Why we need more gender sensitivity in our asylum policies

Women travelling alone are entirely exposed and at risk of sexual violence, writes Mary Honeyball MEP.

For several months I have been working on a report exploring the situation of refugee women in Europe in my capacity as a member of the Women’s Right and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM). Last week the FEMM committee voted to adopt the report and members of the European Parliament will be able to vote on the report on International Women’s Day (8 March).

The report examines the concerning and increasingly vulnerable situation of women refugees and asylum seekers. It calls for member states to adopt a comprehensive set of EU-wide gender guidelines in relation to migration and asylum policy in order to provide better levels of support for women.

Women refugees are considered to be particularly vulnerable largely because of the perilous journey they make, having fled persecution in their home country in the hope of reaching a place of safety. However, en route they can become victims of sexual or gender-based violence and risk being targeted by traffickers.

The UNHCR reports that many refugee and migrant women are forced to engage in transactional sex to pay unscrupulous smugglers in order to continue their journey. These women have little or no recourse to the law. My report states that safe and legal routes to Europe should be made available so that women are not forced to make these dangerous journeys.

Many women travel without their families or loved ones and so become entirely exposed (as a result of travelling alone) without any family members or a community to support them. Some women told UNHCR staff that they have married out of desperation and research suggests adolescent girls are at a heightened risk of early and forced marriage.

On arrival in reception centres the nightmare is far from over. Women arrive disorientated and exhausted. Reception conditions are often inadequate and fail to meet even minimum standards for preventing gender based violence, such as separate sanitation facilities. Next week, I will lead a parliamentary delegation to Germany to see first-hand what conditions are like for refugee women there.

Oral testimony is crucial in processing women’s applications and as a result the report calls for gender-sensitive training and the right to request female interviewers and interpreters. Childcare is also essential to ensure women’s claims are fairly processed. Women should not have to choose between disclosing information that could be decisive for their asylum claim, and protecting their children from traumatic accounts and memories.

The issue of detention is particularly relevant in the UK where, unlike in other EU countries, unsuccessful asylum seekers can be detained indefinitely. I argue that vulnerable groups, including pregnant women and survivors of sexual violence should never be detained and that alternatives such as reporting obligations are more appropriate. Detention is one aspect of the asylum process which can re-traumatise women and should only ever be used as a last resort.

As I mention, the report will be voted on in Strasbourg on International Women’s Day. The theme this year is a ‘Pledge for Parity’.

There is clearly an urgent need for gender sensitivity in all aspects of our asylum policies, from the design stage to the delivery and evaluation. To fully understand the needs of refugees, and to find effective and sustainable policy solutions, some of the best resources we have available are within the communities themselves. This is particularly true for women and other vulnerable groups, whose voices are too often lost.

Mary Honeyball MEP is Labour’s European Parliament spokesperson on women’s rights and gender equality.

This blog originally appeared on Left Foot Forward.