The Refugee: A Male Definition, a Male Practice?

By Milena Österreicher
When you read about refugees in the morning newspaper, hear some refugee-related news on the radio or watch a report on that same topic on television, how often is it that you read about, hear from, or see a female refugee? Women (and girls) tend to be a forgotten topic in the refugee context. Looking at the bare numbers, that might be a surprise. According to UN Women, they represent almost half of the 19.6 million refugees worldwide.

Most of the time when we speak of refugees, we encounter male faces, male stories and male experiences in media as well as academic writings. Refugee women are rarely the topic. Their experiences during the flight, their lives in refugee camps, and their reasons for fleeing are often overlooked. However, reasons for seeking asylum and refugee status can be specifically gender-related.[1] Think of a woman who is in fear of her life because she has committed adultery. Or a woman that flees from a forced marriage or forced abortion. Or a young girl leaving her home country for fear of FGM (female genital mutilation).

How are those flight reasons treated in law?

The Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – known as the Refugee Convention – was adopted in 1951. The Refugee Convention and the follow-up Protocol of 1967 still provide the worldwide legal basis for granting asylum. In the Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The Convention was born in the aftermath of the Second World War and at the beginning of the Cold War. The “classic” refugee at that time was a Jewish person who fled the terrors of the Nazi regime or a dissident from the Soviet Union. Neither the Refugee Convention nor the follow-up Protocol refer specifically to gender.

Does the Convention framework better fit men than women? The interpretation of the refugee definition in the jurisprudence was formed in response to the experience of public actors, who in many parts of the world still are primarily men. It protects those who participate in political activities like protesting against a repressive regime. Even UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) noted: “Historically, the refugee definition has been interpreted through a framework of male experiences, which has meant that many claims of women and of homosexuals have gone unrecognised.”[2]

The private is political

Nevertheless, political activities can be at a more invisible, hidden level such as preparing political leaflets. Many women are also intimated and threatened if their partner or other family members are engaged in political activities, and it is then assumed that the women are of the same political opinion as their relatives. Sometimes, women can also be unwillingly put into seemingly political acts such as providing meals for soldiers or nursing sick or wounded rebels. Feminist scholars therefore criticize the common refugee law since persecution of women often happens at a private level, is executed by private actors, and thus is characterized as beyond the persecution defined in the Convention.

Important new guidelines on gender-related persecution

In 2002, UNHCR issued specific guidelines on gender-related persecution. Those guidelines represent a landmark since they recognise that women may flee, for instance, from rape, widow burnings or honour killings. If the State is not able or not willing to protect them, those reasons may amount to a well-founded fear of persecution. The Guidelines further highlighted that women fearing such persecution should be recognised as members of a particular social group as grounds for the purpose of granting them the refugee status, per the Convention. Moreover, the guidelines recognised that especially in the case of gender-related persecution, the persecutors are often non-state actors like family and community members or armed groups that do not belong to the government. If the country of origin fails or is not willing to provide protection, this means that the asylum applicant cannot accept the protection of his/her home country anymore, which makes his/her asylum claim in another country justified.

Apart from those guidelines – and some regional and national instruments like the EU Asylum Qualification Directive – it is still up to each state to which extent it recognises gender-based persecution in asylum claims. Disparities how different states handle those cases therefore persist.

A further lack of gender-sensitive treatment can be found in the handling of asylum interviews. In the EU, childcare during such interviews is only provided in Belgium and the UK. This leaves women, who are traditionally responsible for taking care of children, alone with the problem that if nobody else takes care of their child, they must choose between withholding important information for the asylum claim or disclosing traumatic details in front of their children that are not meant to be heard by young ones.

A more gender-sensitive approach is also needed in the training of all the persons involved in the refugee status determination process, such as police officers or interpreters. Some suggested measures from the UNHCR are: women asylum-seekers should always be separately interviewed, not interviewed in the presence of a (male) family member; claimants should have the choice to have interviewers and interpreters of the same sex as themselves; states should improve general awareness of cultural or religious sensitivities; and so on.

Another highly probable issue for gender-sensitive asylum policies will be the changing political landscape of Europe. It might be too early to verify if the current trend of more and more anti-refugee agendas across Europe will increase the vulnerability for female refugees to claim and get asylum. However, it remains a hot topic that needs to be put constantly onto the international agenda and our awareness.

In the last three years Milena has worked as a freelance journalist, a German teacher for refugees and in a human rights NGO in Austria. In 2016, she co-translated the Argentinian book “Desaparecido” (M.Villani/F.Reati) to German. Milena studied her undergraduate degrees in Transcultural Communication and Journalism and Communication Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria with a year abroad in Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid, Spain. She is particularly interested in migration issues and freedom of the press.

[1] This blog text is focusing on gender-related asylum claims of women – girls herein included – although also men can be affected by gender-based persecution, especially in regard to sexual orientation. Nevertheless, according to UNHCR, gender-related asylum claims are more commonly made by women due to specific types of persecution like female genital mutilation (FGM) or forced marriage.