Reality of women on the move: Protection risks, concerns and challenges in response to the needs of women in transit

Prepared by: Aleksandra Davidovska

In 2015, more than 1 million individuals from Middle East, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa arrived in Europe. More than 800.000 (856.723) of those used the route going through the Western Balkans to reach destinations where they hope to find safety and asylum.  In 2016, as of November, 345 000 individuals fleeing war and persecution arrived on European ground, more than 170.000 (171 284) of those arrived in Greece. Since the closure of the Balkan Route and the enforcement of the EU-Turkey deal, the monthly arrivals to Greece have been not less than 1400 to almost 4000 registered new arrivals on the Greek islands and mainland. 58% of the arrivals in Greece in 2016 were women and children.

Since March 2016, 45 730 refugees have arrived in Greece.  18759 since April.

The Balkan Route is not closed. It was only transformed from being coordinated by governments, agencies and CSOs, to being coordinated by smugglers and traffickers, exposing the population to indisputable risks of exploitation, violence and extortion. Regular irregular movements of vulnerable population have been reported from all the Balkan countries since March 2016. Borders have been reinforced with fences and deployment of large numbers of police officers to protect borderline territories against irregular movements. Policies have been amended to foster instead of mitigate protection and security risks to vulnerable population in transit.

The protection risks that women and girls can face in their country of origin, related to war, armed conflict, persecution or SGBV, continue on route, during their feeing to safety. High risks of violence, extortion and exploitation, including rape, transactional sex, human and organ trafficking.  Fear of Men along the migration route is very common among women and girls. Especially men from different nationality. Women and girls, especially those travelling alone, face particularly high risks of sexual violence by smugglers, criminal groups and individuals in countries along the route. Risks related to the safety of the means of travel, such as the inflatable boats or walk on railway tracks, trucks and cargo trains are very high, and the population is often under threat of armed violence upon usage. The dangers of the journey often force the people to throw their belongings, including documents and money, into the sea.

The refugee women that use the irregular channels going through Macedonia and the Western Balkans are in imminent danger of various assaults, violence and kidnapping, or at best, they are in danger from the harsh environment, sleeping in forests and in open air on low temperatures, even arsenic wasteland and mine, drinking polluted water, not having access to medical care or emergency aid. Official reports of kidnappings, violence including sexual violence were never filled; fear of Police, detention and deportation is greater than the desire to access justice and protection when terrible acts occur. The desire to get to the safety of Europe, to reunite with husbands or other family is greater than pursuing the perpetrator that is also your travel facilitator, a person that will get you there. The reports of beatings and violence against women, as well as kidnappings in order to extort money from the families back in the country of origin by the travel facilitators was reported by agencies and CSOs working in Protection in subsequent countries or refugees that witnessed the violent occurrence because they were using the same travel facilitator.

Population already stranded for months is paying sums of 1200-2000eur and more to cross from one country to another. How do they obtain the resources to pay for this services if we know that the at the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016 the people fleeing trough the WB were more and more economically challenged.

LEGIS managed to open small mission on one of the main points of the smuggling/trafficking channel in the country, Lipkovo area, in August 2016, providing emergency aid, referrals and monitoring HR abuses and practices by authorities, followed by Red Cross that provides medical assistance in the area. Still, the protection concerns are not properly addressed in the area.

Protection risks for women, girls and other vulnerable groups are present at every stage of the European refugee migration; and at every point where risk could be mitigated, the opportunity to do so appears to be misused/wasted. Entry restrictions established by the countries on WB Route, discriminatory admission practices, borders declared closed, mass push-backs and deportations, and other mechanisms that discourage refugees’ right to seek asylum not only violate international law but also put these populations at heightened risk of SGBV, exploitation, death along the route, as refugees resort to smuggling channels.

The risk of police brutality at border crossings is quite high for women and girls. Allegations for brutality and beatings by Macedonian police were revealed in HRW report on Macedonia: “As though we are not human Beings” in 2015. My organization, LEGIS, was collaborator in gathering the information issued in this report, while advocating for resolving of the situation in the Detention center where large number of refugees were held w/o any access to rights and dignifying living conditions.

Risks of detention and abuse by police authorities were very high in 2015. Men, women, and children in search for international protection faced police violence and inhumane, degrading treatment and arbitrary detention in Macedonia in 2015. Until July 2015, Macedonia routinely and systematically detained migrants and asylum seekers—including children and pregnant women—in the Gazi Baba detention facility. After July, due to a change in the Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection, the numbers of those detained in the center dropped significantly. The purpose of detention was often to secure their testimony as witnesses in criminal proceedings, without respect to procedures and safeguards set out in international and regional human rights standards. Insulting and derogatory language was often used towards the detained, as well as gender specific violence and sexual harassment by guards. Formal complaints or reports of ill-treatment to authorities were not made mainly because of lack of knowledge of procedures by the detained women and girls and even more - fear of reprisal. Lack of fresh air, sanitary and hygiene products and general lack of conditions that ensure safety and dignity and paid access to basic products such as menstrual pads was reported by the detained women in 2015.

Discrimination on the basis of nationality and religion is a daily struggle to refugee women on the move and in camp situations, coming from authorities trough restriction of movement, between different national groups within the population on the move, but also from humanitarian workers and volunteers.

SGBV is both a reason why refugees and migrants are leaving countries of origin and first asylum and a reality along the refugee and migration route for women and girls.

Still, the perception of the authorities and the humanitarian actors is that SGBV is not a major feature of this crisis, due to lack of data on SBGV incidents. Victims of SGBV often avoid disclosing the experience and seeking assistance, which additionally reinforce the challenges in addressing the protection needs and gaps. Sexual harassment, physical assault, domestic violence, rape and transactional sex are some of the instances of SGVB that even though existent, are not being properly addressed.

One of the reasons for this is the lack of capacity and expertise among the humanitarian actors, trained staff to identify and address the needs of victims and provide psychosocial support, as well as the lack of support systems from the local governments to respond to SGBV concerns and ad hock response of protection concerns. In the first half of 2016, UNFPA tried to address this issue in Macedonia, by providing basic trainings to service providers working on field level, on the response to issues of sexual and reproductive health including the aspect of GBV, and special training for the health workers in clinical management of rape survivors: health care of victims, psycho-social support and gathering medical and forensic evidence for legal procedures.

The lack of dedicated safe space for women is also an issue, especially space for conducting confidential interviews. Gender related concerns have not always been taken into consideration in site planning, although the situation in Macedonia has been improved since the beginning of 2016. During the official transit phase, there was no protection actor present on the trains that were used to transfer the refugees from the south to the north of the country. Sexual violence to women during transport was reported by refugees, but no official reports were filed. Other issue for identification and assistance to victims of GBV is the limited availability of female translators on the variety of native languages of the refugee women. In order to provide counseling or conducting an interview with suspected victim, or just be able to share information on their native language, an NGO should use translators to 7 languages. In Macedonia Farsi/Dari translators were always lacking, not to mention Pashto/Urdu/Kurdish. The language/translators issue also affected the relevant information sharing, as well as the information about available services and the access to medical care. For ex. UNFPA donated two mobile gynecologic ambulances to the Ministry of Health for the usage of the two transit centers, that offer services for sexual and reproductive health of refugee women(family planning, antenatal care, treatment of STDs), as well as clinical treatment for victims of rape. Even though this service was available since April, many pregnant women reported not knowing when, where and how they can access this service.

Health and personal well-being is very challenged in pregnant and lactating women, who already have suffered physical and psychological stress in the process of fleeing, the risk of complications, preterm delivery or even death, or development of malnutrition disorders are very high. This is reinforced in women on the move by the reluctancy to seek medical services due to fear of detention, deportation or pushback, or because they don’t wish to delay the journey. In case of delivery in a transit country, the mother would often leave with the newborn after less than 24hours of giving birth. Pregnant or lactating women in camp situations have access to antenatal care since April, but the services related to nutrition, hygienic and other specific items are very limited. The infrastructure of the provisional transit centers, used as reception centers is inadequate to support the needs of recent mothers and their newborns. The items distributed often lack the needed quality and cause various health problems in the newborns.

Women that have physical or mental disability are less able to protect themselves from harm and are more dependent on others for survival, which puts them in tremendous risk of SGBV and exploitation. The services and support for extremely vulnerable individuals have always been very limited along the transit route, and remain to be so in stranded situation. LEGIS was the first NGO providing services to EVIs in 2015, including transportation and cross-border referrals. Disabled women, children and men had no alternative to the 10km walk to the reception center in Serbia, and LEGIS staff and volunteers often had no alternative but to irregularly cross state borders in order to assist a disabled person whose wheelchair got stuck in the deep mud.

Considering the capacity of Police personnel in charge of security and organizing the flow of refugees and migrants into transit centres - they are unequipped to identify, prioritize and respond to protection risks. The risks of violence that women and girls face rapidly increase in situations of severe crowds, such as distribution lines for food and non-food items or registration, when due to uncontrollable crowds and violence, humanitarian actors and police personnel are forced to temporarily suspend the activity. The risks are higher in situations of protests where crowd control measures are employed by police forces, which include tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, situations that have occurred few times on the south border to Greece the last year and a half. Women and children refugees often had to and have to rely on the good judgment and common sense of volunteers and staff not properly trained to address protection concerns, which sometimes exposes women and children to grave dangers and unpleasant situations. For ex, we had a case where a 2year old child was separated from her mother due to panic of a volunteer that “identified” the child as stolen.

Referral mechanisms are either non-existent or non-functioning, as well as uniformly applicable vulnerability criteria and appropriate SoPs. Informal referral mechanisms and vulnerability criteria established by volunteers and CSOs were functioning on the local, national and cross-border level in 2015 and 2016. In Macedonia, SoPs for processing vulnerable categories of foreign nationals were established in July 2016, and are still not in proper usage. The Ministry of Health supported by UNFPA, in cooperation with relevant institutions, international organizations and CSOs lead the process of preparation of the SoPs for multi-sectoral approach to the response to GBV, and the SoPs are currently in the phase of adoption by the Macedonian Government.

According to the SoPs for processing vulnerable groups of foreign nationals, including women and girls, they can verbally present the application for asylum on border crossings, police station or file a written asylum application. Unfortunately, this is not the practice.

Until June 2015, Macedonian legislation was not allowing refugees to obtain legal status upon irregular entrance, exposing them to great dangers while in transit trough the country: attacks by violent groups, robberies, train accidents, exhaustion, kidnappings etc. In the first half of 2015 LEGIS was actively advocating for legislative changes and introduction of the instrument Intention for Asylum that was already in use in Serbia and allowed registration and access to asylum, access to aid and legal transit of the refugees. This instrument in Macedonia was adopted in June 2015, but annulled with the closure of the WB Route in March 2016. 

According to the latest amendments of the Law on Asylum and Temporary Protection from April 2016, the request for asylum, filed from person in request to enter or entered irregularly on the territory of Macedonia, from 3rd safe country, member of EU, member of NATO or member of EFTA, will be considered clearly insubstantial, according to the art35 of this Law, with due consideration to the principle of non-refoulement by art7 of this law. For asylum applications that are considered clearly insubstantial, according to the art35 of this Law, the asylum division will issue a declaration on the language of the 3rd safe country, member of EU, member of NATO or member of EFTA, from where the applicant entered, with which the institutions of the 3rd safe country will be informed that in Republic of Macedonia, the application was not substantially examined/considered. In July this year, LEGIS, together with UNHCR, the Ombudsman and MYLA officially proposed amendment of this law, which was not yet taken into consideration.

So the only option for refugees to access asylum procedures in Macedonia is to parachute down from the sky. In practice, the persons that want to file an asylum application are discouraged to do so on the basis of the latest amendments of the LATP, or by false statements that the asylum seekers center is full and are deported back to the 3rd safe country (Greece) on an uncoordinated manner, using green border crossings and cuts in the fence. The readmission agreements that Macedonia has signed with the neighboring countries do not function in practice. The mass deportations and push-backs, even though in line with the Macedonian legislation, are clear violation of human rights.

According to UNHCR data, 18,480 persons have been pushed back from Macedonian territory since 01 January 2016, 16,270 (88%) by Macedonian authorities near the border with Greece, and 2,210 (12%) near the border with Serbia. The highest number of individuals pushed back per month was 3,400 during May 2016. The highest number of individuals pushed back in a day was 2,445, when refugees from the Idomeni camp attempted to cross the Greek – Macedonian border near the village of Moin on 14 March. For this collective expulsion a submission to the European Court of Human Rights is filed against Macedonia. The age and gender breakdown of individuals pushed-back by Macedonian authorities on the border with Greece remains largely unknown, 72%, while 19% were men, 3% women and 6% children.

If a person manages to obtain the refugee status in Macedonia, or obtain subsidiary protection (which not more than 5 people have gotten in the last 2 yrs, out of more than 600.000 registered since july 2015), according to the latest amendments, the principle for family reunion for close family member of a refugee with recognized status, or a person under subsidiary protection, can be realized 3years after the asylum is granted.

In Macedonia, since the closure of the WB Route, stranded refugees in the TC in the north and south of the country have not been allowed to submit asylum applications and have been kept without any status or freedom of movement for 9 months. In very few cases, where this has been possible, the asylum seekers were not relocated in the Asylum Seekers Center, instead they were kept in the borderline transit centers, without any freedom of movement out of the premises of the TC. Upon persisting insistence of UN agencies and CSOs including LEGIS, approx. 30 asylum seekers were relocated to the ASC in the beginning of November.

Limited access to asylum procedures and legal means of transit negatively reflects on all refugee population and increases the risks of violence and exploitation. Women are especially in concern by the practices of limiting the possibilities for accessing asylum procedures.

It is very clear that the humanitarian and political response in Europe and the Western Balkan is failing refugee women and girls. Service delivery and protection along the irregular routes and in the official transit or reception centers must be expanded and improved and must include a concerted focus on women and girls’ specific needs and vulnerabilities. Legal alternative should be given to irregular migration, effective and fast instruments for relocation and resettlement from countries that closed their borders to protect the external border of EU from the EU, with border police reinforcement staff coming from EU countries. Preserving  the human rights, safety and dignity of all refugees and migrants, regardless of nationality, across all countries impacted by the crisis must be a priority. Ensuring that all refugees and migrants, regardless of nationality, are free from all forms of exploitation and abuse and have the right to seek asylum and international protection across all countries impacted by the crisis is a priority.

The governments must put in place response systems with an adequate number of well-trained personnel who can function at the local and national level and be supported by humanitarian actors. Governments and humanitarian agencies need to ensure that deployed personnel have the experience and the expertise needed to prevent and properly respond to protections risks.

Although there are legal aid and human rights organizations that provide support to asylum seekers, many refugees lack information regarding their rights or the option to seek asylum in the “transit countries” along the route. Ensure that information about services is disseminated, available and accessible in all languages of the affected population is a priority. Strengthening the leadership and coordination among government and humanitarian actors to mitigate protection risks to women and girls, and monitoring and work to prevent exploitation and discrimination against refugees and migrants. Ensuring legal assistance to refugees to address SGBV-related protection concerns are available and functioning and ensuring application of SGBV SoPs and referral pathways to ensure that SGBV prevention and protection.