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"Women refugees and asylum seekers in the European Union." Ceremony to mark International Women's Day. Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Chamber of the European Parliament, Strasbourg, 8 March 2016

Speeches and statements

"Women refugees and asylum seekers in the European Union." Ceremony to mark International Women's Day. Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Chamber of the European Parliament, Strasbourg, 8 March 2016

9 March 2016

Mr. President,

Thank you for welcoming me here. It is an honour for me to be here with you today to mark International Women's Day and to speak about it from the perspective of the United Nations refugee organization.

Honourable members of Parliament,

Last month, I was on the Greek island of Lesvos where I saw the Hellenic Coast Guard bringing in a boat it had just rescued at sea. The boat was carrying 200 people. Most were women with children, some of them very small, many elderly and a few sick people. As they were disembarking I spoke with several of them and they told me stories of the conflicts they fled from in Syria or Afghanistan, the dangers of their journey and worries about what the future would bring. They were just one of many examples of today's global displacement crises.

Over 60 million people worldwide have been forced to flee - on average 42,500 are forced to flee from their homes every day. Half of them are women. Even though the vast majority of these uprooted people, 86 per cent, are on other continents, Europe is now also seeing record numbers of refugees, and migrants, arriving on its shores.

As you know very well, in 2015, a million people arrived in Europe, crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy dinghies and flimsy boats. We have all seen the images of the piles of discarded life jackets on the Greek beaches of those who survived the perilous journey. More than 3,700 people did not make it: a tragic testimony of our collective failure to properly address their plight.

This year, to date, 138,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Southern Europe. In public opinion, the image is often that of young single men arriving in Europe to look for work. Today, on International Women's Day, I wish to report instead that nearly two-thirds are women and children, up from last year's 41 per cent.

Take for example Fatima, who fled the war in Syria. She was found in a state of shock in the port of the Greek island of Samos. She was severely traumatized and injured. She had suffered violence at the hands of the man she had been travelling with. She was taken to a hospital for treatment and there she revealed that her husband had entrusted her and their young daughter to a man she did not know to get her to a safe country in Europe. During the journey the man confiscated all their travel documents, mobile phone and money. He abused Fatima and denied her direct contact with her husband.

Fatima is just one of thousands of women and girls who are making the journey on their own, fleeing violence and persecution only to face a similar ordeal on their way to Europe, a place where they had hoped and expected to find sanctuary. Many desperate people worldwide view Europe as a safe and prosperous place that stands up for human rights and welcomes refugees; most, for lack of better, safer alternatives choose the services of smugglers at their great risk.

Let me also be clear on an important fact that is often overlooked: the majority of the people arriving in Europe, 88 per cent, come from the world's top 10 refugee producing countries. Chief among them: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Eritrea and Somalia. This has been and essentially remains a refugee movement. The number of women and children among them is increasing rapidly, as I have said, and many travel without male relatives. We also see a large number of pregnant women, or women with babies and small children among the arrivals. A recent UNHCR study found that 20 per cent of the Syrians arriving in Greece were families headed by women, without husband or father. Just as Fatima, these women and children are exposed to abuse and sexual violence at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers or are at great risk when they travel along insecure routes, having to stay in places that lack basic security, such as parks, bus or train stations or at the road side.

In Greece, we have seen a rapid build-up of stranded refugees and migrants. Currently over 35,000, who (as a result of border closures in the Western Balkans) have been denied access into the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This has had a direct impact on women and girls, who are suffering disproportionately and are at great risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking.


We at UNHCR, with our partners, support local authorities in all affected areas to improve reception conditions and to provide assistance to people in need. We have taken measures to reduce risks and help women along the way. Many reception areas and transit points now have separate facilities for women and children. Together with UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, we have set up 20 Child and Family support hubs. These hubs, also known as "Blue Dots", provide a safe place for women and children, where they can find all available services and information about their options in a single location. The hubs aim to help vulnerable women and children on the move and mitigate the risks of trauma, violence exploitation and trafficking.

However, honourable members of Parliament, we need more than a humanitarian response. On other continents, countries with far less means than Europe have been responding to much larger movements of people forced to leave their homes, and continue to do so. In this very Chamber, exhortations to States around the world to treat refugees according to principles and in an organized manner have resonated many times. Such exhortations now apply to Europe. This emergency does not have to be crisis, it can be managed.

As you know, yesterday the European Union Heads of State or Government met with Turkey on the onward movement of refugees and migrants to Europe. We were not party to these conversations and understand that discussions on the details are still ongoing.

But as a first reaction, I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law.

An asylum-seeker should only be returned to a third state, if the responsibility for assessing the particular asylum application in substance is assumed by the third country; the asylum-seeker will be protected from refoulement; and if the individual will be able to seek and, if recognized, enjoy asylum in accordance with accepted international standards, and have full and effective access to education, work, health care and, as necessary, social assistance.

These safeguards would need to be set out legally and would need to govern any mechanism under which responsibility would be transferred for assessing an asylum claim. Pre-departure screening would also need to be in place to identify heightened risk categories that may not be appropriate for return even if the above conditions are met.

Turkey is already hosting nearly 3 million refugees and it is important for the international community to share this responsibility more widely. We welcome, of course, any initiative that promotes regular pathways of admission for refugees in significant numbers from all neighbouring countries in the region - not just Turkey and not just Syrian refugees - to third countries. We hope that this will happen and apply to the other countries in the region that also host a considerable number of refugees, such as Lebanon and Jordan.

In fact, UNHCR has been calling on States to increase the different legal routes for the admission of Syrian refugees, so that they do not have to resort to people smugglers and to dangerous journeys. These pathways include resettlement, humanitarian admission, private sponsorship and refugee-friendly family reunion, as well as student scholarships and labour mobility schemes.

A key opportunity to advance these solutions for Syrian refugees will be on 30 March, in Geneva, where UNHCR will convene a High-level meeting on global responsibility sharing through pathways for admission of Syrian refugees. States will be invited to pledge concrete commitments to opening such pathways. We hope that 10 percent of the Syrian refugee population in the region, which currently stands at 4.7 million, can benefit from these pathways.

I still believe that to properly address the flow of refugees and migrants in Europe we need a coordinated European response, based on solidarity, political leadership and the sharing of responsibilities to stabilize the situation and manage the movement of people more effectively. Last Friday, we presented a set of practical proposals to the European Union and its member States that would help achieve that. These proposals remain valid.

They focus on improving registration and referral processes, including the relocation schemes within Europe. It remains imperative that relocation works and that the necessary places are made available. We also need to boost the emergency response capacity in Greece. UNHCR is on the ground with the support of the European Commission, for which we are grateful, and with partners, working with the Greek authorities, and we continue to expand our support.

Finally and looking forward, we must build on the lesson we have learned. It is important to strengthen compliance with and uphold the standards of the Common European Asylum System, even in times of emergency. It is of paramount importance to prevent further suffering and loss of life to strengthen protection safeguards for people at risk, in particular women and unaccompanied children. This includes improving search and rescue operations, developing coordinated systems to protect and help unaccompanied children, and establishing measures to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.

We need a new approach to develop an effective European asylum system, not only to manage the current refugee and migrant movement, but also for the future. We have to ensure that member States located at the external borders of the European Union will not continue to bear the disproportionate burden in addressing immediate reception needs. The solidarity that is so essential today for Greece and Italy, may well be required for other States in the future.

Honourable members of Parliament,

Next week, the conflict in Syria will enter its sixth year. More than 4.7 million people have sought asylum in the region, 6.5 million people are internally displaced. Inside Syria, it is estimated that 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 4.5 million in hard-to-reach areas. With the cessation of hostilities now holding for 10 days, the United Nations, including UNHCR, have been able to deliver some much-needed humanitarian aid to people who have suffered years of war and deprivation.

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring countries, despite the generosity of host governments and communities, Syrian refugees are facing increasingly difficult living conditions after five years in exile. A recent study we conducted with the World Bank found that in Jordan and Lebanon, 90 per cent of the Syrian refugees are living under the national poverty line, as they have little access to legal work and many, by now, have depleted any resources they had brought with them.

At last month's International Conference on Supporting Syria and the Region that was held in London, the international community pledged nearly 10 billion Euro for activities that are meant help the refugees and the host communities, to improve education and livelihood opportunities. States must now honour the pledges made at the conference in a timely manner. We cannot afford any delay in stabilizing the refugee and host communities in the region and we need to take advantage of the window of opportunity given to us by the cessation of hostilities in Syria.

But Syria is not the only country in the region beset by violence. In 2015, the escalation of violence in Iraq resulted in waves of new displacement. During the last two years alone, nearly 3.3 million people have been displaced across the country. Sixteen percent of the people arriving in Europe today are from Iraq.

And after more than three decades, Afghans remain one of the largest refugee populations in the world, with some 2.6 million registered refugees. The vast majority of them live in Pakistan and Iran. An upsurge in violence in the second half of 2015 caused significant levels of displacement inside the country and across the border, including many unaccompanied children who try to reach Europe. Today, in Afghanistan, 31 out of 34 provinces are affected by conflict, with more than one million people registered as internally displaced, an increase of 78 per cent compared to last year. Twenty-five percent of the people arriving in Europe are Afghans, and many have urgent protection needs.

Elsewhere in the world, conflict continues to disrupt lives and uproot people. Our refugee programmes in Africa remain severely underfunded, while the number of wars and displaced people increases rapidly: northern Nigeria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Burundi, just to name a few. The Horn of Africa remains the theatre of multiple displacement situations, especially Somali refugees. In many of the protracted displacement situations in Africa, however, we can hardly give the refugees more, and even sometimes we give them less than the bare minimum to survive. In many countries they are not allowed to work legally, so they remain dependent on very scarce aid.

In South-East Asia, in the Bay of Bengal, more than 33,600 refugees and migrants, mostly Rohingya and Bangladesh nationals took to smugglers boats last year. Many died; the majority not from drowning as we see in the Mediterranean sea, but from abuse at the hands of people smugglers, abandonment and disease.

We also have a very specific refugee crisis in Central America, where thousands of Salvadorians, Hondurans and Guatemalans are fleeing deadly gang violence. And again, International Women's Day is an opportunity to remember that most of them are women and children. They use the traditional migration routes going north to find safety and a future, but many are indeed refugees fleeing violence, extortion and persecution.

In a world riddled with conflict, mass population movement is a reality. Building fences and walls to keep people out is not a solution. It will only increase the suffering of people who have already suffered the unimaginable. And women everywhere are among the most exposed. In the face of massive displacement and arrivals, very often the first reaction of politicians is to resort to scaremongering. Manipulation of public opinion and inciting hate against those who are different are unacceptable. A real response can only be based on solidarity and human rights, on responsibility sharing and respect for international law.


Today we celebrate the many achievements we have made on the road to gender equality and the participation of women in social, economic and political life since the International women's Day was first observed in 1975. It is also a moment to think about the long way ahead to reach full parity.

But it is equally a day on which to reflect on the fact that discrimination and exclusion, because of ethnicity, religion and gender are the root causes of conflict and persecution and ultimately forced displacement.

In 27 countries for example, women still do not have the same rights as men to confer their nationality to their children. Many of the women arriving in Europe come from these countries, including Syria and Iraq. That means that if the fathers are missing or there is no proof of paternal descent, their children will not have a nationality and are at risk of becoming stateless. This may affect access to health care and education, and affect their ability to return home when conditions allow.

Honourable members of Parliament,

As we have said and heard countless times in the past 25 years: there are no humanitarian solutions to the political problems that are the root causes of massive forced displacement. There are no humanitarian solutions to the intractable wars, the upsurge in violence and the oppression and lack of governance in many parts of the world. We need political leadership and action, both to resolve the conflicts that cause displacement and to make sure that people like Fatima and her little daughter can find the protection and safety they need, without having to resort to criminal networks and smugglers who abuse and exploit them.

These are not abstract concepts about which to make abstract statements. These are real, brutal facts which only courageous political leadership and considerate, forward-looking decisions based on international cooperation, respect for human rights, solidarity between states and a renewed sense of humanity can counter and redress.

Europe is facing a moment of truth. This is the time to reaffirm the values upon which it was built.

Thank you, Mr. President.