The Worsening Plight of Refugee Women and Children

From forced marriages, domestic abuse, to the trafficking of women, female refugees are facing a brutal gauntlet to seek a better life. (Image:   Freedom House via flickr/ CC0 1.0)
From forced marriages, domestic abuse, to the trafficking of women, female refugees are facing a brutal gauntlet to seek a better life. (Image: Freedom House via flickr/ CC0 1.0)

As Europe continues its conversation over the sexual assaults by male refugees on New Year’s Eve in Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Norway, female refugees around Europe are facing the fear of sexual assault and attacks everyday in refugee shelters and camps around the continent.

In 2015 reports from German social work organisations spoke about how women and children in German refugee centers are being raped, assaulted, and even forced into prostitution by male refugees who deem them to be “wild game.”

In August last year four social work organizations and women’s rights groups in Hesse, Germany, wrote a two page letter requesting help for women in mixed gender shelters.

“The ever-increasing influx of refugees has complicated the situation for women and girls at the receiving center in Giessen (HEAE) and its subsidiaries. The practice of providing accommodation in large tents, the lack of gender-separate sanitary facilities, premises that cannot be locked; the lack of safe havens for women and girls — to name just a few spatial factors — increases the vulnerability of women and children within the HEAE.

“This situation plays into the hands of those men who assign women a subordinate role and treat women traveling alone as ‘wild game.’ The consequences are numerous rapes and sexual assaults. We are also receiving an increasing number of reports of forced prostitution. It must be stressed: these are not isolated cases.”

Women’s rights not a priority?

This situation has now spread across many European nations where female refugees and children are traveling. Jina More, a reporter for Buzzfeed, argues that many of these women and children are not aware of the dangers, and aid agencies are not taking the problem into account.

According to an interview with the Senior Public Information Officers for the UNHCR Melita Šunjiæ:

But the problem is, it is.

From forced marriages, domestic abuse, to the trafficking of women, female refugees are facing a brutal gauntlet to seek a better life, and due to a culture that hides sexual assault and violence, much of what these women suffer is kept hidden from the public eye.


Many female refugees fear a backlash if they report these abuses. From being rejected by their husbands or relatives, to death threats and honor killings, the repercussions for many female refugees who are perceived to have destroyed their families’ honor by being victims is very real.

Take the case described by one psychologist in Germany, who told of a female refugee she was treating whose husband had prostituted her to their smugglers to pay for their way to Europe. He had then attacked her himself for damaging his honor. They are now separated and her husband has been subjected to a restraining order, but she lives in fear of an attack.

A very real fear given that in October last year Germany witnessed an honor killing of a young Syrian migrant who is only known as Rokstan M. She had been attacked by three men in Syria and had fled to Germany with her family gaining asylum, and working as an interpreter for the German government.

In October 2015 her body was found with stab wounds in her family’s garden in the German city of Dessau while she had been visiting her family. In the days before her death she posted on her Whatsapp profile that: “I am awaiting death. But I am too young to die.”

Europe’s response

The governments in Europe agree that they need to do more for refugee females and children. The UNHCR in a statement in October 2015 asked:

“All concerned national authorities in Europe to take measures to ensure the protection of women and girls, including through providing adequate and safe reception facilities. UNHCR also asks authorities, as a matter of urgency, to find alternatives to the detention of children.“

However, due to the extensive nature of the refugee crisis many shelters are overwhelmed. Furthermore, westernization of refugees will take time, women rights are often abrogated in the Middle East and North Africa, and it is not just men who must be educated, but the women themselves who need to know their rights.

Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.

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