EU turning blind eye to violence against women migrants

Unaccompanied minors are recognised as particularly vulnerable people at refugee camps, and should be offered extra protection. [Freedom House/Flickr]

The crisis in Syria has drastically increased the proportion of female migrants making the journey to Europe. The UN High Commission for Refugees, NGOs and researchers are increasingly concerned about the violence these women face. EURACTIV France reports

The refugee crisis is taking a heavy toll on vulnerable female migrants, the High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and European researchers have said that the European Union is not adequately assuming its responsibilities.

Of the 644,000 refugees that have arrived in Europe since the beginning of the year, 34% are women and children; a particularly vulnerable group. The UNHCR has received reports of children being sold into prostitution to pay traffickers. And women are often the victims of violence, whether in the refugee camps or on the route to Europe, which passes through North Africa or Turkey.

Women forced out by violence

Not only do women, some of whom have been widowed by the Syrian conflict, make up a growing proportion of the refugees, but their living conditions have also seriously deteriorated, whether in Syria or in the Turkish camps that are currently home to 2 million refugees.

“Violence is what pushes the women to leave. But on the routes they take, that violence is even worse,” said Jane Freedman, a professor of sociology at the University of Paris 8. She has been studying the subject for several months.

Once this dangerous journey is over, the Syrian migrants receive a six month residence permit, but they are often forced to break the conditions of their stay in order to reach their preferred destination, be it Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom or France.

Traffickers: a symptom of the EU’s closed borders

The EU is vocal in its condemnation of human traffickers, accusing them of profiting from the migrants’ misery and in certain cases being involved in the rape of female migrants.

But according to Freedman, “traffickers have proliferated as the routes into the EU have been closed off and the road has become more perilous”.

The closure of the European borders has been a major factor in pushing the migrants into the arms of human traffickers. In Greece, the closure of the Evros region’s border with Turkey has driven Syrian migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing.

According to the UNHCR, 258,365 migrants have reached Greece by sea this year, and hundreds of others have died trying, including the 3-year old boy Aylan Kurdi, the photograph of whose drowned corpse sent shockwaves across Europe this summer.

A total of 3,440 migrants have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean since the start of 2015.

“We have to stop shifting the blame: the traffickers are a symptom, not a cause of the refugee problem,” said Freedman.

While the entry of migrants into Europe is certainly orchestrated by organised groups, they do not always display the typical traits of organised criminals: former migrants join these groups as a way to make money, and many Turkish fishermen rent out their boats.

Many migrants have also drowned off the island of Kos, in Greece, because they are forced to attempt the crossing at night: at the request of the European Union, the Turkish coast guards prevent them from leaving during the day.

The EU is pushing Turkey to step up its efforts to stop illegal immigration, even if its capacity to do so is very limited. Between its 28 member states, the EU has taken in less than one million migrants, while Turkey, a country of 74 million inhabitants, is currently hosting two million.

>> Read: Avramopoulos: Without Turkey’s help, refugee crisis will worsen

Are refugee centres dangerous for women?

Freedman, who has interviewed Syrian and Afghan migrants in France and Greece, is also concerned about the future refugee reception centres.

“There is real uncertainty around the question of ‘hotspots’; on how these centres should be organised. The first one, opened in Lesbos in October, does not offer separate accommodation for men and women,” the specialist said.

Mellissa Fleming, the UNHCR spokesperson, observed that migrants are also often “placed in detention centres without separate areas for single women or families with children”.

The European Commission told EURACTIV that the ‘hotspots’ were designed to conform to the 2013 Asylum Directive. Article 21 of this text specifies that EU member states must take appropriate action to help vulnerable people, including medical assistance.

Women are not singled out as vulnerable people, but parents with minor children, unaccompanied minors and the victims of violence are. But on the ground, the implementation of the directive is far from consistent.

Many ‘hotspots’ are due to be established in the coming months, including five more in Greece and six in Italy, according to a Commission document. But member states lack the means to protect all the most vulnerable people. And not all European countries are making the effort.

A report by Human Rights Watch on violence towards migrants in Macedonia, an EU candidate country, found that women are at high risk of violence even inside the detention centres.

Psychological distress

Doctors in these centres, including some from the organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have condemned Europe’s lack of response to the disastrous conditions in which people are forced to live.

The psychological distress of the victims of violence has rarely been taken into account in the past, but it is beginning to be recorded in a fragmented way. “I have spoken to women in Lesbos who have been victims of violence in Turkish prisons; but for them there is no question of filing a complaint, they are just too vulnerable. What they want above all is to leave the country, move forward and reach Europe,” Freedman said. 

EU leaders have agreed on the outlines of a two-year plan to deal with unprecedented numbers of migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa.

But implementing the system to resettle or relocate 160,000 refugees is proving to be highly contentious at a time of rising anti-immigration parties in Europe. Many countries, including France and Germany, do not reject the idea of burden-sharing for refugees, but contend that the European Commission's proposed quota system needs to be reworked.

>> Read: Germany and France urge Commission to revise immigration plan

EU leaders argued through the night at a summit in June over the plan, wary of taking in migrants and reflecting deep national rivalries that the bloc's cooperation is supposed to transcend. They have set December as the latest deadline to agree final numbers.

>> Read: EU migration meeting turns into fracas

But the refugee crisis has worsened since then. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker now hopes to convince EU member states to accept the mandatory distribution of 160,000 refugees.

>> Read: Juncker suffers double blow on immigration at summit

In order to achieve this, the Dublin Regulation, which forces refugees to apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, and is often accused of destroying solidarity between EU countries, would have to be altered or suspended. Germany has already suspended the Dublin Regulation for Syrian refugees.

>> Read: Germany suspends Dublin agreement for Syrian refugees

Such an ambitious policy would require a fundamental change in attitude among EU leaders, who in May refused a similar distribution plan for just 40,000 refugees.

The urgency of the migration crisis will force the EU to review the list of safe countries of origin and examine the system of distribution for asylum seekers, two issues that have been blocked at the European level for years.

>> Read: Juncker defies EU countries with distribution plan for 160,000 refugees

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