The invisibility of women migrants into the European society: an analysis on refugee and asylum-seeking women’s integration in the EU.
In a crisis situation, the worst-affected victims are always the weakest individuals, among which stood women. Female migrants find themselves in an “impossibly vulnerable situation”. Richard Beddock, vice-president of the NGO Gynocology Without Borders, rang the bell on 8th March, the International Women’s day. On this occasion, many marches were organised across Europe to stand up for female rights. This year, great attention was paid to women migrants who are now facing a precarious situation in their migration routes.
However, women migrants do not end to suffer after their arrival in the dreamed destination. It is on the European ground that another great battle starts: their fighting for integration. Women often prefer to hide themselves behind their men or to live as invisible. As recalled by President Schulz at the Parliamentary International Women’s day, integration is not an easy issue: it costs money and require a great commitment at all European, national and social levels.
This article aims at analysing the EU current situation in relation to the matter of female refugees and asylum seekers integration.
The dramatic increase in the number of female migrants making the dangerous journey to Europe call into question the EU on several issues, including integration. As underlined by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, women are among the most vulnerable migrants because of their gender, thus there is the need for a concrete and punctual intervention to support them. Single adult refugee women, for instance, experience everyday considerable difficulties due to the lack of financial means, professional qualification and family support.
For this reason, a gender perspective has to be a key element in developing and implementing measures and policies aimed at protecting and integrating women refugees and asylum seekers into the host society. Moreover, preventing isolation of refugee women is a precondition to allow them enjoying these policies and measures, which are proven to have a relevant positive impact on these women’s wellbeing and life conditions (Spitzer, 2006).
Women migrants should become active contributors in the recipient society: this is the main goal of women refugees’ and asylum seekers’ integration. To this aim, as reported in the European Parliament (EP) study «Female refugees and asylum seekers: the issue of integration», the first step is to recognise and fulfil “women needs with reference to their background conditions, the situation they are escaping from and what happened to them during their journey towards the host country.”
Difficulties experienced by women include firstly the obstacles they encounter in proving their claim for asylum. Compared to men, they can exhibit less evidence for their application; as men are often more active in the public sphere in their countries of origin and consequently, more exposed to public persecution and political repression. Moreover, women chose most of the time to be silent on their experience of sexual torture or gender persecution as it is hard to tell this kind of stories, even if they might constitute the legal basis for asylum application.
Another reason of vulnerability for refugee and asylum-seekers women and girls is their exposure to sexual and gender-based violence not only in their mother country but also throughout their displacement experience or in the host society (see article on “women refugees and asylum seekers on the move in Europe”). Adolescent girls are a particularly vulnerable category among women refugees and asylum seekers. According to UNICEF (2014), 20 % of women report being victims of some forms of sexual violence as children and, more than 60 million female children are forced to marry before the age of eighteen.
“Host countries have to consider the needs and be aware of the vulnerabilities of refugee and asylum-seeking women because female refugees in host countries are expected by their communities to embody all the reminiscences of the country of origin as care for children, household care, language, and food: this role attributed to them by men in their families has a severe impact on the integration process, fostering isolation and social, economic and cultural dependency.”
The EP study underlines that this female role partly explains why young girls and adolescents are not encouraged to integrate in the host society. In this way, refugee and asylum-seeking women might become far less visible than males and find difficulties in having access to services, job opportunities, training and language courses in the host country.
However, another explanation of the low level of refugee and asylum-seeking women’s integration could be found in discrimination. Women migrants often have hostile encounters with housing providers, they usually have no access to sufficient paid jobs and they are not able to participate in society.
Nevertheless, when women start play an active role into the host society, statistics show that they become productive and resilient subjects (UNHCR, 2001). In light of all these factors, the EP study suggests that, to properly foster socio-economic women inclusion, policies of the host countries towards female refugees and asylum seekers have to take into account their specific needs (health, psychological support, proper housing, etc.).
From a juridical point of view, several instruments at international and European level have been created to guarantee adequate protection to refugee and asylum seeking women, such as UN and Council of Europe conventions and guidelines. Concerning integration, this issue does not fall under the specific competence of the EU. Therefore, there is no EU legislation promoting refugee and asylum-seeking women’s integration. However, a discreet level of female protection towards integration can descent from the effect of some different EU legislation and measures concerning international protection, eradication of gender and race discrimination and, fight against gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and trafficking in human beings. Furthermore, different EU funding programs in the framework of integration, social cohesion and immigration can be used by Member States to improve the situation of women refugees and asylum seekers in their own society.
Thus, integration is basically a task primarily down to the Member States, which often delegate this duty to NGOs. As underlined by the EP study “NGO’s may play a central role in fostering refugee and asylum-seeking women’s integration, especially in the present period, which is characterised by the rolling back of welfare states, privatisation of public services, and restrictive immigration policies and controls on incoming flows.”
Integration is a multidimensional process that goes through economic, social, linguistic and legal levels.
Concerning the socio-economic status of refugees, they have to face critical obstacles in access to housing, healthcare system and labour market. Women, as highlighted by Freedman (2009), “have greater difficulty in accessing a proper and stable housing solution if they are not in the host country with their husbands”. Thus, single female refugees usually live in emergency housing for more time than male counterparts do. Moreover, reception system solutions prove to be inadequate for women needs in the long term, often condemning them to experience isolation.
However, even if they succeed in getting out from reception centres, property owners often show strong prejudices based on race, ethnic origin, gender and economic means. In this way, forcibly displaced women and girls, subjected to segregation in specific neighbourhoods of the host society, undergo squalid living conditions and lack of basic services.
The difficult access to healthcare assistance is an obstacle that migrant population in general has to face. The intersection of gender, displacement and even disability increases the difficulty to obtain a decent assistance through the public health care system of the recipient country due to “communication problems, cultural barriers and lack of information on how healthcare assistance works (and) lack of training and awareness of health personnel about refugee issues”.
Moreover, as underlined by UNHCR, healthcare system plays a pivotal role in relation to gender-based violence, in terms of healing and prevention. In addition, reproductive health services and psychological assistance could improve not only female refugees’ and asylum seekers’ heath, but also promote integration.
As for the access to labour market, refugee women have to face several barriers. As noted by the NGO «France Terre d’Asile», their educational career is generally not recognised and they have a limited knowledge of the language of the recipient country. Women are more often employed in underqualified and low-paid jobs, generally in part-time work and, they are subjected to some forms of discrimination and negative stereotypes. Playing an active role in the labour market is considered “one of the main tools to promote refugee women’s integration in the host country”.
Consequently, bad integration in the labour market could be at the basis of a vicious circle: unemployment can provoke isolation, frustration and mining the development of a sense of belonging to the host country. Often employed in the domestic services sector (childcare, household cleaning), refugee women continue to be an economic and social group more segregated than men.
Linguistic barrier is one of the great obstacle to integration. “The potential contribution of refugees to European society is substantial, but the majority of this potential remains unexpressed because of scarce access to information, advice, guidance and training, thus leading to high rates of unemployment.” Encouraging training and language courses could improve refugee and asylum-seeking women’s quality of life and economic and cultural independence.
In fact, as underlined by the EP study, language and training courses could initiate a virtuous circle integrating more easily women into society. Women could easily find a job, autonomously procure the goods they need, use public transportations with more self-confidence, obtain a driving licence, and get to understand their rights without children’s mediation, who are often asked to serve as interpreters for adult family members (Olsson, 2002). Furthermore, training and language courses could raise awareness on women rights, health, and integration in the host society.
From a legal point of view, women have to be protected since their arrival in the recipient country. Personnel and immigration officers should be aware of legislation that could be applied to protect women refugees from the moment they claim for asylum to the effective recognition of their refugee status. Anyway, an even worse battle starts when they enter into the host society.
Being an active part in the new society is not easy: women are not only subjected to socio-economic discrimination, but also more exposed to gender-based violence and women’s trafficking. Underreporting of this kind of episodes is frequent due to victim shaming, limited access to services and legal vulnerability. This absence of complaint may worsen psychological trauma and health consequences. The NGOs intervention in this field is vital. In Spain, for instance, the NGO «Accem» provides female refugee and asylum-seeking victims of gender-based violence with a huge amount of services, such as judicial assistance, social integration and, healthcare and psychological support.
The scenario pictured above should be part of an integration strategy that goes beyond a mere legislation, which remains on paper. As noted by a refugee girl in Ireland, the government “gives you rights but never tells you where to go. You have sleepless nights waiting for your refugee status. And after you get it, you have sleepless nights not knowing what to do”. However, “refugee women have a key role to play”.
Female refugees and asylum seekers should not be considered as passive victims and inert recipients of assistance. Integration policies should aim at granting them rights and protection, fostering programs to increase inclusion at the socio-economic, linguistic and legal levels, but especially they have to promote women empowerment and independence. Taking into consideration refugee and asylum-seeking women’s needs would allow them to become active contributors to the host society. To this aim, as affirmed by the EP study on the issue of integration, policies cannot be gender-neutral, as “the gender element constitutes one of the main dimensions of discrimination and violence female refugees have to cope with in their life path”.
Finally, women refugees and asylum seekers have to “find themselves again, to find their confidence and their value in the community” because if they actively participate in the promotion of gender integration strategy, results can be better achieved in the short term. As reiterated by a refugee woman in Ireland, “for integration to succeed, refugee women must contribute to their new communities, so that they can contribute to themselves, their families, and live a better life”, eliminating the veil of invisibility that all too often hides women refugees and asylum seekers in the recipient society.
For further information:
- Female refugees and asylum seekers: the issue of integration, European Parliament study: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/556929/IPOL_STU(2016)556929_EN.pdf
- “Invisible”, bur refugee women play key integration role: http://www.unhcr.org/3e94309c4.html
- Richard Beddock: Female migrants in an “impossibly vulnerable situation”, EurActiv: https://www.euractiv.com/section/development-policy/interview/richard-beddock-female-migrants-are-in-an-impossibly-vulnerable-situation/