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Amnesty International recently reported alarm over numerous testimonies from women who have suffered abuse at the hands of fellow refugees, smugglers, and even European authorities, while the UNHCR has also expressed concern over ‘credible testimonies’ of sexual violence against refugee and migrant women on the move in Europe. A senior Europol officer has also come forward with a warning that unaccompanied refugee and migrant children in Europe are easy prey for unscrupulous gangs and are at risk of being trafficked and forced into prostitution.
With more than 644,000 refugees and migrants having arrived in Europe by sea last year, the UNHCR reports that just over a third are vulnerable women and children. The risks of sexual violence and abuse are particularly high in locations where refugees and migrants gather, such as bus or train stations. Overcrowded reception sites also present a high risk to vulnerable women and children, as they often lack adequate lighting and separated spaces for single women and families with children to sleep. Additionally, short-term reception centres in destination countries including Germany are said to lack basic protections for women such as locks on bedroom doors in mixed sleeping areas.
Reports and testimonies indicate that there have been instances of women and children engaging in ‘survival sex’ to pay smugglers to continue their journey. As well as highlighting these vulnerabilities, the UNHCR has called on authorities to find alternatives to the detention of children, who often lack the protection of an adult. UNHCR are also working to prevent family separations, recognising the enhanced risks that this poses for women and girls. A separate article however, points to the dangers of assuming that women only face risk when making journeys on their own. Aside from the possibility of abuse or exploitation by a member of their own family, female travellers continue to face risk even when accompanied by men.
The UNHCR and Amnesty International have called on authorities to ensure the better protection of these vulnerable groups, and expressed the need to ensure access to information, enhanced identification of persons with specific needs, including unaccompanied children. There is also need for provision of psychosocial support and enhanced safeguarding in reception areas.
UNHCR, in collaboration with UNFPA and the Women’s Refugee Commission has now published an initial assessment report on the protection risks for women and girls in the European crisis, with a focus on Greece and F.Y.R.O.Macedonia.
This article was originally published in Women’s Asylum News 133 December 2015/January 2016.