© Marios Lolos
The situation of female refugees in Switzerland

As part of the week on sustainability, the University of Zurich organized a presentation on the challenges that female refugees face in Switzerland. Both Natalie Trummer, executive director of Terre des Femmes, and Denise Graf, asylum expert  for Amnesty International (Swiss chapter), reached the same conclusion: the Swiss government is not doing enough to protect the rights and wellbeing of female refugees, and clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement. But there was a strong wake up call to the civil society as well: we must inform ourselves more, visit the asylum centers and start making connections with the local refugees to end their isolated state.

Female refugees are at a very high risk of experiencing sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) along the journey and at the various camps. Women traveling alone are even more vulnerable, very often suffering from rape and human trafficking from smugglers and criminal groups. According to the latest report by the Women’s Refugee Commission, the UNHCR and UNFPA from November 2015, the various European actors in this crisis are not responding to SGBV cases appropriately, mostly because there is not enough data to claim that this a pressing problem. The stigma and shame, on top of the trauma of the war, stops women to talk about the abuse suffered and disables them to accessing to health and psycho-social help. According to both Ms. Trummer and Ms. Graf, it is overwhelming enough to flee war and come to a new country so as to retain all information in the first interview about the rights and access to services available. Hence, refugees usually do not know how to inquire about their asylum process, their rights and the services they have access to whilst in Switzerland. A recommendation from Ms. Graf was to encourage the different entities involved in the asylum process to repeatedly make the asylum seekers aware of their rights and possibilities (legal, psychological, leisure, etc.).

In a country where they do not feel welcome, do not speak the language, are completely traumatized by the war and by the loss of family members and all what they knew, a gender sensitive approach during the asylum process and accommodation could minimize the instances of sexual harassment and provide adequate health and psychological treatment.

We got to learn the story of *Amina. Amina is an asylum seeker in Switzerland. She is 30 years old and she was regularly beaten, psychologically abused and was many times pregnant, but has only 2 children. The first interaction with the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) was with a man. He has other 16 cases under his charge and had limited time to talk with the asylum seekers. After 2 days, a conversation takes place, but there is no room for questions. Amina was placed in a room next to a room with 8 men, which made her constantly worry about her safety and that of her children. The guards in the building are all male, which also makes her nervous. One day, when passing by the room of her neighbors to go to the toilets, she was touched by one of the men.

Since then, she spends most of her day with her kids inside the room, afraid of the possibility of another harassment incident. She likes to spend time at the kitchen and there is a playground for the kids, but she has to ask a social worker for the key every time, so she asks for it very sporadically. There are German language classes but no child care, so she does not go to the classes. She is scared about the upcoming interview with the authorities because she has to talk about things she wants to never have to remember ever again. Her head hurts, she misses her home country, she feels powerless and has the sensation that no one seems to care about her situation. She refused visiting a psychologist because she is afraid that this can affect her asylum process negatively. She does not know that she can ask about this, and does not know whom to approach.

Access to the program for victims of violence (Opferhilfe), which offers adequate treatment and protection if the violence or abuse happened in Swiss territory (article No. 3 of the law for victims of violence, Opferhilfegesetz), is frequently out of reach for asylum seekers. Foreigners without a Swiss residence are also protected but any non- Swiss resident victims that suffered any violent attacks abroad are not eligible for the program. “This might be one of the biggest legal gaps in terms of social protection in the Swiss law”, said Ms. Graf.

Women that have experienced any type of violence, especially rape, talk about the events after 4 years of being in the country and at the risk of facing deportation. Because of this, *Rabia could not go to a doctor even after for 4 years of being raped. She did not know whom to ask for help, was in shock to even be able to talk about it, and simply did not know how to go about the stressful situation. When she finally mentioned the abuse, she begged the authorities to not disclose any of that information. As per law, any official judgements by the court are public, but in the case of Rabia, not enough measures were taken to grant her anonymity. Rabia’s family back at home could identify her and got to know about her story, shaming her and encouraging her husband to leave her (which he didn’t; he remained supportive the whole time).

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in its general recommendation No. 32 (2014) on the gender-related dimensions of refugee status, asylum, nationality and statelessness of women, urges a gender-sensitive management of the hearings. In practice this would mean, for example, that if the asylum seeker is a woman then the interview must be conducted by women as a standard procedure, or at least make sure that the female asylum seeker knows of this possibility, and that it is clear that this would not have any negative impact on her asylum process. Asylum seekers can request to be interviewed by women, but most do not do so either due to not knowing about this possibility, or because they fear requesting something might negatively affect the interview’s outcome, and their asylum application at large. The living conditions, as stated by Terre des Femmes in their 65th CEDAW shadow report, are often overcrowded, have poor infrastructure and are located in isolated or socially marginalized areas, and many gender-mixed accommodations lack a gender-segregated set up, which would entail, among others,  separate toilets and showers for males and females, and by placing single women, single mothers and families in such a way that the risk to any type of SGBV is reduced as much as possible.

Both Terre des Femmes and Amnesty International have openly denounced the lack of compliance by the Swiss government to the CEDAW convention, which the country is undersigned of. Of particular concern is the fact that most of the women claiming asylum on the grounds of gender-based persecution are denied refugee status because the local authorities assume that the country of origin should provide protection, thus completely neglecting the special conditions of each case. Moreover, the amendment to the Asylum Act – AsylA- (article 26bis on “Establishing medical condition”) in 2014 states that the asylum seekers have to reveal any health or medical impairments in the first hearing. Failing to do so in the first opportunity will invalidate the consideration of rape or any other type of SGBV in the asylum process.

Documented deportation cases of female asylum seekers, which are public and referred to by Terre des Femmes in their 65th CEDAW shadow report, reveal that there are instances in which the local authorities do not analyze the peculiarities of asylum seekers’ cases carefully, thus often overruling the non-refoulment principle, whereby an asylum seeker cannot be sent back to a country where they fear persecution based on race, nationality, social status, religion or political beliefs. In this order, asylum seekers that are victims of human trafficking have been returned (or “refouled”) to their home countries, clearly placing them in direct and serious danger.

We were struck and taken aback at the similarities of issues raised by the women we work with in Greece at our Athena Centre for Women on Chios.

We cannot help but compare these stories we’ve heard to the stories of female refugees in Greece, having worked at our Athena Centre for Women on Chios. Perhaps we are naive to have assumed that the refugee women here in Switzerland were automatically much better off than refugee women in Greece. While efforts are Not everything is that grey: it was also mentioned the efforts by the various asylum centers to improve the wellbeing of the asylum seekers, like the one time they were taken to an excursion to see the city, and the attempts by some staff members to meaningfully improve the information flow for asylum seekers on the asylum process. For a better impact, this standardization of information should be implemented equally throughout all the staff involved, and the fostering of further training in gender issues should be a requirement.

We at Action from Switzerland share the concerns outlined by both Terre des Femmes and Amnesty International, and join them in demanding for:

  1. segregated and strictly female and children only accommodation/hosting facilities;
  2. Increase staff training or deploy more resources to gender-sensitive management of the asylum process, and to constantly remind the asylum seekers of the legal and psychological support they have access to.

Through our #MakeItSafe campaign we document the various gender-specific challenges that women and girls are facing in Greece, and also demand for appropriate, gender-conscious accommodation for single mothers, single women and unaccompanied minors, and especially if there was any SGBV incident.

The reality is that continual advocacy for safe and gender-segregated living conditions is not just at the frontlines of Greece but also in Switzerland, as well as prioritizing a long-time shelved basic need in this whole crisis for anyone suffering from displacement due to war: psycho-social assistance and integration efforts led by the local population.

This last point, was jointly stressed by both speakers: Go and meet asylum seekers, offer them a way to interact with their new surroundings, do not remain apathetic to this reality. More help is needed, there is a lot of work to do still. Let’s go out and get involved.

— Maya and Gabby

*Names are changed to protect the privacy of certain individuals.

Photo credit: Marios Lolos

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