Gender is one of the key factors that shapes experiences of both forced and voluntary migration. It can determine reasons and possibilities to migrate, conditions of migration and related risks, even integration in the country of destination. When it comes to forced migration and its causes, evidence shows that women are at a disproportionately higher risk of experiencing gender-based violence (GBV) in wars: mass rapes, slavery, unwanted pregnancies and abortions are just some of the examples recorded in history.
In spite of that, it is often harder for women to flee from their countries and migrate, due to financial dependence, care for other family dependents. etc. During their travels, especially through illegal channels, women and girls are at a higher risk of being abused, trafficked, or raped. Furthermore, in the first country of asylum (refugee camps, asylum centres or reception centres), they are more vulnerable to various forms of harassment, transactional sex, intimate partner violence etc., and less likely to have access to the services they need.
Finally, research shows that, even in the countries of destination or host societies, women and girls face additional problems, such as high rates of unemployment and deskilling and are prone to engaging in the precarious labour market in grey economies much more than men.5 These are just some of the examples that the influence of gender has on migration, which have previously been mapped by academia and the humanitarian sector. These challenges, as well as many more, have been identified within the current European humanitarian crisis as well.
Although the global humanitarian crisis was felt heavily by Europe starting in 2015, evidence of the crisis could have been predicted in the preceding years. The war in Syria was developing for several years and continuous unrest in other countries such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia, together with other regional conflicts, were producing more and more refugees. In 2014, the number of displaced persons globally had already skyrocketed to the highest number since World War II, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reporting roughly 59.9 million people of concern worldwide.
More than a million refugees and migrants entered Europe in 2015, traveling towards their desired countries of destinations, predominantly in Western Europe. It was due to this mass influx and a significant increase of migrants travelling through the so-called Balkan Route that attracted the attention of European governments and the media. As Europe was left unprepared for an adequate humanitarian response, the number of deaths in the Mediterranean grew, an increase in cases involving human rights violation were mapped, and harmonisation of asylum and reception policies among EU Members States deteriorated.
A combination of inadequate humanitarian infrastructure and an unwillingness of EU Member States to equally participate in burden sharing quickly led to an overload of the capacities of the countries promoting “open door” policies (primarily Germany). Consequently, in March 2016, as part of the EU-Turkey deal, the Balkan route – together with the EU borders – was closed. The consequences of these changes were felt by all countries along the Balkan route, particularly Serbia, due to its geographical proximity and shared borders with several EU countries (Hungary, Croatia, Romania). Although the borders were closed, refugees and migrants continued to arrive in Serbia with hope that they would eventually reach their preferred EU destination. Some would apply for the so- called waiting lists to legally cross the Hungarian border, while others tried to travel by themselves through illegal channels.
In reality, this meant that Serbia had changed from a temporary transit country to a country where refugees and migrants had to stay for much longer. With increasingly restrictive asylum policies and fortified borders with EU Member States, more and more people were spending an extended period of time in Serbia while waiting to move forward with their journeys. In spite of long waiting times, the vast majority of refugees and migrants chose not to seek asylum in Serbia, therefore existing in a grey area between emergency response and durable solutions.
Although the migration journey affected the whole population on the move in different ways, reports from the Balkan route mapped a vast array of challenges and vulnerabilities experienced specifically by girls and women. Primarily, girls and women showed to be at a disproportionately higher risk of GBV, not only in their country of origin but throughout the whole migration journey, including in countries of transit and first asylum. Previous reports have shown how reception and detention centres, informal settlements, boat crossings, and the use of smugglers have greatly affected the safety of women and girls.
A significant number of protection risks have been identified, including the risk of transactional sex, domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and physical assault, especially for girls and women travelling alone.
Moreover, inadequate or inaccessible services, lack of safe spaces, and lack of gender mainstreaming across different sectors has led to additional obstacles when responding to the needs of women and girls and GBV survivors among them.
Gender roles within family relations have shown to affect female experiences of migration even further. On the one hand, traditional female roles in the family additionally burden women with care for children and the elderly. On the other hand, stress and trauma faced by refugees and migrants deteriorate pre-existing gender inequalities and cause an increase in domestic or intimate partner violence.
Serbia is not an exception when it comes to gendered experiences of migration. Research has shown that an alarming number of female refugees and migrants in Serbia have experienced physical and sexual violence, both in their countries of origin as well as during their respective journeys. These girls and women, and the challenges they are coping with while staying in the county, are the focus of this study.
To read the complete research, go here.