‘Most refugees are women, yet media ignore them’

by Jane Whyatt, research by Ola Aljari

The latest statistics on refugees fleeing to Europe show that most of them are women. From last year’s 41 percent, the number rose to 55 percent. According to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, Filipo Grandi, “nearly two-thirds are women and children”. Yet a hard-hitting official study detailing the trauma and sexual violence these women face has attracted almost no media coverage.

Honeyball_900 Marie Dorigny (left) and Mary Honeyball. At the Brussels launch of her report, Honeyball also opened an exhibition of photographs by Dorigny, showing women fleeing from Syria and Eritrea along the Balkan route to northern Europe. (Photo source: European Parliament)

The study was debated at the European Parliament and MEPs voted to adopt its findings by 18 to 10. It was presented by the member of European Parliament and London Labour Member Mary Honeyball, of the Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. She was surprised at the silence of the British press and disappointed that European media also widely ignored the study and debate.

How media covered the study on female refugees

One Venezuelan news portal announced the study had been deemed an example of ‘hypocrisy’:

The Scottish website for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Intersexual people KaleidoScot headlined its story as “European Parliament Demands Protection for LGBTI refugees” rather than women in general:

The study describes widespread sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking, dangerous and unsuitable accommodation, and asylum interviews where women are not able to describe the horrors they are fleeing and are experiencing on their journey.

Mary Honeyball explains: “They haven’t appeared really in the story at all. The media didn’t want to get involved with my report, the women are not part of the narrative and yet they are the majority now.”

Gender-based problems

Honeyball says the truth about female refugees’ experiences often remains hidden. For example, their official documents are usually held by male family members or husbands so that they cannot prove their identity or place of origin. People-smugglers may use threats, violence or sexual coercion. The women may be interviewed with their children present. Or they would feel ashamed to tell a male immigration officer about sexual assaults. And their cultural beliefs might not allow them to be examined by a male doctor or nurse. Typical accommodation for new arrivals in Europe does not guarantee privacy or safety for women.

For these reasons, the report recommends:

  • Trauma counselling
  • Separate bathrooms, toilets and sleeping areas for men and women
  • Female doctors and nurses for medical checks
  • Childcare during asylum interviews
  • Women asylum officers and female translators to do the interviews

At the Brussels launch of the report, Honeyball also opened an exhibition of photographs by Marie Dorigny. They show women fleeing from Syria and Eritrea along the Balkan route to northern Europe. Honeyball believes that pictures can have an international impact, and recalls the image of drowned toddler Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach.

We see all the pictures which are just awful and shock tactics, but we need more of a narrative. We need to interpret the pictures, to explain what’s going on.

Mary Honeyball hopes to raise awareness of the conditions for female refugees in the coming months, and the photography exhibition runs until June 2016 at the Brussels Parlamentarium.