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Danger at every turn: women refugees seeking safety in Europe

It seems as though sexual violence against women and girls is constantly in the news, whether we are reading reports of: girls groomed into sexual exploitation and abuse across towns in the UK; the violence being meted out against women and girls in ISIS controlled areas; women raped in India; or the more recent reports of sexual assaults against women in Cologne and other cities across Europe. 

This week, we’ve released further evidence of the abuses that women refugees are facing as they seek safety in Europe. Fleeing some of the world’s most dangerous areas, they face sexual violence and assault even after reaching Europe.

Interviewing 40 refugee women and girls in Germany and Norway last month who travelled from Turkey to Greece and then across the Balkans, many reported that in almost all of the countries they passed through, they faced physical abuse and financial exploitation. They reported being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees.

Let’s not forget that these women and girls have risked everything to try and find safety for themselves and their children. What’s more, they are fleeing from extreme levels of violence including rape and sexual slavery in Iraq and Syria.

Sexual violence against women and girls fleeing conflict is well documented. Our own former Foreign Secretary William Hague made ending this a priority and pledged his own personal commitment to encourage governments to do much, much more to prevent and respond to such violence. There is a raft of UN Security Council Resolutions where governments have pledged to address this issue, a global summit was held in 2014, yet it is becoming depressingly clear that governments and agencies responsible for protecting and supporting refugees, are still failing to provide even the most basic protections to women and girls.

Scared to go to sleep

Those who are travelling alone or accompanied only by their children are particularly under threat in transit areas and camps in Hungary, Croatia and Greece where they are forced to sleep alongside hundreds of refugee men. In some instances women reported that they left the designated areas to sleep in the open, on the beach, because they felt safer there.

Some reported being harassed by smugglers who said they would offer cheaper prices in exchange for sex. Women also reported having to use the same bathroom and shower facilities as men, and that in a reception centre in Germany, men would watch women as they went to the bathroom. This level of intimidation and fear was such that women took extreme measures and stopped eating and drinking to avoid having to use the bathrooms when they felt unsafe.

Pregnant women interviewed by Amnesty reported being crushed at border and transit points during the journey, shortages of food and a lack of even the most basic healthcare. They also reported being too scared to sleep on route knowing they were surrounded by men.

Some of the women also reported harassment by security officials. One 22-year-old Iraqi woman told us that when she was in Germany a uniformed security guard offered to give her some clothes in exchange for “spending time alone” with him.

We know the extreme risk that women and girls in Syria and Iraq face, and that they are targets for violence and abuse. They have a right to safe refuge and should not have to take these dangerous routes in the first place especially when it puts them at further risk of violence.

The solution?

The best way to avoid abuses and exploitation by smugglers is to allow safe and legal routes from the outset. But for those who have no other choice, the humiliation and insecurity they face is totally unacceptable, and could be avoided with measures focused on protecting women and girls. Ensuring well-lit single sex bathroom facilities, ensuring provision of food and healthcare in particular for pregnant women, ensuring separate safe sleeping areas, and ensuring women can report harassment and violence safely and that appropriate services are available. All of these measures should be well within the reach of European governments.

The UK Government has already stated that they would prioritise supporting vulnerable groups such as women and girls. In fact, the UK Government’s own National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security states that:

'Addressing violence against women and girls needs to be recognised as a life-saving issue, and addressed at the start of an emergency rather than as an afterthought. Targeted interventions are needed to prevent and respond to violence and to meet the specific needs of girls and women in emergencies. They need to be given access to all humanitarian assistance which addresses their needs, safely and equitably.' 

It is clear that we are not at the start of this emergency, but neither are we anywhere near an end point, so this commitment is needed now more than ever. The UK Government must build on its leadership to end sexual violence in conflict and work with partners to urgently address the needs of refugee women and girls seeking safety in Europe. But that needs to include sharing responsibility with European partners for providing a place of safety.

Shouting from the side-lines without agreeing to contribute to hosting refugees will not do.

Written by Liz McKean, Women's Human Rights Programme Director at Amnesty UK 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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