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Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

The Rights of Refugee Women and Girls in the European Crisis Can’t Be Ignored

Around the world, women fleeing conflict and violence are undertaking perilous journeys during which they are often raped and exploited. And the violence directed against them doesn’t end when they stop running. But we haven’t seen these women much. They’re outside the frame of the journalists’ photos and they are not prioritized in the emergency response.  


But there are women on the rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean. Italy’s response has been to herd the refugees into detention facilities where women remain largely invisible. Hungary’s bureaucratic response kept the women from view until, in desperation, they began walking with their families toward what they hoped would be a better welcome. 


How do we know what’s happening to these refugees from Syria, Iran, Somalia and elsewhere? Because in every humanitarian crisis, women and girls are preyed upon. And yet, each time the humanitarian community and the governments that receive them fail to acknowledge and provide for their specific needs.


It’s not as if there is no guide to the situation playing out in Europe. Since the summer of 2014, an influx of women and girls from Central America fleeing gangs, civil unrest, domestic violence and trafficking have arrived in the United States seeking safety. We visited these women and they told heartbreaking stories. Women were kidnapped by gangs. Mothers, knowing their teenage daughters would be raped on the way but murdered if they stayed, gave them birth control pills and sent them with smugglers. Forcibly detained when they arrived, they were abused by guards and threatened with deportation.


Policies we had already helped to abolish years ago, like detention, came back with a vengeance. Again we had to explain to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol and the Administration in general that women fleeing systemic and targeted violence — whether it is from organized crime, gangs or systemic violence against women — are refugees and have the right to safety and to dignity.


Rather than implementing a humane and organized process to accept refugees, including women and girls, Europe has followed the bad example set by the United States and focused on ignoring the problem and pushing it away. Without a responsible and humane reception plan in place, those who survive the journey and make it to European shores are detained under the same kinds of conditions that perpetuate their exploitation.


Again, we remind those who make decisions about humanitarian assistance – governments, the UN, international NGOs – that women who find themselves without their usual family and community support experience violence that can be similar to the horrors they fled. Unaccompanied girls are coerced into sex for food or “protection.” Smugglers are also in the trafficking business.


The 1951 refugee convention provides for the rights of refugees, including the right to seek and be granted asylum and to a safe refuge. The United State and most countries of Europe codified these rights in their domestic laws. Moreover, we have a moral obligation to ensure these women and girls are freed from the violence that drove them to flee and the violence that pursued them along the way. 

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence