disperse personnel to prevent, identify, and respond to SGBV; ensure that there are safe spaces for women and children at transit centers and refugee camps.

More broadly, policy-makers should support cross-Mediterranean economic activity and civil society exchanges to promote connectivity in ways that can address the root causes of conflict, lack of political freedoms, and economic activities. Moreover, as Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director Tirana Hassan notes, “The best way to avoid abuses and exploitation by smugglers is for European governments to allow safe and legal routes from the outset.”

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