Three reasons why migration is a women’s issue

Migration has always existed. However, Fortress Europe is making it increasingly more difficult and dangerous for those fleeing war, poverty, and persecution to migrate and settle. As with most things in life, this is a women’s issue. Only recently have reports and studies started breaking down statistics into gender and paying attention to the crucial differences between women and men migrants – and they have shown that women are more negatively affected.

1) Sexual and gender based violence affects women more

Although men and boys are also at risk, it is women who face a higher risk of experiencing sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). This is one of the most pervasive threats to women migrating to Europe using ‘irregular’ routes. Rape and other forms of sexualised violence against women are commonplace during conflict and are reported to be widespread in immigration detention facilities in place such as those in Libya.   

Women are also at risk of coerced ‘survival sex’ along migration routes, providing sexual services in exchange for safe passage, or access to necessary goods or documentation. A report from Amnesty found that rape is so common along the routes used, that women are taking contraceptives before they begin their journey to avoid an unwanted pregnancy. The violence does not come just from smugglers or gangs, either. A third of the women and children interviewed in Libya by the International Organisation for Cooperation and Emergency Aid (IOCEA) who reported experiencing sexual violence and rape said their assailants wore uniforms or appeared to be associated with the military. In reception centres across Europe, research from 2015 documented ‘unacceptably high’ risks of sex and gender based violence.

2) There are insufficient protections for women

Europe-wide and internationally, there are guidelines designed to protect women. The revised Asylum Procedures Directive 2013 aims to ensure that all Member States apply a common, high quality standard when examining applications. This includes an obligation to identify applicants who might require specific procedural guarantees and to be ‘gender sensitive’, applicants should have access to an interviewer of the same sex, and staff dealing with claims should have training or access to gender expertise. Although guidelines exist to protect women, protection varies greatly between countries. Some forms of harm are overlooked in national asylum practice, for example, Spain fails to recognise trafficking as a form of persecution.

Gaps in protection are a  particular concern when considering protection given to gender-based claims in the kind of ‘accelerated’ asylum procedures which began to be introduced in the EU in the mid-2000s and have been used increasingly often in the context of the current influx of migrants and refugees. As the accelerated asylum procedures allow cases to be dismissed quickly, not enough time is allowed to consider gender-based claims.

There are other factors affecting women’s experiences as migrants. The women who make it into Europe are often economically privileged compared to the women who do not migrate – they tend to be the ones with greater access to funds who can afford to pay for smugglers to get them into the EU.

There is not much research that breaks down the effects of EU migration policy on women based on their other marginalised identities. However, lesbian women seeking asylum for their sexuality face different difficulties than straight women.  Upon making a claim for asylum based on their sexuality, the first thing LBTQ+ women are forced to do is disclose their sexuality and then prove it. The treatment of lesbian women, once again, varies greatly on a country by country basis. Czech immigration officials have been known to hook gay and lesbian asylum seekers to machines that ‘determined levels of sexual arousal’ and compared their physical reactions to homo and heterosexual pornography – using this as a method to ‘prove’ their sexualities. This was immediately condemned by the UNHCR. In a less physically extreme but still humiliating way, the UK Home Office interrogates its petitioners for hours, asking invasive questions, and sometimes even asks them to submit ‘proof’ of their sexual relationships with members of the same sex.

Even if their claims are accepted and they are allowed to legally live in Europe, migrant women are often destitute. In the UK, asylum seekers are given £36.95 to live. Women, who often face higher costs of living, do not get any extra money. If they are pregnant, they only receive an extra £3 a week, and if you have a child over three, you do not get any extra money.

3) Safe’ countries are not always safe for women

Safe countries that the EU that has deemed safe enough to return migrants to include Turkey and Afghanistan. The list of ‘safe countries’ does not take into account women’s situations and rights within them, except in the case of the UK, where certain countries are considered safe only for men - Nigeria, Kenya, and Liberia are countries that the UK deems unsafe for women but not for men.  A woman fleeing violence from her country of origin could be returned to a country in which her life was put in danger because she is a woman, and that is not taken into account when making decisions of return. The countries considered safe by the EU also differ between member states, which means a migrant woman being returned to a country where her life is at risk could be a matter of luck. This is exacerbated by the EU-Turkey deal, which allows the EU to return migrants to Turkey almost immediately after they are found in Europe, and allows less time for officials to consider a woman’s appeal to stay in the EU based on her gender.

The EU has blood on its hands. Feminism might be trendy, but we cannot continue to dismiss the lives of women migrant and refugees and claim that we support equality. Migration is a women’s issue, and we need to make sure it is perceived as one.

Photo: UN/Flickr

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