Podcast 5: Gender and Forced Migration

Mariam age 16 years from Cote D'Ivoire worked as a fish seller in the local market. She wants to continue her education in Europe as she could no longer afford to pay for school fees. In her spare time she said she loves to read fashion magazines and soend time at the beach with her friends

Welcome to the MOAS podcast where we want to include you in what we do, to explore different angles of migration, and help you to better understand the people we save. Below you can hear an exploration on the interaction between gender and forced migration, with the transcript following.

Hello and welcome to the latest podcast from MOAS.

When we talk about the reasons people are forced to migrate, have you ever wondered why a male or a female flees and what they experience on their journey to safety?

Well, this week’s episode delves deeper into gender and its role in forced migration.

To discuss this topic we spoke to former Angolan refugee, doctoral student and freelance writer Lucia Kula and Senior Advocacy Officer for the Women’s Refugee Commission, Marcy Hersh.

Lucia Kula approaches Gender and its connection to forced migration through studying how it has influenced women’s rights and role in her former country Angola.

The sub-Saharan country has witnessed almost 40 years of post-colonial conflict and civil war.  This instability forced Lucia and her family to flee for the Netherlands when she was almost 9.

She started by telling us why she thinks women face more gender-based violence then men during conflict…

I think more generally that women are seen as the weaker gender not necessarily true but we’re seen as those who are without protection during conflict. We are also usually the carers for children and the elderly and other family members, so women are more exposed to harms because they bigger risks. Usually during conflict and displacement, men are at the front fighting or for some reason incarcerated so women are the ones who stay behind, women are the ones who deal with the first aspect of danger, the first aspect of violence and then having to flee.

Do you think the international humanitarian community is doing enough for women refugees?

I don’t think that enough has been done effectively, because I think the biggest problem for the international community is combining efforts.  So I think that having to work together and knowing where help is actually needed is the biggest problem. We have so many organisations that are doing different things that don’t always connect to each other and don’t always know where help is actually needed the most. So in that case, a lot of resources are lost to those who need them the most and they don’t get to the core issues of the problem. So there’s been enough help. People are motivated enough to help but often enough they don’t know how to help, and I think that’s the biggest issue. It’s not about how many funds are being donated, it’s not about how many people are willing to help its actually about where help is needed the most.

Where is help needed the most?

I think if we’re looking at the coverage that we have in the news now, we’re tending to focus more on the Middle East region, we’re tending to focus more on Syria, Yemen not so much but also a little bit. But Africa is really lost in this narrative because the only thing we’re talking about is famine; we’re talking about that millions of people could die of famine, but we’re not about the violence that is still emerging in a lot of regions, we’re not talking about Boko Haram, we’re not talking about South Sudan, we’re not talking about the DRC. It’s really discouraging for those who are working in these regions to see that a lot of the efforts that have been going on there has not been noted and a lot of the issues that are still going on there are not being reported on. So I don’t think that it takes away from talking about these countries. It doesn’t take away from what’s happening in Syria, it doesn’t take away from what’s happening in Afghanistan, it doesn’t take away from what’s happening in other regions if you include the other parts of the world.

There is a body of evidence that shows that women are experiencing considerable hardship trying to make lives for themselves and their families in European countries because the process is so slow and impacts on their ability to find work and educate  their children.  From your experience, what kind of things did you witness or experience moving to and growing up in the Netherlands?

One of the main issues that people don’t understand is the complexity of violence.. Violence doesn’t necessarily mean that you experienced physical violence. So for me, growing up the Netherlands there was a lot of violence that was emotional. There was a lot of violence that was emotional towards myself and towards my mother because you need to understand that when a person moves to a different country there is this whole aspect of new experiences and new exposures to new things, a new culture, a new language, and when you’re not fully supported in this transition to this new world it can also be seen as act of violence towards yourself because in a way you’re lost, in a way there’s not enough support, especially when you’re deprived of basic things as the right to work and the right to education which happened to my own  family.

We lived in the Netherlands for 14 years without a resident permit, which meant my mother couldn’t work which meant that mother wasn’t allowed to learn the language until she had permanent residency. So this means, in essence, that your life is put on hold for 14 years. So this means you’re not allowed to broaden this new aspect of your life and explore new opportunities and new ways to heal yourself, because you’re coming from a conflict space, you’re still dealing with the trauma and aftermath of it, but you’re also not getting enough support in this new environment, you’re not getting enough opportunities to explore new ways of healing.

Have things improved though?

I’m very in touch with what’s going on in the Netherlands, in Europe as well. I think things have improved definitely in the sense that some people are allowed to work a lot sooner in their transition from refugee to asylum seeker, so that is definitely a plus, but there is still a lot of stigma behind the label of asylum seeker or refugee. So in that sense not much has changed, but people know more about what it means to be a refugee. So I think it’s a positive thing that  – probably because of the refugee crisis in Syria – we’re talking more about refugees and asylum and what it means to be a refugee. So the information is out there for people are willing to learn about what it means to be a refugee, because when I was growing  up there was still a stigma behind being an asylum seeker: ‘What are you? What does that mean? Are you poor? Do you have a country, do you have a nationality? Do you have a passport?’ All these things. But I think people are more aware of the other aspect of coming from conflict and fleeing your country, and that it’s not always people fleeing for economic reasons.

Judy El Bushra argues that conflict and disaster tilts the roles of men and women.  Women take on more leadership and initiative roles protecting families.  International humanitarian agencies should alter the focus on their assistance projects along gender lines. Having the leverage behind them means there are lasting reforms of gender relations (the breakdown of traditional patriarchy) and future opportunities for women. 

Is this a practical proposal?

I don’t think it’s a practical proposal because the experience of women and girls in a conflict situation is always described as women being victims. It’s not usually described as women being very important actors in peace-building and reconstruction and also in defining what are gender roles in conflict, because often enough we forget that men are also victims of conflict, men are also victims of rape, victims of sexual violence. Men are also usually victims but they tend to not talk about it as women would because in a way it takes away from their manhood, it takes away from their leadership position in the family structure. So looking at how women are perceived in conflict spaces, or how international agencies play a role in what they fund, is very important because if you’re looking at for example regions such as the DRC where international agencies put their money mostly behind projects like sexual violence its important but its not all that is happening in the DRC. And I think for a big part you will get that people would only have this narrative, that the DRC is already called the rape capital of the world, because this is the only narrative that is presented to the world not knowing that behind the structures of sexual violence, behind the structures of gender-based violence there is more. Women can also be perpetrators and men can also be victims. So focusing on the breakdown of patriarchy and gender reforms is important in the way that we look at violence and gender in general.


Taking a more analytical view, we turn now to Marcy Hersh, Senior Advocacy Officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Her research is part of a larger investigation into the experiences of female refugees migrating to Europe.

The findings revealed not only a high level of on-going sexual violence encountered along the journey but also a need for changes to the setup of refugee camps…

You were investigating refugee camps in Serbia and Slovenia… why did you focus your research there?

So basically in 2015 and 2016, the Women’s Refugee Commission decided to undertake a series of assessments to understand the plight of refugee women and girls who were taking part in the large scale migration throughout Europe. Serbia and Slovenia were two of the focus countries, but we visited Greece, Macedonia, Germany, Sweden and Turkey as well as part of four different assessment missions that we did last year.

What kinds of violence towards female refugees did you identify in the camps?

Well I would say that violence against women was a consistent factor throughout the journey that they made; in fact, for many it was the reason for their journey in the first place.  So I spoke to refugees who were coming from Syria, refugees who were coming from sub-Saharan Africa who explained to me that the reason they left their home countries and crossed international borders was because of the threat of or experience of gender-based violence they experienced in their home country.  Specifically, the threat of child marriage and the threat of sexual violence were the two types that we heard of the most that were the reasons for the journey.

Then along the journey we heard that women experienced a variety of different types of gender-based violence.  Many described being forced to engage in transactional sex for passage along the journey. The form that often took was smugglers – or those facilitating their voyage – forcing women to engage in sexual acts to be able to get false documents or passage on boats or trains to be able to continue their journey.  In addition to transactional sex, women also told us about sexual violence that took place along the route sometimes at the hands of other refugees, sometimes at the hands of the host community and they also told us about domestic violence.  As you can imagine, the journey was incredibly stressful with the number of intense moments along the way and this creates fractures and stressors within the family unit which we have found which increased intimate partner violence.  These were the main types of violence which we heard about.

Can you give us a sense of what it was like in the camps you visited and what they were like for women and girl refugees?

So to be clear the ‘camps’ that we visited, the only place where there truly were camps was in Greece and that continues to be the case today as far as I understand.  Greece maintains several dozen refugee camps throughout its mainland where refugees are accommodated.  These camps are quite small in relation to the global practice of setting up refugee camps, which would generally have larger camps hosting more than just a few 100 people.  The camps in Greece in comparison are quite small; some have just as few as 150 people in them.  It’s really quite a struggle both for the Greek government and for the international humanitarian organisations operating in Greece to set up each of these small camps with all of the services that refugees require.  What this looks like in practice oftentimes from our perspective was insufficient services in place for refugees.  Refugee women and girls, specifically, told us that they had insufficient access to safe places to shower, safe places to use the toilet: often those spaces were not separated between men and women, and girls told us they felt unsafe using them.

Women and pregnant women in particular told us that they weren’t able to get enough healthy nutritious food and this was particularly true for women who were feeding more than just themselves, who were pregnant or had recently had a baby and were nursing.  This is really a serious challenge.  Most people were living in small tents which were made quite famous this past winter and the world saw them covered in snow, and people living in quite inhumane conditions in tents underneath the snow.  So really I think from a service delivery perspective, from a protection perspective and then from just a basic human rights perspective the camps in Greece leave a lot to be desired for the treatment of refugee women and children.

If we were to start from scratch, what would you need in place?

So when we’re thinking about a camp setting which I think is maybe the easiest way to begin to wrap our heads around this idea of starting from scratch and starting off on the right foot for refugee women and girls.  All of the organizations that are going to be working together in that refugee camp to set things up and design the camp, they should begin the process of designing the camp by having conversations with all of the residents about the kinds of services that they need and where women and girls in particular would like services to be offered and how they should be offered.  So a few practical examples of what that looks like.  If you ask women and girls where they feel most safe within the space of a camp, going to the latrines and setting up the latrines in those spaces.  You’ll have things set up the right way from the beginning and women and girls will feel safe using those latrines.  If you don’t set that up and have those conversations from the start and set up those latrines in a place where women and girls don’t feel safe then they are not going to use them and this will lead to a variety of public health concerns if the women are not using the latrines that are set up.

Comparably, you need to speak to women and girls about where food distribution should be organized and what time of day and this would be based on their understanding of the times of day when they feel most safe moving around the camp, and where they feel safe travelling to and accessing food.  Again, if you set this up the right women are just not going to access them.  So at the end of the day humanitarian aid if it’s going to be most effective needs to be set up in consultation with its primary users.  You can think about it from an economic perspective, if you don’t do any consultation with your customers about what their needs are then you’re going to deliver a product that doesn’t meet their needs and isn’t taken up effectively.  So if humanitarian aid wants to be its most effective you need to consult with the people who are standing to benefit from it, to make sure that its organized in a way that meets their needs.

You identified that CSOs, Civil Society Organisations were being under-utilised. How important are civil society organisations in working with female victims or sexual violence?  

Civil society organisations are the frontline first responders in every single humanitarian emergency all around the world.  They are the ones who are first on the scene and usually the ones who are able to respond effectively to humanitarian needs.  They arrive well before the international organisations get their act together and show up and they also stay a lot longer after those international organisations leave. So I would say that civil society’s organisation’s participation in refugee response is absolutely critical.  Last year in Istanbul there was the World Humanitarian summit which was this massive effort of bringing together the international community to understand how better to address displacement crises all around the world. One of the number one take-aways from the Humanitarian Summit is that we all need to do a better job of localizing the response, which means investing  in civil society organisations.  There’s very important work that the international community can do to build the capacity of civil society organisations to resource them, to be able to meet the needs that are placed upon them when a crisis strikes.

But I would say that we can’t underestimate the power of civil society organisations to be the most important responders in humanitarian crises.  In the European response in particular, we found that many EU member state governments were reluctant to allow their civil society organisations from the host community to work directly with refugees and we found this to be unfortunate because there were such intense needs  in the refugee population –  particularly along the lines of the needs that refugee women and girls have – and here were numerous civil society organizations who were at the ready, who wanted to help, who wanted to engage who wanted to support refugee communities and were held back from doing so and which was truly unfortunate because it meant that refugee populations suffered needlessly while help was kept from them.

You talk about in the report how smugglers and traffickers existed on the outskirts of the camps offering safe passage but the prices and risks were high.  Do smugglers extend the violence towards women and girl refugees?

It’s a little bit hard to say.  There’s been insufficient research done on the particular effects that smugglers and traffickers have had in this crisis.  We know that they’ve played a very strong role for many of the women that we spoke to and interviewed.  As I explained before, many women were forced to exchange sexual favours to smugglers in order to arrange transit from place to place along the route while the Western-Balkan route was still open, so in that case it was certainly nefarious.  For other refugees who were making the migration it seemed that others had more straightforward relationships with smugglers and were able to pay a fee and get from place to place.  So I think that we can’t make a wholesale pronouncement one way or another but we certainly can say that for refugee women and girls, smugglers were a source of danger.

Next time on the podcast we’ll be going inland and looking at the perilous crossing that migrants make through the Sahara desert. We’ll be finding out what it’s like, why people make the journey, and what some organisations are doing to encourage others to avoid it.

Until then you can follow us on our social media and check out our latest updates on facebook, twitter, instagram, youtube and now AudioBoom, or support our rescue missions by giving whatever you can to help us save lives at sea.

From all of us here at MOAS: goodbye.




This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained