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Report says young refugees suffer abuse after arrival in Europe

News Stories, 18 February 2008

© Nederlandstalige Vrouwenraad/Rita Van Gool
Two of the report's researchers at the meeting in Ghent.

BRUSSELS, Belgium, February 18 (UNHCR) A study conducted in Belgium and the Netherlands has found that young female and male refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are extremely vulnerable to several types of gender-based violence.

The survey, entitled "Hidden Violence is a Silent Rape," was presented at a well-attended international seminar organized last Thursday and Friday by the University of Ghent's International Centre for Reproductive Health, which coordinated the research. UNHCR staff attended the meeting and chaired a workshop.

A team of 13 female and eight male refugees and migrants conducted the groundwork, interviewing 233 refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrants hailing from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and the former Soviet Union as well as the Roma and Kurdish communities.

They found that a majority of those interviewed had either suffered from some form of gender-related violence since arriving in Europe or knew of other people who had been abused. These people all remained vulnerable because of the lack of information and a social network as well as their uncertain status during the asylum procedure.

Among the respondents, 57 said they did not know anybody who had been victimized since his or her arrival in Europe, but 166 said they did and they described 332 cases of gender-based violence. Of this number, 87 respondents (39 percent) said they were personally victimized, while 229 of the cited victims were known to a respondent.

The report categorized 206 cases (62 percent) as emotional-psychological violence, 188 cases (56.6 percent) as sexual violence, 157 cases (47.3 percent) as physical violence, 112 cases (33.7 percent) as socio-economic violence and 47 cases (14.2 percent) as traditional harmful practices.

The cases of sexual violence were broken down into sexual intimidation (89 cases), sexual abuse (40 cases), rape/sodomy (111 cases) and sexual exploitation (40 cases).

In one case highlighted in the report, a young Ukrainian asylum seeker said she had been drugged and raped at the age of 18 by her mother's lover in a camp near the Belgian city of Antwerp. "I threw up along the bedside," said the girl, who alleged that she was repeatedly raped by the man and his friends after that.

"We were not the only ones, there were other girls in the camp who were subjected to that, but nobody dared to react out of fear of being deported afterwards," added the victim.

The report also raises concerns about abuses allegedly committed by people in authority. A total 87 cases, or about one in four, were blamed on persons in charge or authorities, including 13 allegedly committed by service providers in the asylum procedure. In some 34 percent of the reported incidents, Belgians or Dutch people were accused.

In one case carried in the report, a Somali living in the Netherlands broke his leg in an attempt to escape from a detention centre where migrants were held before deportation. He claimed that police and security officers kicked his broken leg and let it dangle from the stretcher and brush against the wall as he was moved. He alleged ill-treatment, including being punched by a security officer, during an attempt to deport him.

"The stories are shocking," said Anne Van Lancker, a Belgian socialist member of the European Parliament who attended last week's meeting. "It is unbelievable that this is also happening in reception centres. Many [European Union] member states take the minimum standards for maximum standards."

Blanche Tax, UNHCR's Brussels-based European Affairs Officer, suggested that the numbers could even be on the low side because some people might be too ashamed to complain about sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The report indicated that a lot of work needed to be done in Europe to tackle the problem.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has put a priority on addressing the issue of SGBV. He noted earlier this month that UNHCR had last year helped reduce SGBV by supporting women's shelters and identifying foster families for unaccompanied children. He also announced that he was directing another US$7.5 million this year to fight malaria and SGBV and improve reproductive health and nutrition.

By Aintzane de Aguirre in Brussels, Belgium




UNHCR country pages

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

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