CW/TW: sexual violence, physical and emotional abuse

The changing political policies regarding border security and migration in the EU reflect a dangerous rhetoric that has led to a greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence for female asylum seekers upon arrival into the host country. How well have national, EU and global institutions attempted to mitigate the possibilities of violence against women and provide support for them? How does the spread of COVID-19 compound the inability for women and girl refugees and asylum seekers to access proper healthcare?

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) defines sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as “Acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty that target individuals or groups of individuals on the basis of their gender”.[1] While both sexes are at risk for victimization and perpetration of all types of violence, it is far more prevalent for women and girls.

Semi-structured interviews done by scholars in European asylum reception facilities have found that gendered power relations are reproduced and exacerbated during migration. [2] Much of the data is limited by asylum seekers’ fear of disclosing traumatic experiences to authorities and potentially negatively affecting the process of being granted asylum. The EU’s unstable political environment where points of entry can close at any given time due to changing immigration policy and particularly now due to COVID-19, has the very real potential to raise rates of SGBV in refugees and migrants. This issue will be explored in greater detail throughout this article.

EU Policy for Migrants Exposed to SGBV

The central issue with migration in the EU is that there is no consistent response or policy that has been implemented across all member-states because of the possible infringement on the sovereignty of these member-states. This has led to the most pressure being felt at Europe’s Mediterranean borders namely, Spain, Italy and Greece, to process an immense number of immigrants. Some of the measures taken to prevent irregular immigration have led to unnecessary violence, yet even with clear evidence of abuses in violation of EU law at the borders of these countries, the European Commission has done little to hold them accountable.[3] Questions should be asked not only about the acts of SGBV, but also “the gender of both the victim and assailant, the context in which the violence took place, and the relation between the victim and assailant”.[4]

The Council of Europe set out six strategic objectives for their current five-year Gender Equality Strategy from 2018-2023, one of which was to protect the rights of migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls. [5] Within their description of the objective to ‘protect the rights of migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls’, the Council of Europe explicitly writes that “Victims of trafficking and gender-based violence among migrant, refugee and asylum-seekers need to be promptly identified as such and provided with adequate and gender-sensitive protection, treatment and care”.[6]  However, the response and implementation has been limited and inconsistent.

Jane Freedman, a professor of sociology at Université Paris 8, argues that cases of SGBV could largely be prevented through an improvement in the accommodation and living conditions of female refugees.[7] Freedman seeks to explain why the EU’s policies and responses in relation to the refugee crisis could “increase vulnerability and insecurity for these women”.[8] In particular, the EU has focused on preventing irregular migration more than protecting migrant rights, which in turn only serves to increase the possibility of gender-based violence.[9]

SGBV is not only a powerful motivator for refugees and migrants to leave their countries of origin, but it is often also a reality for women and girls during the refugee and migration route. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) describes the three central factors that prevent women from reporting abuse; a lack of information on how to report such incidents, a lack of effective procedures to identify cases and insufficient training of staff in charge of recognizing gender-based violence.[10] From the evidence put forward by the FRA, it is clear that much more can be done by EU member-states, with more substantial guidelines and procedures on how to identify and deal with victims of SGBV that include gender-sensitive asylum policies to help women and girls escape this violence.

FRA also describes how the most successful programs to combat and respond to SGBV are “those that have been designed through consultations with the refugee community, and that are based on multi-sectoral and inter-agency collaboration”.[11] Consulting with the refugee community and ensuring that they can voice their fears and get help for abuses is of utmost importance. Imposing a fundamentally European or national way of “assisting” migrants may not be the best way to meet their needs. In their article “What the Eye Does Not See”, Keygnaert and Guieu found that “the current paradigm in EU policy-making enforces the notion that sexual violence is an ‘outsider’ issue, with violence against migrants happening almost exclusively within their countries of origin or on Europe’s doorstep, and/or caused by cultural factors”.[12]

In their study “Gender, Securitization and Transit: Refugee Women and the Journey to the EU”, Gerard and Pickering argue that EU Member States have “cultivated the ‘securitization of migration’, crafting a legal framework that prevents irregular migrants, including asylum seekers, from arriving in the EU”.[13] This can clearly be seen in Italy through the implementation of the “Salvini Decree”, which significantly changes provisions for migrants and abolishes the category of humanitarian protection.[14] This ‘securitization of migration’ “targets particular racialized and gendered bodies”.[15]

Esposito et al. interviewed a young woman named Precious migrating from Nigeria to Italy who described her terrifying journey through North Africa where, particularly in Niger, “local criminal networks are intertwined with transnational networks and, with the connivance of the police, they make the migrant crossing a profitable business”.[16] If women do not have the financial means to pay to cross a border, their bodies may become a currency,[17] and even if they do have the means, it does not guarantee protection from violence, which for women usually takes the form of sexual abuse.[18] Rape thus becomes “a technology that reproduces gender and sexual hierarchies and norms on the one hand and racial and class divisions on the other”,[19] which “constitutes a way of inscribing the border on the bodies of women”.[20]

Many of the women interviewed by Esposito et al. experienced SGBV, but did not report the crimes out of fear of deportation, making it easier for abusers to “take advantage of the women’s undocumented status to keep them in a position of enforced vulnerability and exploitation”. [21] Furthermore, even if migrants were documented as entering through an official border entrance, they could still be labeled as “illegal” afterwards, leading to being trapped in “a space of forced invisibility, exclusion, subjugation, and repression”.[22]

 Access to Essential Healthcare Services During COVID-19

 Some leaders are beginning to capitalize on the fear of the pandemic to push forward structural anti-migration policies that will have devastating consequences for migrants and their families who rely on remittances as a source of income.[23] Currently there are millions of refugees living in “crowded unsanitary conditions in camps and urban settings around the world” without access to humanitarian support or the possibility of finding work.[24] COVID-19 creates space for a new health securitization migration rhetoric that capitalizes on the citizens’ fears of immigrants and refugees who are perceived to pose a significant risk to individual health security; a phenomenon which will have a wide-ranging impact on socioeconomic inclusion and social cohesion.[25]

Certain states have approached COVID-19 by creating a “quasi-quarantine”, where migrants are meant to work without contact with the outside world and with curfew measures that restrict their access to basic care and services.[26]

It is clear that women and girl refugees and migrants have been and will be one of the groups who are most at risk to be impacted by COVID-19 and by the decrease in humanitarian and healthcare assistance for other needs, such as SGBV. In order for these victims to come forward and request aid from healthcare professionals (when they have access to them), there must be a certain level of trust in legal institutions and the professionals must be able to meet their cultural and linguistic needs.

Prior to the pandemic, mental health was already worsening in conditions of containment as described by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) when working on the Greek Islands, where individuals are “held in the hotspots for increasingly lengthy periods, ranging from 6 months to 1.5 years” […] after fleeing war and persecution where “many are survivors of violence or torture and have faced adversity in their home countries or during migration routes”.[27]

In June 2019, the Greek government even removed access for asylum seekers and undocumented migrants in Greece to obtain a social security number, which means that over the last year thousands of asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, and undocumented migrants have not been able to access free health care or other social services, which are essential after experiencing SGBV.[28] Refugee and migrant health was not analyzed in the Global Refugee Forum in December 2019 and furthermore, the EU Commission has been largely absent in considering how restrictive migration policies have a direct impact on migrant health.[29] Rather, the focus remains on how to protect borders rather than a commitment to universal human rights.

The risk of COVID-19’s spread becomes even higher for this population because many migrants are often excluded from national programmes for health promotion, disease prevention, treatment and care,[30] while often living in overcrowded conditions with inadequate access to proper sanitation.

Refugee camps are “spatially organized so as to reinforce women’s gendered insecurities, for instance, in terms of the location of hygiene facilities and accommodation”.[31] This lack of basic facilities and privacy can cause physical, mental, and emotional harm.[32] Close confinement increases the risk of intimate partner violence, while worsening economic conditions increase the risk of sexual exploitation, particularly for women and girls. The quarantine imposed by COVID-19 only serves to increase these risks. A gendered approach is thus essential to respond effectively to SGBV, particularly as it pertains to forced migration.

While EU and global institutions, such as the UNHCR have attempted to create guidelines and a process to support female migrants who have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence, the individual member-states of the EU are ultimately permitted to resolve or ignore the growing issue on their own. As governments respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the increase in risk of SGBV for displaced women must be highlighted, and essential mental and physical healthcare services must be prioritized.


Paloma Boucher is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where she specializes in conflict analysis and conflict resolution.



[1] UNHCR. “UNHCR Global Report 2005: Glossary.” Accessed April 8, 2019.
[2] Lotte De Schrijver, T. Vander Beken, B. Krahe, and I. Keygnaert, “Prevalence of Sexual Violence in Migrants, Applicants for International Protection, and Refugees in Europe: A Critical Interpretive Synthesis of the Evidence,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15, no. 9 (2018): 6.
[3] Breen, Duncan. “Abuses at Europe’s Borders.” Forced Migration Review no. 51 (2016): 21.
[4] Lotte De Schrijver, T. Vander Beken, B. Krahe, and I. Keygnaert, “Prevalence of Sexual Violence in Migrants, Applicants for International Protection, and Refugees in Europe: A Critical Interpretive Synthesis of the Evidence,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15, no. 9 (2018): 13.
[5] “Council Of Europe Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023.” Council of Europe. Accessed February 10, 2019, 15,
[6] Ibid., 30.
[7] Jane Freedman, “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugee Women: A Hidden Aspect of the Refugee “Crisis”,” Reproductive Health Matters 24, no. 47 (2016): 22.
[8] Ibid., 19.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ines Keygnaert and Aurore Guieu, “What the Eye Does Not See: A Critical Interpretive Synthesis of European Union Policies Addressing Sexual Violence in Vulnerable Migrants,” Reproductive Health Matters 23, no. 46 (2015): 52.
[13] Ibid., 338.
[14] Emma Wallis, “The ‘Salvini Decree’: Your Questions Answered.” InfoMigrants. April 01, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2019.
[15] Francesca Esposito, José Ornelas, Silvia Scirocchi, and Caterina Arcidiacono, “Voices from the Inside: Lived Experiences of Women Confined in a Detention Center,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 2 (2019): 409.
[16] Ibid., 410.
[17] Alison Gerard and Sharon Pickering, “Gender, securitization and transit: refugee women and the journey to the EU,” Journal of Refugee Studies 27, no. 3 (2013): 347.
[18] Francesca Esposito, José Ornelas, Silvia Scirocchi, and Caterina Arcidiacono, “Voices from the Inside: Lived Experiences of Women Confined in a Detention Center,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 2 (2019): 410.
[19] Rutvica Andrijasevic, “Sex on the Move: Gender, subjectivity and differential inclusion,” Subjectivity 29, no. 1 (2009): 393.
[20] Francesca Esposito, José Ornelas, Silvia Scirocchi, and Caterina Arcidiacono, “Voices from the Inside: Lived Experiences of Women Confined in a Detention Center,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 2 (2019): 411.
[21] Ibid., 413-414.
[22] Ibid., 418.
[23] Development Matters. “COVID-19: Consequences for International Migration and Development.” Development Matters, May 19, 2020.
[24] Heaven Crawley.“The Politics of Migration in a (Post) COVID-19 World.” Friends of Europe, May 28, 2020.
[25] World Economic Forum. “Will COVID-19 Change How We Think about Migration and Migrant Workers?” The European Sting. May 24, 2020.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Miriam Orcutt , Reem Mussa, Lucinda Hiam, Apostolos Veizis, Sophie McCann, Elisavet Papadimitriou, Aurelie Ponthieu, and Michael Knipper. “EU migration policies drive health crisis on Greek islands.” The Lancet 395, no. 10225 (2020): 668.
[28] Ibid., 669.
[29] Ibid.
[30] World Health Organization. Preparedness, prevention and control of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) for refugees and migrants in non-camp settings: interim guidance, 17 April 2020. No. WHO/2019-nCoV/Refugees_Migrants/2020.1.
[31] Ozcurumez, Saime, Selin Akyuz, and Hannah Bradby. “The Conceptualization problem in research and responses to sexual and gender-based violence in forced migration.” Journal of Gender Studies (2020): 9.
[32] Ibid.


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