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Women and girls caught in refugee crisis lack protection

More than 1 million refugees and migrants entered Europe in 2015. For those fleeing brutal wars and violence at home, the perilous journey can be often most dangerous for women. Sarah Costa of the Women's Refugee Commission talks with Judy Woodruff about the heightened risks of gender-based violence and exploitation and how women could be better protected.

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    Now we continue our look at the desperate journey facing refugees seeking safe haven in Europe.

    Today, President Obama spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about how significant a challenge the wave of new refugees pose. The two leaders agreed to galvanize global support at a conference in London next month and call for a global refugee summit at the U.N. General Assembly in September.

    Judy Woodruff recently recorded this look at the crisis.


    Last year saw more than one million refugees and migrants enter Europe from the Middle East, from Southwest Asia and Africa.

    Many are fleeing brutal wars and violence at home, and making often perilous journeys in search of safety. There are serious risks along the route, but these are often harsher for women.

    To explore the challenges and dangerous faced by women amid this refugee crisis, I'm joined by Sarah Costa. She's the executive director of the Women's Refugee Commission. It's a nonprofit advocacy and awareness group that focuses on the needs of women and children in humanitarian emergencies. She returned from a fact-finding mission in Greece and Macedonia just before the new year.

    Sarah Costa, welcome.

    Tell us what is known about the women who are making this journey right now.

  • SARAH COSTA, Executive Director, Women’s Refugee Commission:

    Well, what we know in all humanitarian crisis — and this is no exception — that women face heightened risks of violence and exploitation and heightened risks of all forms of gender-based violence.

    And what we have also seen in our journey — in fact, we have been in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia — what we have seen is that systematically, the protection risks for women and girls in particular are not being taken into account.

    There are not adequate protection services on the ground to both identify and prioritize women's needs.


    And is this something that has grown worse during this crisis, or has it been like this all along?


    This is an unprecedented crisis. I mean, the magnitude and the speed of the migration, we haven't seen in other times.

    And what's failing here are the services and the countries responsible for those services to put in place the protection pieces that need to be put in place. I mean, what we have seen is that the humanitarian agencies were quite slow to come into this crisis, because I think governments felt they could manage.

    But they're not managing particularly well. We are failing women and girls on this route. And it is, as you said in your introduction, a very treacherous route.


    But how much is known about what portion, what proportion of these refugees are women and where they're coming from?


    Well, we do know, from the statistics of the International Organization on Migration, that the number of women has been increasing steadily.

    I think when we saw those first pictures right at the beginning of the coverage by the media, people were only focused on the men, and there certainly were a lot of men. But what we have seen during our assessment is that more and more women are coming, and women with families, women traveling alone, women traveling alone with children.

    So, we think it's probably now about 40 percent are women. And we know that at least 37 percent are coming directly from Syria, which tells us about the worsening conditions in Syria. And their stories are horrific.


    Give us a sense of that. What are they saying?


    Well, what we hear is that they basically have had very little food, very little access to water. They are fearful of violence every day. They have seen their families killed around them.

    And they have made this choice that it would be better to take a rubber dinghy across the Aegean Sea than stay in their hometowns in Syria. But we have also heard stories from women who have been in Lebanon and Jordan that their conditions have deteriorated over time.

    They're not legally allowed, as you probably know, to work. And their savings have diminished. And they're finding it very, very difficult to survive. There's a huge funding gap in humanitarian aid, I should add. But they're unable to survive. Their children are not in school. And they're pretty desperate.

    You will hear from women that they feel that they have no option than to put themselves in harm's way by getting into a rubber dinghy.


    What needs to happen? What do these women need?


    Well, first, we need, you know, safe and legal alternatives. I mean, the fact that people are taking such a treacherous journey, I think there are other ways of addressing this issue.

    But while they are on the route, we need to make sure that there are protection services in place. We need to make sure that we do have gender and gender-based violence experts who can identify those who are most vulnerable, who can try and prioritize services for them.

    And we need to make sure that they have access to some of the most basic services such as reproductive health care. A very large number of the women that we interviewed are pregnant. We know that, in this kind of crisis, probably one in five could be pregnant. And at least 15 percent are going to have complications during that pregnancy.

    And what we saw are women giving birth on route, not really being able to stop at a health care center, feeling that, if they stop and recover from giving birth, that they will miss the opportunity to migrate to the destination countries, which, as you know, are Germany — for a lot of people, Germany and Sweden. And they just feel that they cannot, cannot stop, and they will be separated from their family members.

    But one of the key factors for people is to get the right information. What we see that increases the protection risks for women and children, for that matter, is that they do not know anything about where they're going, what time trains will be going, what time the buses that are going to take them over the border are going to arrive.

    And so when there are some services available, they're not using them.


    Well, it sounds terribly chaotic.

    And just finally, I would say that all this is happening as European countries are increasingly either closing or tightening their borders because of the rising fear of terrorism.


    You know, we have to remember and we must remember in this discussion about terrorism that refugees are fleeing violence, they're fleeing the kind of terror we're talking about, and that they are the first victims of this violence, and that they are not the source of the violence.

    So, when we talk about security — obviously, security is a very, very legitimate concern — we must also think about the safety and the human rights of the refugees.


    Sarah Costa, the executive director of the Women's Refugees Commission, we thank you very much.


    Well, thank you.

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