As women, the risk of violence is ever present. Whether walking through an alleyway at night or in a deserted parking lot after last call, there is an ever-present risk calculated into daily life. While this risk makes headlines, instills entire companies to sell pink pepper-spray and Tasers, the risk for female refugees are scarcely recognized. While the crisis of displaced people crashes across the headlines, the sexual violence and exploitation of these same women rarely makes a footnote.
In mid-January, Amnesty International released a report detailing the gross failure to protect displaced women from sexual violence. From Syria to Turkey to German refugee camps, the risk of violence is ever present as governments fail to protect the women crossing their borders.
Amnesty interviewed 40 women who had traveled through Greece and across the Balkans into Northern Europe. Many women travel alone or with only with their children, heightening their risks. All women interviewed reported feeling threatened and unsafe during their journey, many abused and exploited by smugglers for safe passage through to the next country.
Once in transit camps, Amnesty reports that quarters are close, with men and women sharing sleeping and bathroom facilities. Facing abuse from other refugees, some go days without eating or drinking to avoid using bathrooms in front of the men’s prying eyes.
But the safety of these women is not as crucial to lawmakers as their ethnicity. If these conditions were in first-world nation — the UK, France, Spain or the United States — CNN would run headlines and women’s rights groups everywhere would be up in arms at the atrocities committed. Instead, they are swept under the rug as groups at the highest risk are the most ignored.
“If this humanitarian crisis was unfolding anywhere else in the world we would expect immediate practical steps to be taken to protect groups most at risk of abuse, such as women travelling alone and female-headed families,” Tirana Hassan, crisis response director at Amnesty International, was quoted. “At a minimum, this would include setting up single sex, well-lit toilet facilities and separate safe sleeping areas. These women and their children have fled some of the world’s most dangerous areas and it is shameful that they are still at risk on European soil.”
Women and children, who have fled their countries in the face of terror and war, are still at risk on European soil. The countries that open their borders should be ashamed at the atrocities that they allow within their camps.
The report includes personal accounts from women interviewed, including pregnant women who faced heightened violence due to their vulnerability.
Rania, a 19-year-old pregnant woman was interviewed by Amnesty about her time in Hungary’s transit camps during her displacement from Syria.
“The police then moved us to another place, which was even worse [than the one before.] It was full of cages and there wasn’t any air coming in. We were locked up. We stayed there for two days. We received two meals a day. The toilets were worse than in the other camps, I feel like they mean to keep the toilets like that to make us suffer.”
Others’ testimony is similar, including beatings by police and denial of food and water, especially harmful for pregnant or nursing women. Multiple reports came in that women who could not pay smugglers were often exploited or forced to stay in unstable areas, left behind at the borders or beaches. Some, including children, have engaged in survival sex work to ensure their safe passage, only to face further exploitation and conditions when reaching their European destinations.
“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,” Hassan was quoted in the report.
Amnesty has not been alone in calling out governments in their inaction. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHRC) reported similar concerns last October, citing “credible testimonies” of the humanitarian crisis.
With refugees arriving in drones — over one million in Europe alone — the threat to women and children is a crisis that cannot be ignored. In a report at Geneva, UNHRC spokesperson Melissa Fleming was quoted in a news conference.
“Refugee and migrant children moving in Europe are at heightened risk of violence and abuse, including sexual violence, especially in overcrowded reception sites, or in many locations where refugees and migrants gather, such as parks, train stations, bus stations and roadsides,” she said.
And while multiple human rights groups continue their efforts to appeal to governments, the crisis only continues to compound itself. This is not a new problem — the same has been seen in camps in Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Burma, among others. Rape is an exploitation of power, an act of war that has made the safety of women and children seeking asylum a paramount humanitarian concern.
The terrors that these women have endured should not continue to perpetuate themselves on European soil. And the governments that continue let that happen should be ashamed of themselves.
“Nobody should have to take these dangerous routes in the first place. The best way to avoid abuses and exploitation by smugglers is for European governments to allow safe and legal routes from the outset. For those who have no other choice, it is completely unacceptable that their passage across Europe exposes them to further humiliation, uncertainty and insecurity,” Hassan was quoted.