In the concluding part of our series on female refugees, we explore the challenges of identifying abuse and exploitation of lone women on the move – who are highly susceptible to sex trafficking and sometimes coerced into “transactional sex” to pay their way forward.
This is a three-part series on the cycles of sexual violence experienced by refugee women, especially from Syria – from forced labor and sex slavery inside their own country to years of harassment and destitution in countries neighboring Syria and falling prey to sex trafficking while in transition to Europe.
Part One of the story was published here.
Part Two of the story was published here.
When Samira, a refugee from Morocco, arrived on the shores of Lesbos, she was thankful for the fresh start that the calm waves on that particular day had allowed. The tide had been in her favor, she thought, until she reached into her bag to check that her savings were safe.
Much to her dismay, all of her money was gone.
Physically drained and psychologically fatigued by the adrenaline-pumping boat journey, she felt disoriented and on the brink of losing consciousness. Her onward travel to northern Europe would not be possible without her savings.
“They told me to continue the trip with them,” she says, referring to a group of Moroccan men who had shared the dinghy with her. “When I refused, they became aggressive and said I would be on my own.” Taking her solitary journey as an opportunity to make some quick cash, they bullied her into going with them. Samira believes that the men stole from her. But her fate could have been even worse had they wanted to sell her to traffickers – an increasing risk for lone female refugees entering Europe.
Identifying refugees at risk of exploitation is often impossible in overcrowded places such as registration hotspots. As most migrants do not wish to file an asylum application in the country of first entry, vulnerable women are unlikely to come forward and request assistance. Reaching their final destination becomes their sole concern.
In collaboration with Frontex, national authorities receiving the migrants try to establish the authenticity of purported family ties among refugees during their registration at reception centers. The cross-questioning is at times efficient in debunking fake claims. But the high number of applicants and the limited amount of time allocated to each person limits the effectiveness of this measure.
According to Anna Panou, a psychologist working for Doctors Without Borders at the Moria detention center on Lesvos, little can be done even when a woman is found in a state of mental distress that could put her at further risk of exploitation.
“If they are not underage and they do not want to ask for asylum in Greece, there is nothing we can do to protect them,” says Panou. “We try to persuade them to stay, but they usually want to continue their journey and there is nothing we can do to stop them.”
Samira was among the many lone women who wanted to move on quickly, despite being robbed and intimidated.
NGO workers at Moria took her to the Pikpa open refugee camp, the only facility providing mental counseling to vulnerable refugees. “I have no money to continue my journey but I have to. I cannot go back,” says Samira, who decided to cross into Europe after her husband divorced her and left her unable to provide for their two children.
There have also been an increasing number of reports of women engaging in “transactional sex” as a last resort to pay for their journey or to obtain the necessary travel documents. Most of these cases go unheard, as services provided by the U.N. and host states for sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors are limited. Victims are often reluctant to seek medical attention to avoid delays.
This cumulative silence has had a negative impact on verifying the extent of sexual violence, harassment and threats that female refugees, especially those on the move, experience. The concrete numbers are missing.
The Forced Migration Review (FMR) concludes that “there is no quantitative data in respect to violence against women but many displaced Syrian women and girls report having experienced violence, in particular rape.”
According to interviews conducted by Amnesty International, women feel threatened and unsafe during their journeys to Europe. Many report physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees.
Some of these women have already experienced sexual violence in different forms in their own countries and in neighboring countries where they first sought refuge. The same FMR report points to rampant “sexual exploitation or non-consensual ‘survival’ sex,” whereby “women and girls exchange sexual favors for food or other goods, or money to help pay the rent, especially in Lebanon.”
Reem, a 20-year-old from Syria, told Amnesty about her experience sleeping in transit camps. “I never got the chance to sleep in these settlements,” she says. “I was too scared that someone would touch me. The tents were all mixed and I witnessed violence.”
In October 2015, when the number of refugees in Lesbos had peaked, NGO Save the Children expressed concerns, following many testimonies of sexual harassment at Greek registration facilities due to the lack of security surveillance.
At present, Greece is bearing the burden of 45,817 refugees stranded on its mainland and an additional 7,888 on its islands. In Idomeni, on the border with Macedonia, the situation is particularly precarious, with 10,257 refugees trapped in a makeshift camp and unable to continue their journey to northern Europe.
Eva Cosse, assistant researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), explains that the border closure unilaterally enforced by Macedonia is an explicit violation of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
“Women are facing a very tough journey to Europe and are frequently victims of sexual harassment,” says Cosse. “Due to the lack of qualified personnel to identify vulnerable cases and a dysfunctional asylum system, they are currently falling into the cracks of the European protection system.”
While being aware of the threats that they may encounter along the journey, women are often left with no viable alternatives. This is due to the lack of options to seek asylum along the route or the dearth of effective mechanisms to speed up family reunification.
In a 2015 report, the UNHCR estimated that 10 percent of Syria’s refugees in the five main host countries (Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt) meet its definition of “vulnerable” and are in need of resettlement in a third country.
Refugee women may be considered for resettlement under any of the “vulnerability criteria” used by UNHCR, including the category “women and girls at risk.” But sparse data and the confidential nature of resettlement programs, whereby information about the applicants is not available to external agencies, make it difficult to verify the effectiveness, rates and speed of resettlement of refugee women.
In a recent report, Amnesty International charged that the resettlement system is failing to protect women living alone in host countries.
Several sources told Amnesty International that refugee women who are heads of their household and who do not know, or are unable to prove, the fate or whereabouts of their husband (cases considered to be “incomplete families”) have difficulty being accepted by states for resettlement. This is possibly because the host states want to avoid situations in which a woman’s husband is found later and then applies for asylum through family reunification.
The deal signed by the E.U. and Turkey is likely to add further hardships for lone refugee women. In an interview, strategic communications director for the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) Deni Robey expressed her concern for the so-called “one-for-one” provision. “Generally speaking, deterrence just encourages more dangerous routes or more smuggling,” she said.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Groups that work closely with refugee communities in Europe and in countries neighboring Syria have found it challenging to convince the women and their families to share their first-hand experiences of sexual violence. Their direct testimonials are vital in proving the extent of SGBV and, without such information, the possibility of holding the perpetrators accountable is an even more far-fetched notion.
As with most displacement situations caused by conflict and crimes, forging the trust of the displaced individuals and communities is the most challenging part for human rights groups. Helping them understand the impact of every account in mobilizing protection for survivors and preventing such atrocities in future can be a long, uncertain process.
Several groups, including the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, advocacy groups and smaller, local NGOs, have continued to collect evidence, believing that there is indeed strength in numbers.