Forced displacement and gender

Sonal Marwah Forced Displacement and Migration

The world is facing unprecedented levels of forced displacement—people compelled to leave their homes to escape conflict, violence, and the flagrant violation of human rights (World Bank 2015). And while gender is not the only important factor that shapes the perilous refugee journey, in this article the focus is on gender-based violence experienced by migrants who are coming to Europe via irregular migratory channels.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 3 Autumn 2016 by Sonal Marwah

The role of gender

Let’s first clarify the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to “the biological characteristics such as anatomy (e.g., body size and shape) and physiology (e.g., hormonal activity or functioning of organs) that distinguish males and females” (Health Canada 2010). Gender refers to “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men—such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men” (WHO 2016).

Women and men experience forced displacement differently. The “culturally determined division of roles and responsibilities” (FMO 2010) plays a crucial role in establishing each gender’s needs, vulnerabilities, and opportunities. Gender inequality must be taken into account to ensure an equitable and effective protection response (European Parliament 2016).

Between January and May 2016, 45 per cent of the migrants who arrived in Europe by sea were men, 20 per cent women, and 35 per cent children. Why do women and children now make up more than half? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (Rigon & Eriksson 2016, p. 8) offers two possible explanations for these trends. The first is that in 2015 more men attempted the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and this year their families are trying to join them. A second possibility is that women and children tend to have a higher chance of being accepted as refugees in EU member states (see also Robinson 2016). The rising number of women is expected to bring more gender balance among asylum seekers and migrants in Europe (Rigon & Eriksson 2016, p. 8).

Migrants traveling through irregular migratory channels face many forms of violence, extortion, and exploitation along the way, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). UN organizations (UNRA, UNFPA & UNHCR 2016, p. 3) identify single women, pregnant and nursing women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied children, early-married children, persons with disabilities, and elderly men and women among those who face disproportionate risks.

“SGBV” encompasses acts committed against persons because of their sex and/or gender roles in power relationships that may include sexual violence. GBV “perpetuates the stereotyping of gender roles that denies human dignity of the individual and stymies human development” (UNHCR 2003, p. 7). SGBV affects women and girls across all cultures (Ward 2002), but affects men and boys as well.

Protection risks for women and girls

Women and girls often have a lower status in their home countries (FMO 2010), particularly in patriarchal societies. Indeed, fear of SGBV, even in “safe” countries, may be grounds for fleeing and seeking international protection. In these so-called “safe” countries, with otherwise satisfactory human rights records, women and girls may face threats such as forced early marriage and female gender mutilation. They may be the victims of so-called “honour” killings, in which a family member or community member kills them for bringing disgrace or dishonour to the family, usually because of their choice of a life or romantic partner. In the United Kingdom between 2010 and 2014, more than 11,000 cases of such crimes were recorded by police forces (Talwar & Ahmad 2015).

Women and girls using irregular channels to travel to Europe face a heightened risk of sexual violence and abuse on the journey. They frequently have to perform transactional sex to “pay for” travel documents (UNHCR 2016). In 2015, for example, a 30-year-old Syrian mother of four fled Syria with her family and was forced by her husband to prostitute herself when they ran out of money. Her husband started abusing her, because “what her husband made her do ended up tainting his honour.” The woman was living in Berlin with her children at the time the story was published and her husband, also in Germany, was under a restraining order (Bennhold 2016).

The International Organization for Migration identifies refugees and migrants as the most vulnerable to trafficking, with women and girls at high risk of sexual exploitation (EPRS 2016). Sexual harassment is also common in refugee camps and reception centres. In Greece, reception facilities are overcrowded, and men, women, and children sleep in one space; sometimes the result is sexual and family violence. A shortage of accommodations in Germany means that bedrooms might not have locks (Bennhold 2016).

While there is no quantitative data on violence against refugee and migrant women, it is clear that many displaced Syrian women and girls have experienced violence, in particular rape (Anani 2013; Bennhold 2016). Many will not report such crimes, fearing social stigma and the risk of dishonouring their families. Moreover, in many situations, reporting only increases their risk of further violence due to the lack of adequate channels for legal redress and limited access.

Under-reporting of SGBV can result in an inaccurate estimate of the scale and severity of violence against women and girls. What results are insufficient protection, detection, and response mechanisms to ensure the safety of women and girls during all stages of migration.

Young civilian males at risk

Many young men flee Syria to avoid military conscription into the national army. Such an act is punishable with imprisonment or forced conscription, or recruitment into one of the several armed opposition groups; as a result many men express fear and hesitation about remaining in Syria. Those who manage to escape face obstacles in gaining asylum, primarily due to their gender (Davis, Taylor & Murphy 2014).

Single men and boys travelling alone are seen as a security threat, in a way that men who travel in a family unit are not (Davis, Taylor & Murphy 2014). Such stereotyping is reinforced when governments decide to exclude young single Syrian men from refugee resettlement programs, as was done by the Canadian government when they brought 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada (Kingsley 2015). Such policies can push young men into illegal migration options.

While male refugees are often seen as the threatening and criminal ‘other’, most are escaping violence (Hilhorst 2016) and most are vulnerable to abuse. Some men and boys who reach Europe with no money resort to prostitution (BBC News 2016). Such cases are common in Greece, with asylum seekers and migrants eager to travel to more refugee-welcoming EU states (Samuels 2016). But we don’t often hear these stories.

Young males and boys are also frequently subjected to forced and early labour because they are seen from childhood as the economic provider for the family. This in itself is a form of gender-based violence, according to Anani (2013). But many are unable to work legally in local labour markets and turn to the informal sector, which offers insecure and precarious work options, while some are unable to find any jobs.

It’s not easy to gather evidence of protection risks faced by forcibly displaced men and boys. Entrenched gender norms and cultural and religious taboos make it difficult for males to disclose that they are survivors of sexual violence (UNHCR 2012).

How Canada can respond

Most victims of SGBV are women and girls. The prevalence of SGBV among men and boys is less understood and acknowledged. “Left unaddressed, the effects of sexual violence magnify the risks inherent in conflict and displacement contexts and gravely harm the social and economic well-being of survivors” (UNHCR 2012, p. 4). The damage can extend to families and communities, undermining long-term security and peacebuilding.

As Canada refocuses its international assistance program in the light of the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, a key focus is on humanitarian crises and challenges faced by refugees and displaced populations. It plans to apply a feminist lens (GAC 2016, p. 10) to all development areas to ensure the empowerment and protection of women and girls. This is a step in the right direction, given the disproportionate vulnerabilities endured by women and girls during forced migration.

But the risks that young men and boys face deserve careful consideration as well. There is evidence that men who do not conform to expected gender roles, such as fighting in a war, are also at risk of persecution (Erel 2016; IRB 2014). The international community must recognize that these men have chosen not to fight despite threats to their safety and that of their families; for instance, food aid can be withheld from the families of those who have evaded conscription. Protection responses and policies that neglect this group indirectly enforce gender stereotypes about masculinity and sexuality, furthering the risks posed to men, boys, and their families who are fleeing conflict situations. It is necessary to reveal the risks faced by both males and females during forced migration.

A sex- and gender-based analysis that examines both biological and socio-cultural differences between women and men, girls and boys to determine the impacts of policies on resettlement and international protection must be carried out before policies are implemented. Policies created in this way will protect all refugees and migrants effectively and without discrimination.


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