The Plight of the Female Refugee
By Mary Beth Bloomer
At a time when an estimated 1in 100 people can be considered refugees, it can be difficult to understand the vast array of problems faced by such a large and diverse group. Currently, much emphasis is placed on issues of resettlement and the domestic policies European countries adopt surrounding such concerns. It is easy to assume that once refugees cross into Europe, any immediate threats to their well-being have been minimized. Female refugees, however, face unique and assorted challenges both on the journey to asylum and while placed in refugee camps.
According to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), of the estimated 4.8 million Syrian refugees, 73 percent are women and children. This high percentage still leaves women particularly vulnerable on the arduous journey to Europe, as few services or accommodations exist specifically for women. A survey of refugee women by Amnesty International found that all respondents were “constantly scared” during their journey through Europe. Amnesty attributes the atmosphere of fear faced by refugee women to the severe lack of accommodations in place specifically for women and children. On the journey to and through Europe itself, women face a disproportionate risk of exploitation and abuse by smugglers and border agents. Smugglers know that women fleeing violence will take greater risks to ensure passage, thus giving smugglers substantial power over their female passengers. One woman interviewed by Amnesty International stated:
“The smuggler was harassing me. He tried to touch me a couple of times. Only when my male cousin was around he did not come close. I was very afraid, especially that we hear stories along the way of women who can’t afford the smugglers who would be given the option to sleep with the smugglers for a discount.”
The risk of assault and exploitation on the journey is often worth the risk to many women, as safety is not guaranteed in their home countries.
While the journey itself is particularly dangerous, the supposed safety of transit and refugee camps can be hard to find. The same report by Amnesty International found that many women had to use the same bathing facilities and restrooms as the men in the camp. Besides eliminating any level of privacy, such living situations make women particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. One of Amnesty’s respondents spoke of purposefully not eating or drinking in order to avoid having to use the bathroom and risk being assaulted. Such an extreme lack of privacy also makes it difficult for women who are breast feeding to have a safe area to do so, placing more burden on women with young children. A study by the Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP) found that 69 percent of housing provided to refugees did not have adequate locks or security in place. This further leaves female refugees subject to attacks and assault.
One of the most difficult challenges endured by female refugees, however, is lack of access to contraceptive care and sanitary feminine products. The RRDP report found that 88 percent of women surveyed did not know where to go for birth control or other contraceptive products, and one fourth admitted to not knowing what to do if faced with an unwanted pregnancy. These statistics are worrying; there is already a severe lack of healthcare for refugees, let alone proper neonatal care. Furthermore, the physical and psychological toll pregnant women face is only exacerbated under the stressful conditions refugees deal with. Menstrual products are also hard to find in refugee camps. Tampons, pads, and period cups are not often included in boxes of donated “essentials” supplied by relief organizations. The cost of menstrual products is a further issue, as a woman will prioritize buying food or clothing above purchasing feminine products, especially if she has a family. Access to private, clean, and safe spaces to use these products is a compounding issue, as previously stated.
What is to be done? The UNHCR and UNICEF announced a plan in February 2016 to launch Child and Family Support Hubs or “Blue Dots” in Greece, Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia. The “Blue Dots” will provide services such as safe spaces for women and children to sleep, psychosocial first aid, and spaces specifically for women and children. While services provided by the “Blue Dot” system are sorely needed, the effectiveness of the program and others like it has yet to be seen. Furthermore, the level of success of such programs is hard to measure and quantify. To truly create an atmosphere of safety and security surrounding female refugees, services only offered at “Blue Dot” locations should become the norm. More care should also be taken in refugee and transit camps to create specific accommodations for women, including spaces dedicated solely to breastfeeding and for children. Displaced women have been left exceedingly vulnerable in the recent refugee crisis, and more safety measures and services need to be in place to protect them.