4 myths about women and girls on the move

by Megan Passey, NRC Norway, 6 March 2017. On a global scale, women and girls make up half of
the world’s refugees and half of global migrants, but when it comes to those
travelling to Europe, the story is quite different, Megan Passey writes on the
Mixed Migration Platform Blog.

According to the latest figures
from Eurostat
females accounted for only 32%
of all asylum applicants to EU countries in 2016 and have made up similarly low
proportions for the past seven years.

Despite this, the proportion of
women and girls among refugees and other migrants to Europe is increasing,
especially among asylum seekers of certain nationalities. Compared to the year
before, 2016 saw increased proportions of female applicants from all but one of
the top ten nationalities of new arrivals to Europe – including a 47% increase
in the proportion of women and girls from Iraq and 46% from Afghanistan.
So why is this happening? And
will the gender balance continue to shift? We take a look at some myths and
some facts to help explain what’s so remarkable about the migration of women
and girls to Europe.
Myth 1: Cultural traditions mean that women are less likely to migrate than
In the past two years, over 60%
of all asylum seekers in the EU have originated from just five countries:
Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, all affected by war, ongoing
conflict and chronic insecurity. Despite coming to Europe for the same main reasons
– safety and security, followed by access to
employment, education and healthcare – the proportion of women and girls among
asylum seekers of each of these nationalities differs greatly. In 2016 for
example, women and girls made up over a third of all Syrian asylum seekers –
36% – compared to 29% of those from Afghanistan and only 6% from Pakistan.
While the figures above clearly
show that nationality plays a role – influenced in part by social and cultural
norms – women are often active rather than passive actors in the decision to
migrate. One assessment
from the Western Balkans found that married
women frequently reported that the decision to travel was taken jointly with
their husbands, while a small minority of women had deliberately left ahead of
male family members, believing it would be easier for them to be granted
asylum. With
evidence from Syria suggesting that ongoing conflict is changing
traditional gender roles and leaving some women with increased access to
employment, greater autonomy and aspirations of continued independence, it is
possible that evolving cultural norms may bring further tangible change to the
composition of migration flows in the future.

Myth 2: Girls are just as likely to travel as boys
The UN refugee agency provides data on arrivals by sea for women, men and children, grouping all those
aged under 18 into a single category and reinforcing the idea that girls are
travelling as often as boys. Eurostat data, however, shows greater numbers of
boys than girls applying for asylum – of the 291,665 minors for whom
information was available in 2016, boys accounted for 58% and girls 42%.
Grouping girls and boys together
as simply “children” also fails to take into account the difference
between children travelling with family members, and unaccompanied minors, who
are ten times more likely to be male than female. According to the latest
available figures from Eurostat, girls made up only 9% of all asylum
applications by unaccompanied minors in 2015. Girls and boys have different
specific needs and face differing levels of risk along the journey – grouping
them together as children fails to take this into account.

Myth 3: Women and girls on the move face greater risks than men and boys
Early last year, news about the
growing numbers of women arriving in Europe led to numerous reports on the
specific risks they faced along the journey, including health complications
, sexual and gender based
, exploitation and trafficking. While of significant cause for concern,
available evidence suggests that women and girls on the move face different
levels of risk relative to men and boys at different moments of their
migration, leaving them both more and less vulnerable to different threats – a
nuance that is often overlooked.
One IOM study of 1,545 refugees and other migrants along the
Eastern Mediterranean route found that men were more likely than women to
report exposure to a range of risks, including being forced to work, held
against their will, or not having received payment for work completed. While
the short surveys of this study are not exhaustive and it is possible that
protection incidents – particularly of a more sensitive nature – may have been
under-reported, these findings show how
men can often be more
to certain threats, especially those travelling alone.

Myth 4: Women are as likely to be granted asylum as men
Despite generally being considered
a more vulnerable group
by humanitarian responders, women and girls are
actually slightly less likely than men and boys to file a successful claim for
asylum in the EU. According to figures from Eurostat, 51% of female asylum
applicants were rejected by EU states in 2015, compared to 49% of male
applicants. According to a
study of reception and
asylum in Germany
, women frequently struggled to access female interviewers, interpreters
and childcare, adding to their difficulties to file a successful claim.
Ensuring a gender-sensitive asylum application process is vital to ensure all
cases receive fair consideration, regardless of gender.

So what now?
Since the formal closure of the
Western Balkans route and general tightening of borders across Europe, women,
men, boys and girls have continued to leave conflict-affected countries in
search of asylum in Europe. While a lower overall number of new arrivals, 2016
saw more people travelling through “covert means”
due to a lack of legal
alternatives – a situation likely to continue into 2017. Such covert means
include overstaying visas, using the services of smugglers, or travelling
through other irregular means. For those hoping to join existing family members
already in Europe, access to family reunification schemes will also continue to
be important. Tightening restrictions suggest the process is
getting more difficult, however, leading to fears that it may be at
best drawn-out and at worst unattainable, and raising the possibility of
increasing reliance upon more dangerous alternatives.