Women: The Forgotten of the Common European Asylum System
26 January 2021 /
Many articles have been published regarding the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ that started in 2015. However, most of them fail to consider that women face gender-specific violence and persecutions when fleeing their home countries to enter the European Union. The lack of gender perspective of the Common European Asylum System causes serious discrimination in the recognition of the refugee status, leading most female asylum seekers to irregular situations without life alternatives.
A common asylum system for the European Union
Asylum is a fundamental right, and granting it is an international obligation. International law regulates this principle in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees, drafted after the disastrous consequences of World War II and founded on Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the European Union, after the signing of the Schengen Agreement on the removal of internal border controls and free movement of people in 1985, all eyes turned to the European external borders and the need to regulate the entry, stay and return of third-country nationals and asylum seekers. In this context, the EU established a tight control of its external borders, thus defining a new strong category of “non-EU nationals” with restricted access to the European territory.
With the aim to provide common minimum standards for the treatment of all asylum seekers and applications, the EU decided to establish a Common European Asylum System by harmonizing all national asylum laws and procedures. The configuration of this common system was consolidated after the Tampere European Council in 1999 and later materialized in the Treaty of Amsterdam. However, Member States maintained their reluctance to extending rights for asylum seekers and kept pushing to maintain their own flexibility.
Asylum in crisis
A decade later, the Treaty of Lisbon finally boosted the development of what is now called the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) by incorporating its main legal bases in the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union. It pushed for common higher standards and stronger cooperation to ensure equal treatment to all asylum seekers in an open and fair system.
Nevertheless, Member States tend to push for more national sovereignty regarding migration policies and border control remains the same. Nowadays, the right to asylum is going through a crisis in the European Union, given the increasingly restrictive tendencies of Member States in that matter. This is particularly serious given the large-scale and uncontrolled flows of refugees and displaced persons that have been affecting the region since 2015, a fact that has created political unrest by putting a strain on the CEAS.
EU’s border policy has been progressively hardening through the years, also due to the strong anti-immigration rhetoric of right-wing populist parties linking immigrants to cultural disintegration and rising crime. Frontex, the agency in charge of coordinating the protection of external European borders, now receives a budget of 330 million euros. Physical barriers have been also reinforced by walls and fences monitored by high-tech devices. Nevertheless, strengthening border control does not reduce the number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving in the European Union but only aggravates their traveling conditions and increases the dangers they face.
A lack of gender perspective
These dynamics are particularly serious for female asylum seekers, since the Common European Asylum System fails to consider the different experiences female migrants go through, from the departure from their home countries to the journey reaching the EU. The absence of gender perspective in asylum matters goes back to the Geneva Convention of 1951, which does not contemplate gender issues as a valid reason to ask for asylum. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person that has “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or unwilling to seek the protection of that country as a result of such events. While race and religious beliefs are quite relevant, gender oppression is not even mentioned.
However, not only women are equally or even more affected by these well-founded fears, they also face specific forms of persecution for the mere fact of being women. Refugee women suffer violence and lack of rights in all contexts: male violence within the couple, sexual violence in their home countries, trafficking for sexual exploitation, forced marriages, genital mutilation… none of these factors are contemplated by Geneva Convention or by the CEAS, which compromise women’s accessibility to the right of asylum. As a result, they end up facing credibility problems, since they struggle to provide evidence of the well-founded fears that led them to leave their countries in the first place. Most of them hope for their cases to be classified as ‘membership of a particular social group’ to be able to legally stay in Europe.
On the bright side, women’s rights are being increasingly discussed in international decision-making forums such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) of 1979 and the Beijing Conference of 1995. However, asylum and international protection are still male-dominated areas. The CEAS has a male bias, since it takes for a model experiences of male asylum seekers, which take place in the ‘public’ sphere. Violence and sexual aggressions suffered by their female counterparts are overlooked, as they belong to the ‘private’ realm. As discussed before, this causes serious discrimination in the recognition of the refugee status: it is adjudicated to significantly more men than women.
The ’most vulnerable’
Why are female asylum seekers’ experiences so overlooked by the CEAS? Traditionally, public imaginations have pictured women as passive subjects without the initiative to migrate on their own: either they accompany a man or have children in their care (or both). This has to do with the way the ‘refugee crisis’ is pictured in the media and political debates, by using expressions such as “women and children represent more than half of the refugee people in the world”. This grouping under the same category of “vulnerable people” has an important impact on the way gender is treated by asylum regimes and refugee protection debates. The European population does not see women as a group facing specific problems and fears, even though refugee women are the most affected by gender violence and the most likely to be captured by sexual trafficking networks, given their conditions of extreme poverty, trauma, and lack of options.
Calling for a reform of the CEAS
To this day, neither the European institutions nor Member States have made any efforts to incorporate gender perspective to the European asylum system and thus correct deficiencies in that matter. Each year, fewer and fewer asylum petitions are granted in the European Union, which leads to an increasing number of women in irregular situations without life alternatives. Most of them are deported, and those who manage to stay face precarious employment (if not unemployed), housing instability, and lack of access to healthcare.
These facts tell us that the CEAS is incomplete and does not provide efficient and equal assistance to all asylum seekers, which does not strike as a surprise given the migratory crisis the EU has been facing since 2015. However, this is particularly serious considering that the world is currently facing the highest number of displaced persons since World War II – half of whom are women. This seems like a sufficient reason to raise the issue of reforming the CEAS in order to legally recognize gender persecution and thus guarantee equal access to the refugee status to women.
This article was first published in the 33rd issue of the magazine. Read the entire issue here.