Female genital mutilation: Putting human rights at the core of Europe’s asylum system

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Many female refugees from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Guinea and Ethiopia are victims of FGM. [End FGM European Network]

Female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors, and women and girls at risk, are particularly vulnerable in the asylum system. They must receive support to help them navigate the process, writes Liuska Sanna.

Liuska Sanna is Director of the End FGM European Network.

In 2014, UNHCR estimated that 71% of female EU asylum applicants from FGM-practicing countries may have been survivors of FGM, amounting to 18,500 women and girls – notably coming from Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Guinea or Ethiopia.

FGM is an ongoing harmful practice, which violates the human rights of women and girls. Women and girls subjected to FGM or in fear of being subjected to the practice, as well as human rights defenders acting to end FGM, may claim international protection in the European Union.

FGM-related claims must receive the appropriate treatment in asylum systems, to ensure adequate protection to particularly vulnerable women, girls and families, as stated in EU legislation.

Member state lottery

An assessment of the treatment of gender-related claims in EU member states, including FGM-related claims, shows disparities between member states, but also at national level between law, policies, theory and practice, and even between asylum caseworkers.

Member states currently use different country of origin information (COI) to assess asylum applications, including the credibility of the applicant. Member states do not all adopt a gender perspective in their analysis of countries of origin, which undermines the evaluation of specific human rights violations, including FGM and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV).

The EU and member states must ensure protection and enforcement of human rights are the core values in the asylum system, including in the establishment of precise, sensitive and relevant COI, along with a coherent and consistent gender analysis.

Member states, EASO and other EU bodies should gather, update, analyse and use COI in a gender-, culture- and child-sensitive manner. COI on FGM-practising countries must assess the prevalence rate of FGM, analyse the causes of its perpetuation, reflect the trend in the medicalisation of FGM, and underline the consequences of FGM.

The EU and member states must develop and provide efficient, gender-sensitive training to caseworkers and other asylum officers, including interpreters, healthcare providers and reception staff. The impact of trauma, culture, gender and violence, including FGM, must be an integral part of the training of asylum officers and of the assessment of applicants’ statements and asylum claims.

Lack of systematic record-keeping

It is estimated that the EU receives a few thousand FGM-related cases every year.. Due to a lack of systematic data collection in most member states as regards the grounds for granting international protection, including in FGM-related claims, the exact extent of the issue is unknown, which impairs the Member States’ and the EU’s response to FGM.

By highlighting the extent of the issue, data collection would allow for a more coherent and comprehensive approach and evidence-based policy to FGM-related claims and treatment of FGM survivors at EU and national level, by ensuring women and girls are not unfairly deprived of international protection.

FGM is a particularly complex subject on the spectrum of gender-based violence, and is not always recognised as a form of persecution in member states.

Asylum officers must be trained to be aware of and sensitive to the practical, cultural and psychological reasons that may prevent women from disclosing spontaneously that they have been subjected to FGM or fear the practice. These barriers may include, among others, the lack of knowledge of asylum procedures, the gender and/or the attitude of the interviewer and/or the interpreter, or the presence of the husband, children or other family members during the interview. Importantly, many FGM survivors and those at risk of FGM consider the subject highly taboo and private.

The credibility assessment and burden of proof must be weighed against these elements, and take into account the vulnerability of women and girls in FGM-related cases, both necessary steps that are currently not systematically undertaken.

Although women and girls, especially those who have been subjected to GBV, including FGM, are considered as vulnerable in the asylum system, with related special needs, as laid out in international and EU recommendations, it is still unclear how this vulnerability is concretely assessed and addressed. In States where the procedure exists, it is unclear how and if States allocate appropriate means to this identification and how it impacts on the assessment of the claim. Vulnerability assessment is not harmonised at EU level, creating discrepancies between member states with a further negative impact on reception conditions and health and psychological care of asylum-seekers and beneficiaries of international protection.

We want human rights to be at the centre of the asylum process, and survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM), human rights activists speaking out against FGM, women, girls and the families in fear of FGM to receive the protection they are entitled to, in the asylum process and as beneficiaries of international protection in EU member states.

Further Reading

New laws needed to curb female genital mutilation, NGO claims

A leading development NGO says that efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) will fail without a concerted global push to get the issue onto the global policymaking table, reports EURACTIV Spain.

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