Will the UN Global Compact on Refugees leave women and girls behind?

By Aleksandra Godziejewska, Head of Mission CARE Greece & Howard Mollett, Senior Policy Advisory, CARE UK


Will the UN Global Compact on Refugees leave women and girls behind? Findings from new CARE research in Greece on safe and legal routes for refugees from a women’s rights perspective

This week diplomats in Geneva meet to take stock in negotiations towards a new UN ‘Global Compact on Refugees’ at the UNHCR High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges (12th-13th December).

The Dialogue comes at a time of unprecedented forced displacement. Over recent months, we’ve seen the US administration pull out of the sister framework to this one – a proposed ‘Compact’ on migrants, and the EU refugee relocation scheme ended having largely failed to encourage other EU member states to share the responsibility for hosting refugees that came to Greece and Italy.

Every aspect of the current political failure to protect and assist refugees has specific impacts on displaced women and girls. Recommendations on the Compact have rightly highlighted the gaps and weaknesses in aid efforts to address their needs. But women and girls fleeing violence and persecution are also being failed by the legal protection that is, or is not, provided to them.

To coincide with the Dialogue, CARE publishes new research from Greece and elsewhere which highlights how the failure to provide safe and legal routes for refugees, in particular family reunion, has gendered impacts on women and girls left stranded in countries of transit.

Please go to ‘Left Behind – How the world is failing women and girls on refugee family reunion’ to read the full report.

However some of its key findings include:

  • Firstly, while there has been rightly much attention to the fate of unaccompanied children and the obstacles they face in family reunion, we found that over 86.5% of the cases facilitated by NGO partners in Greece of single-parent households seeking family reunification are female-headed households. Narrow interpretation of 'the family' by EU member states means many refugee women and girls remain stranded in legal limbo in Greece.
  • Secondly, we uncovered that cases of GBV survivors which could be eligible for humanitarian protection and relocation under the Discretionary Clause of Dublin III are not even submitted to other EU member states, anticipating that they won’t be accepted. The reluctance amongst EU member states to share responsibility in hosting refugees is shameful, and it means that survivors of sexual violence are left often in unhealthy and unsafe refugee camp conditions.
  • Thirdly, all this is compounded by the lack of sufficient staff to undertake the vulnerability assessments of refugees – which are so critical to ensuring that they can access appropriate assistance and protection. Again this impacts on survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) as such violence remains largely unseen and poorly responded to in terms of both aid and legal protection. Indeed this has arguably got worse as the EU has sought to scale-down the emergency response shifting from funding humanitarian organizations to channeling funds through the Greek authorities. So in the Moria camp on Lesvos, there were fifteen medical professionals trained on GBV and vulnerability assessments which has reportedly now reduced to just five. While we welcome and support steps towards increased government-run response, a coordinated gender sensitive transition plan should be still developed and its proper smooth implementation ensured.
  • Fourth, our research also complements that by UNW which highlights how inconsistent EU member state decision-making on gender-related persecution is in national asylum systems. There’s an irony here in that it is EU member states that have really championed UN Security Council Resolution 1820 on the conflict-related dimension of GBV. The past year has again shown a light on horrific incidents of sexual slavery and other abuses of displaced women and girls in Nigeria, Iraq and Syria. Yet gender-related persecution remains a blind-spot in the asylum policies and practices of too many governments. What’s more, in the absence of safe and legal routes, refugee women and girls have been forced to undertake irregular journeys to rejoin their family, which makes them more vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of exploitation. It’s a vicious cycle as the criminalisation of those irregular journeys means that refugee women feel less able to turn to formal institutions for help.

So as diplomats, UN officials and activists negotiate the UN Global Compact on Refugees, we call on them to ensure it delivers on legal protection for refugee women and girls. The full report offers more detailed points, but we highlight two key ones of global relevance here:

1. Safeguard and expand opportunities for refugee family reunion. For women and girls to benefit from this, governments need to interpret ‘the family’ to include a wider range of family members with links of care and dependency, not just spouses and small children.

2. Open up other legal routes for refugees to reach a place of safety, such as student and work visas, and scale up global refugee resettlement efforts with criteria based on need for protection, rather than nationality, faith or other arbitrary factors. Asylum and refugee policies should be reformed to bring greater clarity and consistency in how cases of gender-related persecution are addressed.

We are now in a situation where in Europe – the wealthiest continent in the world – aid workers are asked to provide adult-nappies to women and girls in refugee camps because they are afraid of sexual violence and harassment if they walk alone to the bathroom at night. Sadly, when we look to other major displacement crises, this failure to protect is not exceptional. All this said, the research for ‘Left Behind’ was undertaken in partnership with Melissa, the Network of Migrant Women in Greece. Refugee women shouldn’t just be seen or treated as victims or passive beneficiaries, as they too often are. They have dignity, resources and their own ideas on how to better address forced displacement. The UN Global Compact on Refugees needs to change this picture, and it needs to listen to them.

For more on our work in Greece, click here.