In November 2011, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) head António Guterres declared that the twenty-first century was proving to be ‘a century of people on the move’. Already, in the five years since, this has proved more true than most could have imagined. According to United Nations figures, the number of people displaced worldwide reached an all-time high of roughly 65.3 million in 2015, representing one in every 113 people.
Many of these people, of all genders and ages, have experienced (and continue to experience) horrors the vast majority of us would find utterly inconceivable. For girls and women, however, refugeedom comes with an additional set of threats and challenges, impacting upon every stage of their journeys.
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is one horrifyingly ubiquitous issue predominantly affecting women and girls, with one Amnesty International report in 2016 finding that many female refugees interviewed in Germany and Norway had experienced exploitation and abuse in almost every country they had passed through. All of these women had travelled via the Balkan route, across which new anti-migration laws have in recent years driven many to travel by even more dangerous routes and increased the numbers of those ‘invisible’ in the system. These laws, in conjunction with an increase in the proportion of female asylum seekers, are believed responsible for recent increases in rates of survival sex, trafficking, and other forms of exploitation and abuse. SGBV has been found to be rife in many refugee camps around the world, with one 2016 report on camps in Chad for example finding that vulnerable refugees (predominantly women and children) here were exposed to this on a daily basis. Many victims here were unable or unwilling to access appropriate services, with only around a quarter even being seen by the police. Furthermore, it is widely assumed that official figures for SGBV are an underestimation, due to social stigmas dissuading many from even reporting their experiences.
The Chad report also found that women were far less represented and active in community management mechanisms and decision making, as their priorities were more likely to be with generating income for the subsistence of their families than with voluntary community work. Women and girls are significantly more likely to take on caring responsibilities for children and/or other relatives, creating additional stresses and pressures in what are often overcrowded, unhygienic and hostile environments. In part due to these responsibilities, women also have a relative lack of employment opportunities, making it often more difficult for them to acclimate to new communities and sometimes increasing the likelihood they will find themselves in refugee camps. This is the case in Somaliland, where over the past few months a severe drought has driven thousands of predominantly women and their children to unsafe and unsanitary camps on the outskirts of the capital while their husbands start new jobs and new lives in the city.
As a typically female experience, pregnancy is a further example of the additional challenges faced by girl and women refugees. Travelling and living in unsafe and unhygienic conditions is, of course, even more difficult and dangerous in these cases – but the risks these women face do not necessarily end when their journeys do, even when, as in the UK, they are legally entitled to the same essential healthcare as anybody else. Like any other asylum seeker applying for accommodation and support, pregnant women may be relocated several times over the course of a few months, with the only limitations on this being four-week ‘protected periods’ (during which they cannot be moved) pre- and post-childbirth. This relocation may lead to separation from trusted professionals, social networks, and even the fathers of their babies, and has been found to have a major negative impact on women’s health and birth-related experiences. As if this were not enough, many avoid essential healthcare altogether, for fear of huge fees or deportation. The charity Doctors of the World, which runs clinics for undocumented migrants, refugees and victims of trafficking, report that they regularly see women in very late stages of pregnancy who have received no antenatal care at all, and that many have received threatening letters demanding thousands of pounds for standard care.
With all of this in mind, it is essential that the gendered components of the refugee experience are recognised, and that systems are in action at all stages to maximise women’s protection, participation and support. This includes initiatives like the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) led ‘Call to Action’ (2015), a commitment by humanitarian partners to provide safer and more comprehensive services for those affected by gender-based violence in humanitarian disasters. Pregnant refugees should also be entitled to necessary treatments and protections, a right which seems obvious but which is all too commonly overlooked. This is not even to touch upon the appalling treatment of women in refugee detention centres, an issue which warrants an entire article (or several) of its own.
At the same time, it should be stressed that the experiences of male refugees are also frequently horrific, and that gender equality, though desirable, is far from a panacea for these horrors. Until refugees cease to be viewed and treated as second-class citizens – even within such a supposedly inclusive service as the NHS –, such abuses and injustices as those outlined in this article will continue to occur on a shockingly large scale – and, moreover, to be overlooked and ignored.