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Left behind: How the world is failing women and girls on refugee family reunion


Executive Summary

Forced displacement due to persecution, violence, natural disasters or other causes brings trauma that the rest of us living in relative safety struggle to imagine.

Loved ones are lost and families are torn apart, often ending up far from home and in foreign lands where sometimes kindness is shown, sometimes cruelty. All this impacts differently on men and women, boys and girls in ways that are often poorly understood or addressed.1 Refugee women and girls face specific threats – including sexual violence and exploitation – and aid efforts often struggle to put in place basic steps for their safety or assistance, such as gender-segregated washing facilities or reproductive health-care.

Yet aid is only part of the picture. If we want to show humanity to the world’s most vulnerable, then refugees also require legal protection. In the aftermath of the Second World War, governments negotiated the UN Refugee Convention to provide a framework to define the protection offered to forcibly displaced people. The legal protections provided, or not provided, to refugees also have gendered implications which are poorly understood and inconsistently addressed. To better understand a women’s rights perspective on these issues, CARE International commissioned a study consisting of field research in Greece and interviews with experts and government officials in other contexts.

Our findings from Greece should constitute a wake-up call for anyone concerned about women’s rights and the protection of refugees. Since 2015, when more than a million people risked their lives to try and reach Europe seeking protection, governments have progressively introduced policies making it harder, more dangerous and more expensive to reach the European Union (EU).
With the EU-Turkey Statement of March 2016, thousands of refugees have been trapped on the Greek islands, where the reception conditions are unhealthy and unsafe. Nevertheless, there have been increased numbers of women arriving in Europe since 2014 and more are travelling alone, or alone with children.2 These women have often been subject to various forms of violence.
Overcrowding in the ‘hotspots’ (reception centres) means that pregnant women, single women and women with children are forced to share tents with strangers. There are no safe bathroom and toilet facilities for women, and the lack of lighting at night means that women are scared to go out after dark. NGOs have been asked to provide nappies for adult women so that they do not have to use the toilet at night. There are very few doctors, and women have little or no access to sexual and reproductive health services or psychological support.

For refugee women and girls who have reached European shores, or are trying to do so, one of the most secure pathways is refugee family reunification or reunion.
Families have frequently been split up during flight for many reasons including decisions to send one family member ahead to another country, but also because of separation at borders by border guards, or as a deliberate tactic by smugglers. Over 86% of the cases facilitated by the Ecumenical Refugee Programme in Greece of single-parent households seeking family reunification are female-headed households. Yet changes in rules regarding family reunification or a failure to implement them, and inadequate action on relocation or resettlement, have pushed more and more refugees into conditions of insecurity.

Families should in theory be able to be reunified under the Dublin III Regulation of the Common European Asylum System. But there are major obstacles for women in accessing family reunification including lack of access to legal advice and information, long waits for any response to their applications, refusal of applications on various grounds including limited definitions of a ‘family’, and refusal to recognise identity and marriage documents from some countries. We found evidence that European governments are consistently failing to use the discretionary clause in the Dublin III Regulation under which they can consider applications for the transfer of asylum applications on humanitarian grounds. This discretionary clause could be used to offer asylum and relocation to female survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), but in practice we found that the Greek Asylum Service is not even trying to send these applications to other EU Member States as they know they will be rejected.

Even women who had received a positive decision on their application had in many cases been waiting over six months since that decision to be allowed to buy their tickets to travel to join their family members.
The long waits, with little or no information, cause extreme anxiety and stress for these women. Often, they are alone with several children to look after, and have no adequate social or psychological support. Delays in responding to family reunification applications, or negative responses, push women to seek alternative means to reach their family members and several women we spoke to had paid smugglers to help them (unsuccessfully) to move on to another Member State.
These routes are expensive and risky and expose women to further dangers, which could be avoided if they were allowed to move legally.

The situation in Greece, and in Europe more generally, illustrates several key points relating to the gendered risks and lack of protection for women refugees at a global level. The vast majority of the world’s refugees are in countries in the global South. In order to share the responsibility for refugee-hosting more fairly between states and to ensure a dignified life for refugees, governments must increase the safe and regular routes available so that women are not pushed into dangerous irregular journeys. This can be done by honouring commitments on resettlement and increasing the number of places offered, adopting a less narrow definition of ‘the family’ in facilitating family reunion, expanding private and community sponsorship programmes, and exploring the expansion of other legal pathways such as student and work visas. National asylum systems’ inconsistent approaches to gender-related persecution have also not kept pace with the nature of conflict and how sexual and gender-based violence is recognised as a strategy of warfare and a political tool. The inconsistency between attention by European governments and UN Security Council members to this under UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1820 and their refugee and asylum policies is evident.

Women are not essentially or naturally ‘vulnerable’ but the condition of forced migration and current government policies combine to put many of them at risk. Our research in Greece, and elsewhere, was supported in significant ways by refugee and migrant women activists who have formed their own networks and community centres – such as the Melissa network in Greece – to assist, protect and empower newly-arrived refugee women. The policy question is rather what might governments in Europe, and further afield, do differently to better assist and protect women fleeing violence and persecution?


  1. Reaffirm the principle of family unity as a core foundation for refugee protection both in the UN Global Compact on Refugees and under other national and regional frameworks, such as the EU’s Dublin III Regulation and whatever future European framework replaces it.

  2. Adopt and implement more generous interpretations of ‘the family’ when assessing cases for refugee family reunion. This should ensure that those with links of care and dependency can qualify for family reunification even when they do not fit a more narrow definition of ‘family’. In the European context, states should offer to facilitate family reunion under the Dublin III discretionary clause, including to SGBV survivors, pregnant women and single women, and the Greek authorities should submit applications on to other EU Member States on this basis.

  3. Ensure systems and capacity are in place to treat all applications for refugee family reunion in a speedy and transparent manner. While the process is underway, adequate reception and accommodation conditions should be provided for all refugees, including safe spaces and accommodation for women where they can be protected from SGBV. Access to proper legal, health and social services with female interpreters should be guaranteed.

  4. Recruit and train adequate numbers of genderbalanced personnel to carry out vulnerability assessments, and ensure that they seek out and appropriately address ‘hidden’ as well as visible forms of vulnerability. Improving the collection of gender and sex-disaggregated data on asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons is also important to better prioritise and target assistance and protection.

  5. Ensure all those working with refugees are trained on SGBV, and that comprehensive systems are established to support SGBV survivors. European states should offer to facilitate family reunion and host refugees under the Dublin III discretionary clause, including for SGBV survivors, and the Greek authorities should submit applications on to other EU Member States on this basis.

  6. Open up other legal routes for refugees to reach a place of safety, such as student and work visas, and scale up global refugee resettlement efforts with criteria based on need for protection, rather than nationality, faith or other arbitrary factors.

  7. Clarify and strengthen asylum decision-making as it relates to gender-based persecution, which includes rape, sexual slavery, honour crimes and trafficking.
    In the European context, this should include following the recommendations made by the European Parliament in 2016 for a comprehensive set of EUwide gender guidelines in asylum-related legislation and procedures.

  8. Ensure that women victims of violence are not returned to any country where their life would be at risk or where they might be subject to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment (ie, nonrefoulement).

  9. Support refugee women’s participation in decisionmaking and the evaluation of policies that impact on them. Steps should include creating an enabling policy environment for women to register civil society organisations, establishing systematic and meaningful consultation and feedback on assistance and protection policies, as well as longer-term, flexible funding to finance their civil society organisations, women’s ‘safe space’ centres and other communitybased protection initiatives.