Gender and Migration: the Case of European Refugee Crisis 

With over a million asylum seekers making their way towards Western Europe in 2015, the European nations witnessed the largest refugee crisis in the region since the Second World War. “By November 2015, women and children comprised up to 42% of the affected population”. By the end of 2018, 70.8 million individuals were forcibly displaced across regions as a result of persecution, civil wars, or human rights violations. At the end of 2017, most refugees came from countries stricken by widespread violence and political and economic hardship. Syria and Afghanistan accounted for the maximum number of refugees, at 6.3 million and 2.6 million, respectively, followed by South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. ‘More than 138,000 people risked their lives trying to reach Europe by sea in 2018 alone; with more than 2,000 drowning on their journey’.

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Although the refugee movement is marked by shifting transit routes which may change in response to border closures or restrictive asylum policies, the number of people fleeing violence continues to rise. Having faced systemic rights violations, bombardment of civilian areas, and, sexual and gender-based violence, women and girls make a significant proportion of the fleeing population. Many have reported to have been repeatedly displaced and suffered violence, exploitation and abuse while seeking asylum. With many countries failing to provide a gender- disaggregated data on the numbers receiving refugee status, there has been an absence of statistics detailing the exact number of women refugees.

This paper seeks to explore the relationship between gender and migration. While analysing the European/ Mediterranean Refugee Crisis, the focus is placed on the experiences of the refugees, affected by the gendered structures and relations of power.

Defining the Terms – ‘Gender’ Anf ‘Refugee’

Gender is understood here as a social construction that creates social hierarchies based on the associations established with ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics and which relates either to persons or to objects (spaces, colours, food, institutions, professions, etc.).

The 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees defines ‘refugee’ as a person who is: being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

How Gender Plays a Role in Migration

The use of gendered analysis of migration is necessary to understand the ways in which constructions of femininity and masculinity have led to persecution of people. It also helps to recognize how gendered relations of power have made such people flee their own country or community, while at the same time recording their varied gendered experiences as refugees or migrants.

While women have been migrating across international boundaries at approximately the same rate as men, the same was not translated into commensurate research attention until few years ago. The invisibility of women in migration research stems from the primary models which analysed migration in terms of labour movement. These models assumed the migrant worker to be a man, while the woman was considered to be economically inactive, and hence dependant.

Similar gender based immigration rules were a part of Britain’s immigration policy which treated men as the principal immigrants and used gender-specific measures to limit the growth of the black population. ln the 1970s, women from the Indian subcontinent coming to join husbands or fiancés were subjected to ‘virginity tests’ at Heathrow Airport.

The integration of gender analysis in migration studies first emerged in the 1970s and early 1980s wherein the notion of gender was considered as an individual-level, static category determined at birth. Using the binary variable of male versus female to understand gender, it significantly limited the empirical analysis of the concept. Later, feminist migration scholars shifted their analysis from studying women to studying gender, the difference being that instead of contrasting women to men, they focused on gender as a system of relations which was influenced by migration. Recently, the scholarship has progressed to consider ‘gender as a constitutive element of immigration’ which examines how ‘gender permeates a variety of practices, identities, and institutions implicated in immigration’. The idea is to put emphasis explicitly on gender, not just women, in order to examine the experiences of men through a gendered lens.

Research has shown that while men also migrate to escape violence and persecution, women are often more vulnerable to such experiences because of their subordinated positions within their society or because they are targeted as representatives of a subordinated nation. A 2002 report showed that girls were sexually exploited by humanitarian agency staff and security forces in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, yet this problem has still not been stamped out. A French soldier was recently accused of child abuse in Central African Republic.

Women Refugees and the Crisis in Europe

In October 2013, a boat carrying hundreds of refugees and migrants from Libya to Italy sank near the island of Lampedusa, killing 368 refugees. In the first six months of 2015, 137,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe by sea. While the majority of these were men, large numbers of women and children, including thousands of unaccompanied and separated children constituted a significant proportion of the population. Since 2015, the Central Mediterranean route, from Libya to Italy/ Malta, had been the most popular migration route to Europe. The numbers, however, fell in 2017, when the EU leaders attempted to stop people leaving Libya by cooperating with the Libyan government and the Coast Guard. The refugees, since then, have increasingly taken the ‘eastern Mediterranean route’ from Turkey to Greece, to reach Europe. More than 85 per cent of those arriving in Greece are from countries experiencing war and conflict, principally Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. From Greece, the route overland to Western Europe is typically through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia—and then through Austria to Germany or further, to Sweden and other northern European countries.

During their journeys, refugees are often exposed to multiple forms of violence. And among that violence, the brutalisation of women remains a deplorable trend. Being in a state of transit, women are more likely to be sold into prostitution networks, forced into early marriages and exploited for domestic enslavement. From forced marriages and sex trafficking to domestic abuse, women have reported violence from fellow refugees, smugglers, male family members and even European police officers. Women and children who depend on smugglers and have limited funds, are at an increased risk of sexual exploitation or trafficking. A 30-year-old Syrian mother of four who fled the war with her family, was offered as payment to the smuggler by her husband. For three months, she was raped almost daily to earn her family’s onward journey. .

A study accounting the sexual violence incidences among the refugees noted that approximately 57% of the participants confirmed that they had experienced sexual violence, comprising rape and sexual exploitation among others. In 72.6% of the cases, the assailant was a man, in 1.5% it concerned a transgender assailant, in 19.6%, the gender was not clearly specified, and only in 6% of the cases the assailant was a woman. Another study showed that in the European asylum reception sector, both sexes as well as both residents and professionals are at risk of being exposed to different forms of violence, with 58.3% of the 562 respondents reporting having directly (23.3%) or indirectly (76.6%) experienced sexual violence.

The danger of violence is exacerbated by the policies of the European countries which seek to prevent refugees from reaching their shores, forcing many to take help from smugglers. With the situation deteriorating borders, the refugee women who evade being made captive by armed groups and human traffickers, nonetheless risk being detained in the immigration detention centres in Turkey and Greece that can hold irregular migrants and asylum seekers for more than eighteen months.

In Greece, one of the main entry points to Europe for migrants, reception centres are often overcrowded and lack adequate lighting and separate spaces for single women. Some of the key difficulties that arise for women living in refugee camps are to do with its spatial organization. Access to health care, food and other services are concentrated within one area in the camp which facilitates the work of the staff of the UNHCR and NGOs, but can be inconvenient and potentially dangerous for refugees, and can exacerbate women’s workload. A report by members of United Nations Refugee Agency, United Nations Population Fund and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) noted there are a limited number of protection experts experienced in identifying and responding to sexual and gender-based violence-related protection risks. The team also noted that while clinical management of rape was absent and post-rape kits not pre-positioned, the lack of awareness about the medical facilities run by government agencies and humanitarian actors, makes it challenging for refugees and migrants to access the services (UN).

Additionally, refugee camps are sites of gendered violence, which stems from the disruption of family and community structures during forced migration, and from the continuation and reproduction of previously experienced violence whilst in exile.

07 April 2022

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