EU must protect female refugees

Roughly 57 per cent of refugees now arriving to Europe are women and children, a trend which has been evident since the beginning of 2016.  These are the most vulnerable women in Europe. The EU must take appropriate actions to protect them.

As has been highlighted by the UN agencies, the EU and its member states have been failing to address the specific needs of female refugees within our borders. Today, the European Parliament adopted a report on female refugees and describes the very practical steps the EU and its member states can take to ensure their rights and health

Most female refugees begin their journey to Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They are not migrants, as many media reports refers to them. They are refugees desperately seeking sanctuary from the most brutal conflicts. Many are making the journey to Europe alone as they seek to join their husbands and family members who have already arrived on the continent.

By the time female refugees reach Europe, they will have already endured months if not years of exposure to violence, rape and sexual exploitation. These dangers are abundant while they remain in their war ravaged countries and on their journey to Europe. Numerous sources report that women are often forced into transactional sex by smugglers in exchange for travel documents.

Aside from the trauma of these crimes, victims are susceptible to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and unintended and unwanted pregnancy. The UNHCR reports that victims are in such haste to reach Europe that many will not delay their journey by reporting a crime or seeking appropriate medical attention. For this reason it is essential that reception centers in Europe are properly equipped and staffed to deal with their needs.

Access to contraception is extremely limited during conflict and on the refugee trail and the number of pregnant refugees arriving in Europe is roughly double the average amount of pregnancies in a regular population.

Pregnant refugees experience the same trauma, malnutrition, disease and violence as other refugees. Those pregnant women unfortunate enough to give birth while fleeing their homes have little chance of a medically assisted delivery. Most won’t be able even give birth in a hygienic environment. It is therefore no surprise that the refugee population suffers high levels of maternal morbidity and maternal mortality, as well as other risks to the health of mothers and newborns.

There are many obstacles to what the EU and its member states can do in protecting women and girl refugees while in their origin countries or on their journey to Europe. But once here, we have a legal and moral obligation to ensure their safety and their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

When female refugees arrive at European reception centers, they must have the appropriate facilities and systems to treat them properly. They should be medically assessed by a female doctor and be interviewed by a female official with a female interpreter.

We must also ensure that they are safe from violence, rape and sexual exploitation in these reception centers. At the very least, women need to have access to separate bathrooms, showers and sleeping arrangements in reception centers. For pregnant women and new mothers, quality antenatal and postnatal services must be provided.

The deficiencies of the EU in handling the refugee crisis are manifold, but nowhere has our response been more lacking than in how we have neglected female refugees. The European Parliament gave a clear message today to member states that women and girl refugees must be protected.

Heidi and Sophie in ‘t Veld, the co-chairs of the European parliament working group for sexual and reproductive health and rights