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Women Refugees the focus of International Women’s Day

16 March 20160 comments

In the freezing temperatures and heavy downpours female refugees are left stranded at the Greece-Macedonia border, pleading with authorities to open the gates.

“Open the border, please, open door, please, we want to be safe, we want to be safe, open the border, please. We have children and we have woman like this,” pleaded Rafa, a Syrian refugee. “We don’t know what we should do. We run away from the war and like the war here is,” 21-year-old refugee told reporters.

Nearly two thirds of refugees are women and children, up 41% from last year

Nearly two thirds of refugees are women and children, up 41% from last year

This incident happened on March 8 and currently over 12,000 people are currently stuck in the refugee camp near the Greek town of Idomeni.

As the number of refugees in Europe continues to climb, the European Parliament aims to draw attention to those who are among the most vulnerable: women and girls. For this year’s International Women’s Day, held every year on March 8, it selected women refugees as its theme.

In an address to the Chamber of the European Parliament Strasbourg, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi described scenes from the Greek Island of Lesvos.

The Hellenic Coast Guard brought in a boat rescued at sea, carrying 200 people including mainly women with children, some very small, many elderly and a few very sick, according to Mr Grandi.

Mr Grandi spoke with several of them, who described conflicts they had fled from in Syria or Afghanistan, the dangers of their journey and worries about what the future would bring.

“They were just one of many examples of today’s global displacement crises,” said Mr Grandi.

UNHCR data has shown that over 60 million people worldwide have been forced to flee, and on average 42,500 are forced to flee from their homes every day, half of them being women, according to Mr Grandi.

Even though the vast majority of these uprooted people, 86 per cent, are on other continents, Europe is seeing record numbers of refugees and migrants arriving on its shores.

This year 138,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Southern Europe. In public opinion, the overarching perception is often that of young single men arriving in Europe to look for work.

“Today, on International Women’s Day, I wish to report instead that nearly two-thirds are women and children, up from last year’s 41 per cent,” Mr Grandi continued.

“Take for example Fatima, who fled the war in Syria. She was found in a state of shock in the port of the Greek island of Samos, severely traumatized and injured at the hands of the man she had been travelling with,” he said.

She was taken to a hospital for treatment where she revealed that her husband had entrusted her and their young daughter to a man she did not know to get her to a safe country in Europe. During the journey the man confiscated all their travel documents, mobile phone and money.

Fatima is just one of thousands of women and girls who are making the journey on their own, fleeing violence and persecution only to face a similar ordeal on their way to Europe, where they had hoped and expected to find sanctuary.

In 2015, a million people arrived in Europe, crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy dinghies and flimsy boats, according to Mr Grandi.

We have all seen the images of the piles of discarded life jackets on the Greek beaches of those who survived the perilous journey. More than 3,700 people did not make it: a tragic testimony of our collective failure to properly address their plight.

Many desperate people worldwide view Europe as a safe and prosperous place that stands up for human rights and welcomes refugees. Most, for lack of better or safer alternatives, choose the services of smugglers at their great risk.

Mr Grandi highlighted the fact that the majority of the people arriving in Europe, 88 per cent, come from the world’s top 10 refugee producing countries, stressing that this has been and essentially remains a refugee movement. Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq are chief among them, as are Eritrea and Somalia.

The UNHCR sees a large number of pregnant women, or women with babies and small children among the arrivals. “The number of women and children among them is increasing rapidly, as I have said, and many travel without male relatives,” Mr Grandi stated.

A recent UNHCR study found that 20 per cent of the Syrians arriving in Greece were families headed by women, without husband or father.

Similarly to Fatima, these women and children are exposed to abuse and sexual violence at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. They are at great risk when travelling along insecure routes, having to stay in places that lack basic security and shelter, including parks, train stations or the roadside.

In Greece, the UN refugee agency has seen a rapid build-up of stranded refugees and migrants.

Currently over 35,000 refugees have been denied access into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as a result of border closures in the Western Balkans. This has had a direct impact on women and girls, who are suffering disproportionately and are at great risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Mr Grandi stated that the “UNHCR, with our partners, support local authorities in all affected areas to improve reception conditions and to provide assistance to people in need”.

The agency headquarters in Geneva have taken measures to reduce risks and help women along the way. Many reception areas and transit points now have separate facilities for women and children.

Together with UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, UNHCR have set up 20 Child and Family support hubs. These hubs, also known as ‘Blue Dots’, provide a safe place for women and children, where they can find all available services and information about their options in a single location. The hubs aim to help vulnerable women and children on the move and mitigate the risks of trauma, violence exploitation and trafficking.

The ‘Blue Dot’ hubs come at a time when women and children account for two thirds of those crossing to Europe.

In February, women and children made up nearly 60 per cent of sea arrivals, compared to 27 per cent in September 2015.

The UNHCR also aims to identify and protect children and adolescents travelling alone, and reunite them with family wherever possible, depending on their best interests.

“We are concerned about the welfare of unaccompanied boys and girls on the move and unprotected across Europe, many of whom have experienced war and hardship in making these journeys alone,” said UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Volker Türk on 26 February.

The UNHCR is also addressing a very specific refugee crisis in Central America, where thousands of Salvadorians, Hondurans and Guatemalans are fleeing deadly gang violence.

“And again, International Women’s Day is an opportunity to remember that most of them are women and children. They use the traditional migration routes going north to find safety and a future, but many are indeed refugees fleeing violence, extortion and persecution,” Mr Grandi stated.

“In a world riddled with conflict, mass population movement is a reality. Building fences and walls to keep people out is not a solution. It will only increase the suffering of people who have already suffered the unimaginable. And women everywhere are among the most exposed.

“In the face of massive displacement and arrivals, very often the first reaction of politicians is to resort to scaremongering. Manipulation of public opinion and inciting hate against those who are different are unacceptable. A real response can only be based on solidarity and human rights, on responsibility sharing and respect for international law,” said Mr Grandi.

We need more than a humanitarian response, Mr Grandi asserted. “On other continents, countries with far less means than Europe have been responding to much larger movements of people forced to leave their homes, and continue to do so.”

“In this very Chamber, exhortations to States around the world to treat refugees according to principles and in an organized manner have resonated many times. Such exhortations now apply to Europe. This emergency does not have to be crisis, it can be managed,” Mr Grandi said.

On March 30, the UNHCR will hold a high-level meeting in Geneva on global responsibility towards pathways for admission of Syrian refugees, according to Mr Grandi.

“States will be invited to pledge concrete commitments to opening such pathways. We hope that 10 percent of the Syrian refugee population in the region, which currently stands at 4.7 million, can benefit from these pathways,” he said.

“We must build on the lesson we have learned. It is important to strengthen compliance with and uphold the standards of the Common European Asylum System, even in times of emergency. It is of paramount importance to prevent further suffering and loss of life to strengthen protection safeguards for people at risk, in particular women and unaccompanied children.

“This includes improving search and rescue operations, developing coordinated systems to protect and help unaccompanied children, and establishing measures to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.

“We need a new approach to develop an effective European asylum system, not only to manage the current refugee and migrant movement, but also for the future. We have to ensure that member States located at the external borders of the European Union will not continue to bear the disproportionate burden in addressing immediate reception needs. The solidarity that is so essential today for Greece and Italy, may well be required for other states in the future,” Mr Grandi said.

Amnesty International has lambasted governments and aid agencies for “failing to provide even basic protections” for the thousands of women refugees.

“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection,” the charity’s International Crisis Response director, Tirana Hassan, said.

In the Calais ‘Jungle’ migrant camp, women make up around 10 per cent of the camp’s population. A heavily guarded camp for them has only 100 beds, which filled up long ago.

“They said there is no place for me with the women, I have to sleep in the men’s area,” Hannah, one of three Syrian women living outside the guarded enclave, told The Guardian.

In southern Europe, It is estimated around 55 percent of the people at the Greek Idomeni camp – which borders Macedonia and was designed for 2,000 people – are women and young girls.

Despite having fled war and destitution, many of them are susceptible to abuse, financial exploitation and being pressured to have sex by people smugglers or security officials.

“We have a lot to celebrate on International Women’s Day – the world has never been a safer, more equal place for women and girls,” the Human Right Watch women’s rights division director, Liesl Gerntholtz, told HuffPost UK.

“But, there is still much that needs to be done to ensure that all women and girls benefit from progress. We should spare a thought for the women fleeing wars and conflict who don’t know where they will sleep tonight or how they will feed their children”, said Ms Gerntholtz.


Albertina Calemens
AMES Australia Staff Writer