From 2011 onwards, the Arab Spring brought a moderate flow of people to Europe’s doorstep. In 2014-2015, a second wave brought more than a million to the Schengen area to seek asylum (1.3 million in 2015). Although most of these refugees are men, and it is incredibly complicated to obtain accurate gender-based statistics, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that 20% of this flow is female. Furthermore, Eurostat, the official body responsible for providing statistics for the European Union, estimated that in 2019, among the 612,700 asylum seekers arriving on European territory, 38% would be female, which is equivalent to approximately 232,820 women.
This dismal record is due to the various conflicts in the Middle East, mainly in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. This massive influx of asylum seekers in Europe was predictable. In 2012, the UNHCR, observing many Syrians fleeing their country to neighboring states such as Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey, asked for help from contributing conditions. This exhortation has not been heard.
All these conflicts in the Middle East – be it in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya – continued without any prospect of appeasement. As a result, in 2015, due to the lack of financial support from contributing states, UNHCR was no longer able to provide a minimum health and food guarantee to refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey. As a result, they decided to take the road to Europe.
For their part, most EU Member States have not fulfilled their commitments to receive refugees, have not met the quotas set by Brussels, and have therefore failed in their responsibility to protect refugees under international law.
This European dynamic of closing borders makes the journey of refugees increasingly unsafe, and in particular that of women who are more exposed to gender-based violence, such as sexual violence, human trafficking, forced marriages, and sexual extortion. This violence is of different natures and occurs at all stages of the migration process.
Indeed, refugee women are often the target of gender-based violence both during their journey and arrival in the host country. Many of them flee their country of origin because of this same violence. Many humanitarian organizations have reported the enormous amount of rape committed during the conflict in Syria. However, few facilities are available to victims of sexual abuse during their journey or within the European Union.
Jane Freedman, a British sociologist, and expert on gender and migration who has interviewed many Syrian women, explains that most have experienced gender-based violence in Syria, particularly sexual abuse, either the victim or a close family member. The primary perpetrators are the rebels, the Islamic State but also government army officers. A Syrian woman explained that the forces of the al-Assad regime perpetuate rape against women in prisons and at roadblocks, in the street or their own homes, in front of their husbands and children.
Women are also often confronted with several sources of violence during their migratory journey. First of all, many of them face domestic violence. Poor travel conditions and the stress of the trip can increase abuse within a family. Women are then faced with a dilemma; to stay with an abusive husband and enjoy his protection for the rest of the journey or to risk leaving him and traveling alone or with children. Many find themselves trapped in an abusive relationship from which they cannot escape.
Secondly, another factor of violence comes from smugglers or human traffickers. Women traveling alone or just with their children are more vulnerable. Many of the women interviewed explained that they had been raped or abused during the journey by these individuals. Other women mentioned the use of sex in exchange for transport to Europe or another service, ‘transactional sex’ as they called it. It seems that many smugglers demand sex as a currency for their services.
In addition, violence against women may also emanate from the refugee group itself, which is often composed of many single men. The lack of facilities on the road leads to an increased lack of privacy, making women all the more vulnerable. Many of the women interviewed by Jane Freedman expressed their fear of sharing their living space with unknown men, especially those traveling alone who are perceived as a real threat to their safety.
The gender-based violence experienced by refugee women does not, unfortunately, stop when they reach Europe. A study conducted in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2012 showed that 69.3% of refugee women are victims of sexual violence once they arrive in the European Union. However, it is difficult to find data on this because victims rarely file complaints, or it is not possible to find a written record of their statements. This is because humanitarian personnel are overworked and not sufficiently trained to respond to the needs of victims of sexual violence.
In theory, the European Union has issued directives that are supposed to take gender into account in its migration policies. Like these, numerous guidelines have been adopted by the UNHCR, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). They are formulated in the following documents: Sexual Violence against Refugees. Guidelines on Prevention and Response (UNHCR, 1995), UNHCR Handbook for the Protection of Women and Girls (UNHCR, 2008), Action against Sexual and Gender-based Violence: An Updated Strategy (UNHCR, 2011), Guidelines for Integrating Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Action: Reducing Risk, Promoting Resilience, and Aiding Recovery (IASC, 2015), The Minimum Standards for Prevention and Response to Gender-based Violence in Emergencies (UNPF, 2015).
However, these guidelines have had little or no impact in practice; refugee women still have to deal with many difficulties in accessing national protection in Europe. Victims of violence still face numerous obstacles when they need support or assistance with their rights or safety.