It’s time to hear the stories of women and girls when shaping asylum and integration policies!

“I left Eritrea together with 64 men, women and children, most of whom were relatives, in December 2012. Our journey took more than 11 months, we walked through 5 countries. I was kidnapped three times by desert gunman and gang raped. I narrowly survived the sinking of a smugglers’ flimsy fishing boat, swimming through waters clogged with the bodies of more than 350 drowned passengers to reach shore. Only 3 of us survived the journey and finally reached Sweden.”

M., refugee from Eritrea
Source: Caritas Sweden

The process of uprooting and resettling in a different country encompasses a variety of practical and emotional issues. On International Women’s Day, the particular plight of migrant and refugee women deserves special attention. It’s important for policy makers to hear the stories migrant and refugee women have to tell.

Historically, women have assumed a leading role when deciding to migrate, whether in response to forced or voluntary migration; whether acting autonomously, as the main providers for their families, or jointly with their partners and children. Yet, the number of women and girls on the move towards Europe has increased dramatically in the last years. According to UNHCR sources, since the beginning of 2016, women and children account for 55% of those reaching Greece to seek asylum in the EU.

Often referred to as the “feminisation of migration”, this population is as large as it is diverse. Some have been forced to leave their homes because of brutality, persecution, and poverty; some are fleeing for their lives in search of asylum; some are reuniting with family members; some are seeking economic opportunities due to an overall deterioration in economic and social resources; some are forced into situations of overwhelming insecurity. Many encounter difficulties, particularly as they feel pressure to provide financially for their children; and some have become victims of human trafficking, prostitution or other forms of exploitation.

Despite their courage to move and to hope for a better situation for themselves and their families, these women and girls are often confronted with multiple challenges en route to Europe, in places of refuge, as well as upon arrival, as they adapt to the integration demands made of them. The diverse ways in which they are received in Europe affects the opportunities they have and, by extension, how they adapt and integrate into the receiving society where they live.

While integration and asylum policies remain a national-level responsibility for individual EU countries, they have become increasingly more important at the supranational level, where efforts to respond to the so-called migration and refugee “crisis” are being prioritised. In this regard, it is imperative that EU Member States start taking into account the specific situation of women and girls in all their policies, particularly in migration, asylum and integration policies, since these policies - including social and labour market policies - clearly affect their chances for success and self-sufficiency.

To ensure, for instance, that women and girls enjoy equal access to asylum, EU Member States need to ensure that female interpreters and interviewers are available for female asylum seekers. Responsible staff should be trained to understand the specific situation of asylum seeking women and girls. Survivors of traumatic events, such as war and violence often feel a loss of safety, sometimes leading to lasting mental traumas. This is also known to influence a refugee woman's sense of ease in the receiving society, impacting feelings of anxiety of the unknown, unfamiliarity with the receiving society language, surroundings, institutions, resources. Women and girls often suffer from specific violence, such as sexual violence, female genital mutilation or domestic violence, which can be more difficult to prove than other forms of violence when applying for asylum in Europe. Privacy of asylum interviews should be guaranteed to ensure that women can explain their story completely. For this, child care facilities in reception centres are needed to enable women to conduct the asylum interview without being accompanied by their children. Women and girls must be informed about their right, and in particular about the possibility to apply for asylum on their own.

EU Member States must also ensure that women and girls seeking asylum benefit from safe reception conditions. Families should also be enabled to stay together. Otherwise, women and men should be housed separately, and women should have access to private bathing and sanitation facilities. This would contribute to protecting women and girls from violence, including sexual violence, in reception centres.

Despite existing societal structures and stereotypes that women are more vulnerable than men, many women, however, show the opposite is true. They are able to position themselves anew in receiving society contexts, especially when propelled into the workforce. For this, the recognition of their qualifications and skills, including soft skills and informal education is needed. Women and girls must likewise have access to education, language courses and healthcare, in particular psychosocial support when relevant. Adequate and safe housing is also one of the first means by which women and girls can achieve successful integration. Ambitious and effective anti-discrimination policies sensitive to existing inequalities between men and women, between the rich and poor, and across age generations are also greatly needed.

And lastly, in order to protect women and girls from trafficking, survival sex, forced marriage and other forms of violence, Member States and the European Union should ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Just as importantly, EU institutions should develop safe and legal routes to Europe, taking into account the specific situation of women and girls when doing so.