In 2015 the EU countries received 1,321,600 asylum applications of which 27% (366,785) were from women and children. On 7 and 8 March 2016, management of the refugee crisis reached a turning point. A few days before the date marking the fifth year of the war in Syria, the leaders of the EU and Turkey signed a secret agreement to expel all migrants arriving illegally at the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea to Turkey.
In this context, and in relation to International Women’s Day, various public institutions, such as the Council of Europe, UNHCR and NGOs such as Cepaim or Amnesty International and the media decided to focus attention on women refugees. Migrant and refugee women experience specific situations of vulnerability, which need to be made visible and receive an adequate response.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United National Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Refugee Commission and Amnesty International presented a number of studies warning that women and children are at high risk of suffering various forms of violence along their route, including sexual violence by traffickers, members of criminal gangs and other individuals. The studies also stress that women and children refugees face different expression of gender violence, abuse, exploitation and sexual assault in every stage of their journey, especially on European soil. In addition, they express concern regarding the lack of awareness among the authorities and humanitarian agents of the impact of sexual and gender violence on this group.
On 8 March 2016, as part of International Women’s Day, the European Parliament (EP) passed a resolution on the situation of women refugees and asylum-seekers in the EU. The EP, which is calling for inclusion of the gender perspective in all asylum and migration policies, recognises the existence of ‘highly significant deficiencies’ in the treatment of women and children seeking asylum in EU member states, where major differences have also been detected. The text sets out various measures to guarantee an adequate response to the specific needs of women refugees. It is striking that the resolution was not unanimously adopted: it was passed with 388 votes in favour, 150 against and 159 abstentions.
However, besides passing this resolution and, at the same time, negotiating the aforementioned agreement with Turkey, it is worth asking what the EU is doing to publicise these principles of intention. How do they translate into the information and communication strategies of the community’s institutions to raise public awareness?
To answer this and other questions, the authors have conducted a critical, feminist analysis of the discourse transmitted through the official channels of the main European institutions. The study focusses on press releases, institutional statement and publications on the Twitter and Facebook accounts of the European Parliament, the European Commission and the EU Council.
We have analysed texts and images on the basis of six indicators:
- Does the text refer to women refugees?
- Does it give voice to women refugees?
- Does it represent women refugees as mothers?
- Does it mention the fact that women require special protection due to the impact of various forms of gender-based violence?
- Does it refer to the fact that women require special healthcare due to specific problems (pregnancy, birth, menstruation, etc.)?
- Is the general image shown of refugee women one of active subjects?
In total, we analysed:
- The European Commission (EC)
- 17 press releases (2 in relation to 8 March)
- 3 Facebook entries (related to International Women’s Day and women refugees)
- 36 tweets and retweets (10 related to 8 March and 2 to women refugees)
- Council of the EU
- 5 press releases (none related to International Women’s Day or women refugees)
- 3 Facebook entries (1 related to International Women’s Day)
- 3 Facebook entries (1 related to International Women’s Day)
- European Parliament
- A portal: ‘International Women’s Day – Women Refugees in the EU’
- 8 highlighted entries
- 20 tweets (2 related to International Women’s Day and 4 on women refugees)
- 1 Facebook entry on women and children refugees
First of all, the authors aim to highlight the complete lack of coordination between the three main institutions (Council, Parliament and Commission) in both the selection of topics and in raising the visibility of women refugees on International Women’s Day.
The lack of attention from the Council of the EU and the European Committee towards women refugees on this day cannot be understood as an oversight. The context makes this impossible. Thus, it may be attributed to a lack of awareness and responsibility in these institutions. Above all, it is noticeable how these institutions can even discuss a refugee crisis and International Women’s Day without making a connection between the two:
The following figures are indicative as a guide:
- Of the 5 press releases issued by the Council that day, not one referred to women refugees. On Facebook and Twitter, there were three publications in each: one on International Women’s Day, one on management of the refugee crisis and another on a different topic.
- The Commission issued two press releases with respect to 8 March. Although both referred to women refugees, they were both superficial and uncommitted. On the Commission’s Twitter account, of the 36 tweets and retweets, 12 mentioned International Women’s Day but only two focussed on refugee women. With respect to the Facebook page, there were three entries on 8 March, none of which referred to International Women’s Day or women refugees; one, however mentioned the agreement between EU and Turkey.
The attitude of the European Parliament is clearly different, as shown in the presentation of the quantitative data. It attempts to raise visibility of women refugees and the main aspects that make them more vulnerable.
- The EP centred the day to women refugees. It issued a total of 6 press releases, of which two referred to women refugees. On Twitter, it posted 20 tweets, of which four focussed on women refugees. There was only one entry on Facebook, also on women refugees.
However, none of these communications gave a voice to these women refugees. Although some cases tried to raise their visibility, the failure to give them voice serves to victimise and infantilise rather than empower them. Even in the case of the EP, women refugees were the the passive protagonists of the day.
Women refugees are often represented in their role of mothers and carers. Although true that many have this role and thus must be offered support, care must be taken not to attribute disproportionate responsibility to them as carers. Men are never referred to as having people under their care; men travelling alone are not distinguished from those with dependent people in their care, as is the case when discussing women.
There is little information on the day-to-day existence of women refugees. They are said to suffer the impact of gender-based violence and to have specific health problems, but generally without entering into detail. The information provided does not help understand the lives of women refugees: who do they organise themselves? How do they travel? How is their access to food managed? Information of this kind would help present women refugees as active subjects, strong persons and survivors in highly complex situations.
In the information and communication from the main EU institutions, one sees very little self-criticism (at best) with respect to managing the refugee crisis. In the context of its approval, the EP resolution on the situation of women refugees and asylum-seekers seems more a statement of good intentions than a firm commitment to improving the situation of the most vulnerable groups requiring international protection.
Isabel Muntané, codirector and lecturer, Master’s in Gender and Communication (UAB)
Maria Serrano, lecturer, Master’s in Gender and Communication (UAB)
Here you can read the full study