Becky Armstrong investigates the hardships faced by refugee women for TWSS Issue #16 ‘Crossing the Border’.
TW: This article touches on themes of sexual violence, as well as miscarriage, in the context of forced migration. It also uses the term ‘refugee’ to signify all those who identify as being forcibly displaced, rather than the status which is granted or denied by respective governing bodies.
Feminism doesn’t exist in a vacuum; where problems exist, their effects are usually intensified for women. And with women who identify as refugees being some of the most multi-oppressed people on the planet, it is important to understand why the refugee crisis is one of the most crucial feminist issues of the 21st century. Women who face forced migration experience intersectional discrimination: as women, migrants, and the vast majority as women of colour. Not to mention those who are marginalised on the basis of their religion, those who are disabled (something all too common for refugees fleeing war zones), as well as those who are LGBTQI+ and seek asylum as a result of the persecution they encounter in less progressive societies.
Besides the xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination and ableism faced by most refugee women, there are other specific problems which are closely intertwined with the reality of forced migration that the majority of refugee women will experience. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is sexual violence and trafficking. Statistics show that women are far more vulnerable to trafficking than men and the risk of this only increases once women are disposed and made homeless, as traffickers target the most vulnerable individuals. As a consequence of this, many women are compelled to engage in ‘survival sex’ to secure male protectors against these trafficking rings, who will then ensure their relative safety along the notoriously unsafe migration routes. Young girls are also frequently married off at increasingly young ages as this is seen as their only chance of survival. Furthermore, as we have seen more recently with Venezuelan refugees fleeing to Colombia, many women who seek sanctuary in less developed countries are often left with no other option than to solicit sex when they cannot find stable work, a considerable number of them being underage and having no legal protection when they engage in sex work.
If we consider specifically the refugee crisis that is contained within Europe, you might expect that once refugee women reach the supposed safety of the camps, the risk of sexual violence might be diminished. However, European governments have demonstrated their complacency by failing to ensure that these camps are safe for women. Sleeping areas and toilet facilities are rarely segregated between men and women which hugely increases incidents of assault. Furthermore, the moral apathy of European governments to accept more of the thousands of unaccompanied minors from refugee camps across Europe has meant that sexual violence is inflicted at a much younger age, with many young refugees experiencing severe sexual trauma with little or no support.
Aside from sexual violence, one of the other major issues facing refugee women is the lack of health services available to them. As soon as people become displaced, they lose stable access to healthcare which is particularly dangerous for women who are pregnant. It is an all too common occurrence for women travelling migration routes, as well as those temporarily settled in squalid camps, to miscarry or deliver stillborn children due to the emotional and physical strain of the journey. As if this wasn’t hard enough to swallow, their children in all likelihood will not receive proper burial, only adding to the dehumanisation which characterises the flight from conflict, persecution and environmental crisis.
So despite all this, the ‘lucky’ few whose asylum claims are considered must go through a rigorous process of interviews (thanks Theresa May) which are rarely gender sensitive. Women who have experienced inordinate levels of trauma are often interviewed by men and/or in the presence of male interpreters. These women are then expected to disclose traumatic accounts of their reasons for seeking asylum, as well as descriptions of the sexual violence they experienced both within their home countries and on their journeys to sanctuary. Many women are also forcibly interviewed in the presence of their children making it impossible for many to communicate the extent of their experiences. These conscious attempts to create a ‘hostile environment’ have meant that many women seeking asylum have understandably been unable to disclose the full spectrum of reasons which should grant them refugee status, resulting in some of the most vulnerable individuals having their asylum claims rejected.
Ultimately, with refugee women facing discrimination from so many directions, it’s not surprising that their voices are rarely heard or influence the decisions of policy-makers. The refugee crisis succinctly demonstrates how all issues are linked, and as feminists, the refugee crisis is also our problem and we must platform the women that it silences. The planet is currently seeing the greatest mass movement of people of all time, with 68.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. It is imperative that we act and pressure decision-makers since a solution that centres feminism is one that could alleviate the suffering of millions of people.
Artwork by Maria Paradinas.