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