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(2019-2020) Challenges for Female Refugees and Asylum Seekers

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Madelaine Apthorpe, Constance Burtschell, Sophie Burton, Lauren Gibson, and Freya Lightfoot

Throughout the immigration process, female refugees are disproportionately exposed to more dangers than men and continue to face challenges in their integration into society. The following text will explore the adversity women face in a socio-political framework, the support networks that are in place and the areas in need of attention.

Women refugees are often absent from the media discourse and public discussions on migration. The images of refugees that are circulated, the stories reported on, and the statistics often set them aside to focus on the male migrant. Every report on migration points to the fact that women represent half the refugee population, yet they are absent from media representations, debates, and in a lot of cases, absent from refugee targeted projects: “only 4 percent of projects in UN inter-agency appeals were targeted at women and girls in 2014, and just 0.4 per cent of all funding to fragile states went to women’s groups or women’s ministries from 2012 to 2013.”. (UN Women). An ethnography by Metzner and Warren’s found that female refugees who find work as caregivers in Australia are often met with issues in the workplace. It is reported that some of these women are underpaid, sometimes not paid at all for their work, highlighting the difficulties women face in work roles that are not just ‘feminized’ (Metzner & Warren, 2018, p. 553) due to the caring aspect that is involved, but exacerbated by their status as refugees. This is detrimental to women’s access to support, it erases them and their experiences. If not set aside or forgotten, women’s bodies, their violation are used as a tool to vilify male refugees and further the narrative that they are a threat to society  (Parikka, 2018). Allowing women to finally join mediatic debates and reports on migration is necessary in order to understand the intersectionality of being a woman and a refugee. Official reports, anthropological texts can only do so much, the media reaches everyone and helps build public opinion, rally support, create outrage.

For example, it would be important to bring to light the fact that when the immigration process is completed, or asylum has been granted, it is often hard for women to find work in which they are not exploited. Through stories of women caregivers, Metzner and Warren’s explore intersectional feminism through the lens of migrants and refugees at work in Australia. The traditional, and often now viewed archaic, view of women as caring and nurturing is exploited through caregiving work, creating ‘feminized labour’ (Metzner & Warren, 2018, p. 553) which is filled by migrant women looking for employment. The women interviewed frequently report that they are underpaid, sometimes not paid at all for their work. This shows challenges refugee and migrant women are confronted with when integrating into new cultures, which are then exacerbated by their very being a woman. The stereotypical view of women’s compassionate nature is used then taken additionally advantage of through their status as a refugee or migrant.

Women migrants and refugees not only face exploitation and risks at work in their host countries, but are unprotected from hostility and violence in environments where they work alongside an NGO that is there to aid them. The charity Refugee4Refugees operates a shop nearby the infamous Moria camp in Lesvos, Greece where refugees can collect a certain amount of free clothes. R4R offers some residents of the camp opportunities to volunteer at the shop, creating a distraction from camp conditions and helping to structure their time. However, allowing inhabitants of the camp to be in charge of handing out donations to fellow refugees and migrants created issues outside of the shop. Over the summer there was a case of a woman ‘community volunteer’ who was physically attacked after work by an individual in the camp as she refused to allow the customer and their family to take more than the permitted number of clothes. Women refugees face more risks than their male counterparts.

Women are also far more likely to be victims of organised crime such as human trafficking and sexual violence. This is evident in the International Refugee Congress’ consultation survey, which found gender-based violence was a policy priority for 46.7% of women’s organisations, compared with just 11.6% of all organisations (International Refugee Congress). Refugees are at particular risk for human trafficking – a consequence of their exposed status and precarious situation; therefore women refugees have a dual vulnerability. Whilst refugees’ camps give comfort to their inhabitants by being surrounded by others in similar situations, there are security risks as there is little protection from outsiders, such as armed incursions (Wilson 2011), that create a demand for sexual services. The pain of sexual violence is often combined with the exclusion from their social worlds, who often condemn victims of sexual violence.  Being ostracised by their community, leads women to becoming even more vulnerable to becoming trafficked for sex.

In many instances sexual violence renders women more susceptible to contracting HIV, and subsequent stigmatisation challenges their integration into society (Vitale and Ryde, 2018 pg.3). Scholars have argued that lack of knowledge of how the virus spreads and its perceived threat to public health makes it difficult for women to find a partner or form new friendships, as they struggle to find accommodation and people to live with. In some societies, contracting HIV is ‘associated with them having low moral standards and with promiscuous sexual behaviour’ (Vitale and Ryde 2018, pg.8). Therefore in these contexts, women struggle with low self-esteem because of an assumption of their culpability. Reduced self-esteem and being treated differently by professionals discourages women from finding health care. Even when healthcare is found, the mental health impacts acquired from living with HIV are rarely treated, rendering women even more vulnerable to the challenges of integration. Lack of treatment and ostricisation inevitably fuels stigmatisation and discrimination. Essentially, the adversity that female refugees with HIV experience does not lessen when they are granted asylum. Rather, HIV stigmatisation is one of the many challenges women continue to struggle with throughout their integration into society.

As has been discussed above, female refugees and asylum seekers are disproportionately affected by risks such as poverty, trauma and violence. One way to address these issues is by empowering women and girls through access to advice on the best way to navigate complex asylum systems. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) often bridge the gap between government policy on immigration and refugees themselves. Detailed knowledge of the highly complex legal process can crucial in securing refugee status. For example, some cases may be strengthened with an experience of gender-based violence but women may be unaware that this could affect their case or not feel comfortable in disclosing this information without appropriate support. ALthough violence against refugee women is of course abhorrent it remains one of the ways in which refugee status can be secured. This is particularly relevant in France where ethical discourses surrounding the violence refugee women face can play a significant role in shaping government policy on immigration and citizenship. In Ticktin’s (2011) examination of this, she argues that “sexual violence renders legitimate the [female refugee’s] claim for papers and basic rights” (129). This is a problematic narrative as it raises the issue of what kind of violence is worthy of state intervention and protection. Does this mean other vulnerable female refugees who have not experienced violence are less deserving of state help?

This kind of anthropological analysis of the issues facing female refugees allows for a broader scope of the socio-political climate in which they live and may highlight key areas of attention which can help NGOs and other actors to allocate resources effectively.


  • Metzner, E. & Warren, N., 2018. Particularities in Common: A Collection of Essays about the Training, Theory, and Practice of Medical Anthropologies from Several Contexts around the World. American Anthropologist, 120(3), pp. 549-576.
  • Parikka T., 2018, ‘Female Bodies Adrift: Violation of the Female Bodies in Becoming a Subject in the Western Media’., Media and Communication, 6(2), pp. 158-167
  • International Refugee Congress. N.d. ‘Address Challenges Faced by Women Refugees’.
  • Ticktin, M., 2011. Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • UN Women Europe and Central Asia. N.d., ‘Women refugees and migrants’., In Focus.
  • Vitale, A., and Ryde, J., 2018. Exploring Risk Factors Affecting the Mental Health of Refugee Women Living with HIV. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 15.
  • Wilson, A.P., 2011. Trafficking risks for refugees.