Europe needs a holistic approach to migration with women’s rights firmly embedded within it

Labour Party

We are all aware of the situation unfolding in the Mediterranean. The influx of migrants at the EU’s southern borders has been unprecedented; the heavy death toll has been shocking. At Lampedusa, at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in the Aegean Sea, the reality of this humanitarian crisis has been brought home to us.

The situation has been brought about largely by prolonged conflict in the Middle East and we are now witnessing the largest wave of refugees since World War II.

Over the past few months it has become clear that, alongside an immediate response to prevent further loss of life, we need a long-term, holistic response. The European Agenda on Migration, presented by the European Commission in May, has set out both the immediate action to be taken as well as the measures to manage migration in the coming years.

The European Parliament is currently working on a report on the situation in the Mediterranean and the wider European agenda on migration. I have been appointed the rapporteur for the contribution of the committee on women’s rights and gender equality to this report.

The EU strategy must span a number of policy areas – internal and external – and present a unified and coherent response from the EU and its member states. It is imperative that the strategy includes innovative measures to ensure not just human rights standards generally but that the specific needs of women and girls are met.

It is my aim, along with my colleagues, to help shape the European Agenda on Migration and to ensure that women’s rights and a gender perspective are embedded within it.

Currently, there are huge disparities across member states in how we treat women seeking asylum. Any holistic approach to asylum and immigration must guarantee that processes and standards are consistent across all member states. At the moment, our asylum and immigration systems are not sufficiently gender-sensitive.

The increased flow of people has resulted in pressure points and when this happens, it only makes it harder to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals, including women and girls. These are some of the most vulnerable people in the world and Europe has so far been failing them.

Sexual violence

One of the key points which I am addressing in my work is the issue of violence, in particular sexual violence. We know that women asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are vulnerable throughout their journeys. They are often alone and separated from their families.

I have read harrowing accounts of women and young girls who have fled persecution and war only to experience extreme violence. This is a particular problem in transit countries like Morocco and Libya.

This is why we need to ensure that all staff involved, including the International Organisation for Migration, are trained to deal with women who have experienced this kind of trauma.

Having spoken to representatives from NGOs and IGOs, I know that many women are pregnant as a result of sexual violence experienced since leaving their homes. We need to look at access to maternal healthcare with this in mind.

Reception facilitates

A recent report by a UK charity, Women for Refugee Women, revealed that as many as half of female rape and torture survivors detained in the UK after seeking asylum have considered suicide.

This starkly demonstrates why decisions to detain women asylum seekers and undocumented migrants should take account of past trauma and I have highlighted this in my own work.

Detention is just one option and for many of these vulnerable people, it is simply not appropriate. Other tailored facilities would more appropriately meet the needs of, for example, pregnant women and young women.

I also intend to address the importance of allowing competent authorities to have access to reception facilities in order to inspect standards and ensure that women’s human rights are being upheld in full.

Trafficking and smuggling

We know that the situation in the Mediterranean is very closely connected to the problem of people smuggling and that many of those who risk their lives at sea are doing so at the hands of criminal gangs.

Although there is also evidence to suggest that human traffickers may be exploiting the situation too, we must distinguish human trafficking from smuggling. The two are quite different phenomena – legally and in practice.

Trafficking in human beings is, primarily, a crime against the person and a gross violation of a person’s basic human rights. People smuggling is, on the other hand, a crime against the state.

It is important that these two categories are not conflated and that staff tasked with identifying victims of trafficking are adequately trained and resourced to carry out their work effectively and sensitively.

These are just some of the issues I have been working on. Such an important topic can hardly be covered in detail here but I am confident that the final report will present comprehensive and timely recommendations to improve the situation across Europe.

The final report on the situation in the Mediterranean and the EU response is due to go before the European Parliament in December.