Females and children are outpacing the number of men fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and other destabilized countries for the first time since the European Union experienced a swell of migrants and refugees on its shores. Female migration has steadily increased over the past few years, though the European Union has not provided additional protections for this vulnerable population.
Almost 60 percent of refugees and migrants leaving for Europe in 2016 have been female or children, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner of Human Rights reported. In contrast, young, single men predominantly made up last year’s flow. Women and children also made up one-third of the 360 people who died in the Mediterranean Sea in January 2016.
“The demographic has completely flipped since last summer,” Gemma Gillie, a British spokeswoman for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said according to The Telegraph.
“Last year it was the strongest young men who were sent first, because it was a journey into the unknown. Now it is the women and children who are following. We have a woman here with a three-day-old baby,” Gillie added.
The swell in the number of women and children seeking refuge comes at a time when European Union nations are beginning to clamp down entry, with anywhere between 10,000 and 13,000 refugees and migrants waiting at Greece’s blocked border to cross into Macedonia. Just last week, Macedonian police fired tear gas and stun grenades at about 300 migrants, some of whom were children who “raced towards a railway track between the two countries,” Agence France-Presse reported.
Some human rights organizations are concerned that governments and aid agencies are failing to protect women and children who are subjected to inadequate protections from the start of their journey through the time they are arrested, processed, and put in detention centers. Women and girls can face sexual violence by smugglers who help them on their journey to Europe. There have also been claims of sexual violence by guards in refugee reception or transit centers. And at Greek detention centers that “often fail to meet minimum standards,” women — including pregnant women — are detained with men who are not members of their families.
A January 2016 Amnesty International interview of 40 refugee women and girls found that they felt threatened and unsafe during the journey from Turkey to Greece and across the Balkans, and they were groped, exploited, or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff, or other refugees. The research observed that women and children traveling alone felt under threat in transit areas and camps in Hungary, Croatia, and Greece, and many slept in the open on the beach because they felt safer there. Another woman said that a uniformed security guard in Germany offered to give her clothes in exchange for “spending time alone” with him.
The situation in Europe likely parallels some of the same issues that Central American women and children face when they make the dangerous trek into the United States. Anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of migrant women and girls are raped on their journey as they travel across the southern United States border. Despite the fact that rape and sexual assault are “major motivating factors” for why girls flee their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, a Women’s Refugee Commission report found that children reported sexual abuse by smuggling guides known as coyotes.