German authorities may have not paid proper attention to reports of sexual abuse, violence, and rape in refugee shelters over fears of rising xenophobia in their country.
Rainer Wendt, the police union chief, told Reuters that authorities responsible for asylum seekers were not adequately addressing assaults on women in the shelters. “It is understandable that there is the desire to calm things down politically,” Wendt said. “There is a lot of glossing over going on. But this doesn’t represent reality.”
Germany announced a plan in August to accept more than 800,000 refugees by the end of this year. Since then, diverging reactions have occurred. Banners unveiled at soccer games welcomed refugees while groups of Syrians were met by applause at train stations. But rightwing nationalist and anti-immigrant groups have also rioted or attacked buses and shelters.
Xenophobic sentiment has rattled Germany as of late. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has insisted on resettling refugees, even though it has hurt her popularity as a politician. The level of ire directed at the incoming refugee communities seems to have contributed to authorities’ willingness to address the issues of sexual abuse.
“The federal authorities are investigating these resolutely and often the rumors are not true,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said at a news conference. “There are things worthy of criticism. But there is no reason for a general suspicion of refugees.”
Reuters reported that women’s groups and Wednt, the police chief, felt that failing to handle sexual abuse cases was actually counterproductive. Humanitarian aid workers told ThinkProgress the same thing.
Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, a Senior Advocate at Refugees International, told ThinkProgress that authorities may have overlooked sexual abuse in shelters because “they may not want to fan the fires of phobia and contribute to the narrative that the extreme conservatives or neo-Nazi or rightwing may be circulating in Germany and other countries in Europe. Is that sufficient enough excuse to try and gloss over this? Absolutely not.”
Sexual abuse is not uncommon for women to experience – and refugee women (and children) are potentially even more at risk. According to a United Nations Refugee Agency guide for preventing sexual violence against refugess, “refugees of all ages and both genders face a significantly increased risk of sexual violence when in detention or detention-like situations” but unaccompanied women and children are most at risk. Often when war breaks out, men often leave their families behind tobrave physical risks. Take for example the current group of Syrians, Afghans, and Eritreans (among others) who attempt to cross the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea.
“In general refugee populations, displaced populations tend to be predominately women and children,” Daryl Grisgraber, Refugees International’s Senior Middle East Advocate, told ThinkProgress. “Since we are talking about people already vulnerable that have been displaced and are without a standard family structure of protection, it makes them more at risk for every sort of abuse or economic exploitation. That’s generally the case around the world.”
Often times abuse will happen while refugees are fleeing or outside of camps. Landlords may demand sexual favors in absence of rent money, for example. But the fact that such cases took place inside a shelter means that authorities have failed to apply the minimum international law for providing shelter to refugees.
“The media and others have called the refugee influx into Europe a crisis,” said Vigaud-Walsh. “So what I would like to see is authorities hosting and accepting refugee and tirelessly looking where and how to place them.”
Vigaud-Walsh said that women and men should not be housed together unless they are members of the same family unit. Small spaces and large numbers of refugees can often pose challenges, but Vigaud-Walsh pointed to an example currently taking place in Rwanda where old wooden boards were used to make partitions and outfitted with basic locks to provide separate shelters for families and individuals.
Overlooking sexual abuse is also harmful for the abused who may later suffer from trauma. Prosecuting violators is a start but the attention must also be on the survivors.
“Anytime things like this happen, there should be a mechanism for survivors to seek the services they need,” Grisgraber said. “The focus always has to be on who has survived and what they need to keep carrying on their lives in a functional way.”
She added, “Anywhere you have relationship of authority and abuse is possible.”