Nine million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes, and 75 percent of them are women and children. Many have crossed the border into Turkey, with some then crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Greece, and on to western and northern Europe. The numbers keep rising: The International Organization for Migration reports an estimated 181,476 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea since the start of 2016, which is more than twice the number of the first four months of 2015. The risks for women, especially, rise as they make this dangerous journey: they are exposed to increased violence and exploitation along the way and in Europe.
As the continent struggles to address this unprecedented crisis, it must ensure that women’s human rights are at the core of its efforts. Unfortunately, right now this does not seem to be the case. The Euro Turkish agreement that was announced last month is supposed to stop many people from making this crossing and to break the business model of human traffickers. According to the new plan, “One in, one out” is the paradigm; for each illegal migrant the EU sends back to Turkey, it will settle one Syrian refugee. But the deal’s narrow focus on tightening border controls is worrisome. With women making up the majority of those displaced, sending them back to Turkey will cause more damage; they will be subject to more violence and hardship. Sadly, the human rights and protections that were laid out in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) decades ago are taking a back seat.
“Women’s rights and access to health, education, and employment opportunities remain at the margins of the discussion,” says Şehnaz Kıymaz from Women for Women’s Human Rights-New Ways (WWHR). WWHR, an IWHC partner, aims to promote women’s human rights, nondiscrimination, and gender equality in Turkey and at the global level. Since the Syrian crisis began in 2011, WWHR has been working to identify the needs of refugee women and girls in Turkey and to raise awareness of the specific vulnerabilities they face.
At a side event of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York in March, Şehnaz spoke about WWHR’s findings. When women and girls are displaced, they experience greater levels of inequality and discrimination, and have even less control over their bodies, sexuality, and reproduction. Refugees become dependent on humanitarian aid, which is poorly organized, or often simply insufficient or lacking, noted Şehnaz. They have limited access to gynecological and obstetric care, including contraception and condoms. While refugee women face the same persecution and dangers that men face, they also deal with additional responsibilities (such as child care) and risks, including sexual abuse.
And the situation is not necessarily better when they get to Europe. According to research by Amnesty International, many refugee women who travel from Turkey to Europe are not afforded even basic protections—such as single-sex, well-lit toilet facilities and separate safe sleeping areas.
But there are positive signs. The UN is convening the first World Humanitarian Summit next month in Istanbul. The first of its kind, the major meeting will draw governments, humanitarian organizations, representatives of the private sector, and people affected by crises to discuss solutions and set an agenda that is reflective of humanitarian principles.
For the women’s movement, the Summit represents an opportunity to push for an agenda that is gender-responsive at its core. At the CSW this March, feminists agreed that the humanitarian response to the refugee crisis must meet women’s and girls’ specific needs and explicitly work to protect and empower them.
In practical terms, this means the EU must be more transparent in how it is allocating the 3 billion euros it pledged to Turkey to support refugees, and the EU must have specific conditions tied to their aid to ensure that sexual and reproductive health services are budgeted for. Feminist activists are calling for the Turkish government to consult and collaborate with women’s organizations. “This should be another condition for aid,” said Sehnaz.
Feminists are also advocating for better data collection to assess and respond to the needs of refugee women and girls. Only 10 percent of refugees in Turkey currently live in camps, the living conditions of the remaining 90 percent of refugees are undocumented and unknown. The picture is blurry, but what we do know is alarming.
There is, however, potential for change as momentum builds leading up to Humanitarian Summit. Advocates are increasingly calling on governments to put women and girls at the center of crisis prevention and response. Human rights and a gender perspective must underpin international agreements. Right now, Europe is negotiating the quantity of people it will admit, but it must also discuss ways to improve the quality of life of refugees—especially when the conditions in host countries are no better, and sometimes even worse, than the places the refugees have fled.
When world leaders convene next month, they have to remember human lives and dignity are at stake.
Photo: A. McConnell/UNHCR