Persecuted, discriminated against, exploited… welcomed?

Thu, 26/10/2017 - 12:25


Refuge. We focus on women refugees, victims of multiple forms of violence which can become less significant if support ignores the gender factor. These women suffer specific problems which don’t always receive an appropriate response.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), women and girls represent half of refugees, displaced or stateless people. Even so, very often they are invisible. Whether it’s because they are in the hands of mafias and human trafficking networks, whether it’s their social position or the lack of gender perspective in support and reception services, women’s rights to international protection are systematically violated. Representatives from various European organisations, which work daily to make them more effective, met in Barcelona to raise the profile of refugee women and analyse the challenges which need to be tackled.

The quest for international protection is fraught with obstacles. It’s a path which has to be taken by people fleeing violence or oppression, loaded with insecurity, fear and vulnerability. But that load isn’t the same for everyone: it is a heavier burden for some collectives. For instance, people with no qualifications, unaccompanied minors or people with no monetary resources and so on. Clearly, we’re also talking about women, who have an added factor on top of the various others which place refugees in situations of risk.

In 2016 alone, Barcelona City Council’s Care Service for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees (SAIER) attended to a total of 2,292 people in relation to refuge: the figure represents a 67% increase compared to the previous year and of those, just over 45% were women and girls.

Gender is a key factor when it comes to understanding what is an appropriate response to the needs of women with the right to refuge. In order to help focus on this, the Catalan Refugee Aid Commission (CCAR) organised ‘Les dones també som refugiades’ [Women are refugees too], a meeting for experts from Catalonia, the Spanish state and Europe. All voices coincided on the same idea in the meeting: although progress made in recent years must be recognised, the effective guarantee of women’s asylum rights is still a long way off.

Gender-based persecution

Gender inequality and the subordination of women in the social structure is a common pattern among the majority of populations on the planet. That puts women at an initial disadvantage when it comes to requesting international protection. On top of that, we need to bear in mind that women are the object of specific forms of persecution. Women are victims of various types of sexist violence, forced marriages, genital mutilations, forced sterilisations, sexual exploitation, femicide and more. An added risk at times can be sexual orientation or choices which question social norms.

The Geneva Convention doesn’t specifically address gender as a reason for requesting asylum, but the considerations of the UNHCR establish that gender can be included in the reason of “belonging to a specific social group”. In the Spanish state, article 3 of Act 12/2009, defining the condition of refugee, makes a specific reference to gender.

Even so, the protection of women who deserve refuge doesn’t always happen. There are various reasons for this.

As explained by Helena Zarco, from the legal service at the Catalan Refugee Aid Commission (CCAR), in cases of sexist violence the main problem is proving the version of the victim. Although the account of the victim can be enough to lodge an asylum request, it always helps to have a means of proving and corroborating that account. Very often, male violence occurs in private and many women don’t denounce it either out of fear of reprisals or the certainty that the police will not protect them.

Having proof also generates problems in the case of lesbian women. Zarco rues the difficulty in demonstrating one’s sexual orientation: “What are they supposed to do, become activists so the rest see what they do? Are they supposed to be even more exposed so that their sexual orientation or gender identity are visible?”.

In a similar vein, the research of Maria Barcons, from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, stresses the difficulty of proving cases of forced marriages, which in Spain, in practice, don’t translate as recognition of the right to asylum. According to data from the Ministrty of the Interior at the Government of Catalonia, fourteen cases of forced marriage were detected in Catalonia in 2016, and four in the first quarter of 2017.

Other obstacles which often impede the right to asylum include the existence of legislation in the country of origin which formally protects women (even if not worth the paper it’s written on), and the lack of gender awareness training among the police corps and interpreters in the country of arrival. The latter was harshly referred to by Gabrielle Hobenreich, from the German organisation SOLWODI. At the meeting, Hobenreich denounced the severe words of someone who had interviewed a woman asylum seeker: “I don’t care what happened to you after you left your country. It may be a human tragedy, but it’s not relevant for my decision”.

Request denied

Denied requests are another obstacle in the path of women refugees. Sara (fictitious name) comes from a territory where “being a woman is a daily struggle: it means being at the beck and call of men, without living your own life”, she explains. As a divorcee in her country of origin, Sara felt like “easy prey” for men. Those around her badgered her to the point where she felt “dirty”, she explains.

One day, her ex-husband denounced her “bad religious education” of their daughter and threatened to take the girl away from her. Sara’s daughter herself was threatened twice with a knife. When she reported the aggression to the police, the events were justified with responses loaded with sexism: the girl hadn’t been wearing a veil and was wearing nail varnish.

In order to guarantee future freedom for her daughter, whereby, for instance, she wouldn’t have to marry someone she didn’t want to, Sara sought refuge in the Spanish state. As a response, however, Spain didn’t find sufficient reasons to back her case and denied her asylum. Sara is currently appealing against the decision.

“We can’t be afraid”

Bravery is a very common trait among the stories of women refugees like Sara. Another case is that of Laura (fictitious name). Of Latin American origin, and having lived in Barcelona for less than a year, her circumstances include various forms of violence.

Her odyssey started six years ago when she was pregnant with her second child and had to get away from a husband who maltreated her. She sought refuge at her mother’s house, taking her 15 month old son with her. The child she was carrying was born prematurely.

At her mother’s house, she had to fend for herself in order to move forward. As she had started studying education, she started an initiative offering support for children with learning difficulties. In exchange for a small monthly quota, she turned her mother’s home into a support centre for a few hours a day. But that wasn’t enough: Laura wanted to finish her university career and also needed income to look after herself and her children.

Because of this, she chose to work as a domestic worker in the home of a government civil servant. She worked there for a few years, even looking after the family’s children. But on this occasion, her life was also marked by violence. After the civil servant she worked for raped her for the second time, she decided to denounce him and embark on a process which even meant she had to face up to her aggressor.

The lack of response from the judicial system led her to denounce the case on television. “I couldn’t forget seeing so much cynicism in a person who bases their political campaign on speaking about violence against women”, explains Laura. Going public led to persecution and threats, and also led to her study centre closing down. Finally, she managed to flee and is now requesting asylum in the Spanish state.

From Barcelona, her message to women in situations of violence is clear: “They shouldn’t give up, shouldn’t be silent. We can’t be afraid, because if we are, how can we help ourselves to help others?” Aware that there are scars which can’t be wiped away, Laura fights on every day to move forward.

Barcelona: a good refuge for women?

Both Sara and Laura speak with profound gratitude towards the team which has given them support in Barcelona. According to Mireia Cano, a social integration worker with the CCAR who works with the reception of asylum seekers, the support provided takes into account the motivations and needs of women and aims to empower them. In host flats, for instance, work is done to prevent the separation of tasks on the basis of gender, women with children are encouraged to be involved in social and labour routines (with grants for nurseries and school dinners) and women tend to be those assigned as the recipients of grants.

Although some good practice has been implemented, there are many more challenges ahead. Rosa Cendón, from, points to some, such as improvements in the way cases are tackled where asylum seekers are victims of human trafficking, or the diversification of support given to unaccompanied minors. Cendón also highlights the need to assure suitable primary attention at all airports in the state, including El Prat.

In order to continue towards the effective guarantee of the right to international protection, collaboration from police corps, gender-based training and participation from specialist organisations are all essential aspects. They can all clearly contribute to lightening the load of women in need of refuge.


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