Protecting Women Refugees in Europe

(New York)-- At a “side event” March 14 during the UN Commission on the Status of Women, speakers discussed the protection of women refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, with the influx of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2015, about 73% of refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe were men. However, in recent months this number has started to change as women and children arrived in Europe to be reunited with their families. Due to the influx of men in the beginning, many of the reception centers in Europe did not offer services specifically for women. With women and children now consisting of approximately 61% of all refugees entering Europe, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed. More than one million refugees have entered Europe by sea since the beginning of 2015 and about 87% of those came from the Middle East and North Africa region.

Sergiy Kyslytsya of the Gender Equality Commission of the Council of Europe and Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine, cited the example of first response kits, which do not include basic items for women, such as feminine hygiene products.

Other speakers cited the lack of services and safety measures for women at the reception centers. Many of these centers are extremely overpopulated and were not set up for the number of people who now need access to them. Basic problems have arisen such as there not being doors to separate sleeping facilities in order to make women feel safe at night. Many also do not have separate restroom facilities for males and females. This can make many women feel vulnerable.

Marcy Hersh, Senior Advocacy Officer, Women’s Refugee Commission, interviewed a group of Afghan women who “had refused to eat or drink for days on end for fear of having to use these shared facilities.” These women fear not only sexual violence, which many of the panel members highlighted as a major problem in these centers, but also other forms of gender based violence.

As a result of the large numbers of people in these centers, the establishment of safe spaces for women must be given priority, particularly for those who have experienced violence, whether before their arrival, on their journey, or since they arrived.

Purna Sen, Director, Policy Division, UN Women, said: “Women’s dignity needs to be sought and advocated for,” especially when they have faced severe violence and discrimination in order to rebuild their lives in Europe.

Another prevalent concern discussed was that of children. In the current climate, Velina Todorova, associate professor, University of Plovdiv and Bulgarian

Academy of Sciences, revealed the shocking statistic that, “two children die per day on their way to Europe.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically protects children and should be the guiding principles for governments who are attempting to accommodate large numbers of refugee children.

Several speakers made the point that authorities in the refugee centers need to be better trained to recognize the needs of women and children specifically, due to their vulnerabilities.

Hersh of the Women’s Refugee Commission highlighted the development of Blue Dot hubs by the UN refugee agency and UNICEF to support children and families on the most frequently used migration routes to Europe. To learn more about these hubs visit the UNHCR website.

The Commission on the Status of Women meets annually at the UN, drawing thousands of women activists, alongside representatives of member states, UN agencies and NGOs to review progress on gender equality, set global standards and promote women’s empowerment. Dozens of “side events” or discussions are held during the 10 day gathering. OutRight hosts conversations focused specifically on the concerns of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people.

The side event Protecting Human Rights of Women Refugees and Asylum Seekers was sponsored by the government of Bulgaria and the Council of Europe.

Marja Ruotanen, Director, Human Dignity and Equality, Council of Europe, was the moderator.