Reflections from Nobel Women’s Initiative’s Manager of Policy & Advocacy, Diana Sarosi on the Opening Borders: #WomenRefugeesWelcome Delegation to The Balkans and Germany.
In Berlin, our delegation met a group of Yazidi women asylum seekers from Shingal mountain, a region of Iraq that has been under brutal siege by ISIS. Some of these women had been in Germany for a while, but a small group had just arrived.
The Yazidis trapped on Shingal mountain faced systematic rape, exploitation and slavery by ISIS fighters. These women have endured horror. You could see it in their faces, in their blank far away stares: obvious signs of severe trauma. Trauma is, sadly, far too common among women refugees.
The refugee population has changed significantly with women and children now making up one third of the population. Families first sent their most able—young men—to test the route and to escape conscription into militaries and militias. Now, women, children and the elderly are following. Some are able to travel in groups, but others must make the trip solo.
Refugee women are fleeing violence, including sexual violence. Yet, they often face more violence along the way.
Another group we met in Berlin included five young women (19 to 29 years old) who fled Eritrea to escape conscription into the military. All of them traveled on their own through Sudan, Egypt, Libya and then across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. These young women were beaten, abused, starved and raped multiple times along the way.
So far, little is being done to provide these women with support and services. With the constant threat of border closures and losing family members, women don’t even want to take a few minutes to talk to humanitarian agencies located along the refugee route. They have one focus: to keep moving. All the humanitarian agencies we spoke to, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the transitory nature of refugees make it extremely challenging to support women refugees and prevent gender-based violence.
The women never stay in one place for more than a few hours, making it difficult to build the trust needed to detect signs of violence and provide services. As one humanitarian said, “we need to think outside the box and find creative solutions for the women.”
Local women’s organizations are providing some of these creative solutions.
One organization is the Association of Citizens to Combat Human Trafficking and all Forms of Gender-Based Violence (ATINA), an anti-trafficking organization in Serbia formed during the Balkans war. ATINA is now using its expertise to support refugees. Trafficking is a huge risk for refugee women, girls and boys. While we were in a Serbian refugee holding centre close to the Croatian border, it was easy to see how quickly traffickers could snatch women and children. At one point, we witnessed the panic of a mother searching for her daughter in the centre. Numerous stories have been published—including warnings by UNHCR—on the risks women face: rape, sexual exploitation, trafficking.
ATINA knows a key to prevention is education, which is exactly what they are providing. Women need to know about the risks, their rights and the services provided. ATINA is working with partner organizations in countries from Greece to western Europe to develop a referral network of organizations that can be points of contact for vulnerable refugees along their journey to a destination country. These organizations are especially important for women who have escaped trafficking or sexual exploitation and need more support.
Sadly, conditions in destination countries often exacerbate risks to women. Women refugees are often housed in overcrowded camps, without gender segregated bathrooms and areas closed off to men. Some live with their partners—who are also often traumatized—and face domestic violence. Due to the large influx of refugees, countries such as Germany and Sweden, are struggling to provide the necessary services for refugees, such as trauma counselling. The Eritrean women we met had been in Germany for several months and had never received any counselling. Again, local women’s organizations, such as Medica Mondiale in Germany, are working around the clock to fill some of the gaps. But the needs are too large to be met without full state support.
All this makes me wonder: why do women and children have to endure this in the first place? Why do we make them go on this treacherous journey? Why are we pushing them into the hands of ruthless smugglers?
We can do better than this.
It is estimated that smugglers moving people across the sea from Turkey to Greece make approximately $9 million a day. One deeply distressed woman who landed on the shore in Greece, and was picked up by Human Rights Watch, said she had left 3 of her children in Turkey. She didn’t have enough money to take them all, so she only took her baby. Her baby drowned on the journey.
We can do better than this.
The refugees do not need to risk their lives to make it to Europe. It is possible to provide safe and legal ways for them to enter the continent. Croatia’s Minister of the Interior even suggested organizing boats from Turkey straight to the coast of Croatia. It is possible. While governments are shying away from responsibility, smugglers are making millions of dollars off this humanitarian catastrophe.
We can do better than this. All it takes is political will and leadership—the lack of which is destroying the lives of women and children.
Check out our map showing the greatest risks to refugee women and children.