By Kasia Staszewska
Ramya, an Eritrean, was raped more than once by the traffickers who held her captive in a camp in Libya. Hala, from Aleppo, was offered a lower fee by a people smuggler in Turkey if she had sex with him.
Reem, a Syrian, couldn’t sleep in refugee camps in Europe because she was scared the men around her would try to touch her during the night. Ada fled sexual violence in Nigeria, only to be kidnapped and abused by people smugglers in Libya on her journey to safety in Europe.
Women and girls fleeing conflict and persecution face these terrifying risks every day, yet the issue has barely figured in the global response to the refugee crisis.
This is despite the fact that, through welcome interventions like the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative or the national action plan on women, peace and security, the UK government has repeatedly let the world know of its ambition to be an international champion for women’s and girls’ rights.
However, none of the specific risks faced by female refugees are addressed in the UK’s key foreign affairs commitments to women’s rights. And when Theresa May attended a world leaders’ summit on the refugee crisis hosted by President Obama in September, her speech did not mention the experiences of women and girls fleeing war and persecution, or the need to respond to the appalling levels of gender-based violence they often face.
The day after the summit, May told the UN general assembly: “We will continue to champion the rights of women and girls, making sure that all girls get the education they deserve, and tackling horrific abuses such as female genital mutilation and the use of sexual violence in conflict.”
You would imagine, therefore, that the UK would be doing all it could to protect women from sexual violence, whether during conflict or while fleeing it. Yet the government’s response to the refugee crisis has so far been pitiful. In failing to share responsibility for supporting and hosting refugees, or for providing more safe and legal routes for them to find sanctuary here, Britain has put thousands of women at risk of the very violence and human rights abuses the government claims it wants to combat. Female refugees pay for this failure with their health, wellbeing and – far too often – their lives.
In towns and cities across the UK, meanwhile, charities working with refugees have long complained of double standards. While women and girls’ rights are promoted abroad, they argue, those who come to the UK as refugees are frequently met with scepticism by the Home Office. Some are detained, while many face the risk of being returned to the unsafe countries from which they escaped.
Yet the number of refugees seeking safety in the UK constitutes only a tiny proportion of those who come to Europe – itself still host to very few refugees compared with countries in the Middle East and Africa.
Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International reveal the horrors that traffickers and smugglers inflict on women travelling to Europe though Libya, a journey they undertake because so few secure and legal routes to safety exist. Sexual violence against female refugees in Libya is so common that women, aware they are likely to be raped, take the pill en route to avoid becoming pregnant.
In Lebanon, a tiny country hosting far more refugees than the UK and other EU countries, particularly from Syria, Amnesty has identified sexual harassment and exploitation as a constant threat. Women who are the heads of their households are among those most at risk.
On reaching Europe, when they thought the worst was behind them, many women told Amnesty they felt threatened and unsafe on seeing closed borders and being subjected to physical abuse, financial exploitation, or pressure for sex from smugglers, security staff or male refugees en route to their final destinations.
The global refugee crisis is an international failure of compassion and solidarity. But it is also a women’s rights issue. It reveals the stark contrast between international commitments and obligations to end all forms of violence against women and girls, and the reality the same women face daily.
The UK’s high-level diplomacy and focus on sexual violence in conflict have laid out some important goals for protecting and empowering women and girls globally. However, to achieve change, provide protection and transform women’s and girls’ lives, Britain’s foreign and domestic policies must be joined up.
More of the same won’t do. Women’s rights priorities in the UK’s development and humanitarian affairs must be matched by a human rights-based and gender-sensitive response to the refugee crisis, immigration and asylum.
Amnesty International is calling upon the UK to step up and deliver.
Kasia Staszewska is women’s human rights programme manager at Amnesty International UK