Germany Should Acknowledge and Counter Violence Against Refugee Women at the EU’s Borders

20 July 2020   ·   Madita Standke-Erdmann

For many refugee women, borders are spaces of violence and insecurity. Germany should acknowledge the risk of gender-based violence at EU borders in its new National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, address colonialism as a cause of migration, and recognize its resulting historical responsibility. The government should use the action plan as more than a foreign policy tool.

The Corona crisis brings a multiplicity of social injustices to the forefront. One place where they are particularly visible is the European Union’s (EU) external borders. In March 2020, tensions between Turkey, Greece and the EU brutally unfolded when refugees attempted to cross the Greek border. Once COVID-19 hit the EU, the situation quickly disappeared from the headlines. Circumstances which refugees face on the Greek islands or in Libya confirm that violence, structural or physical, continues to be a constant companion for refugees en route. While we are only beginning to learn about such experiences, gender-based violence (GBV) committed against women refugees and other marginalized groups, in particular, has received little political attention. We do not know much about how actors and infrastructure perpetuate and manifest GBV and, most importantly, how these experiences affect individuals. 

Xenophobic attitudes towards ‘more migrants’, negligent treatment of subsequent COVID-19 outbreaks in camps, and Germany’s reluctance to provide refuge to no more than a handful of “the most vulnerable of the vulnerable” reveals how forced migration still is conceptualized as a problem external to Germany’s realm of influence and beyond its political and historical responsibility. Where does the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda come into play here?

More Than a Foreign Policy Tool: Apply the WPS Agenda beyond so-called Crisis-Prone Regions

Debates on the WPS agenda in the Global North and within the UN remain heavily influenced by distinctions between givers and receivers, i.e. Western actors provide support to states from the Global South. Hence, in the Global North, the agenda is designed as a foreign policy tool and has been applied as such ever since. Coming into effect in (post-) conflict and so-called crisis-prone regions, the agenda addresses violence against women as a problem exclusively outside of Germany and the EU.

Forced migration and internal displacement, let alone migration-induced violence, fittingly play a marginal role in Germany’s and other EU member states’ National Action Plans (NAPs) as a recent publication of Holvikivi and Reeves (2020) shows. The moment women migrate to regions, which do not qualify as crisis-prone, to allegedly more ‘peaceful’ areas, such as borders, the WPS agenda appears to be no longer applicable. Germany and other EU member states have so far treated crises within their own territories or close to the EU and Germany – such as the EU’s external borders – as not relevant to the WPS agenda. Thus, it is not designed to account for violence experienced during migration.

This should change. Forced migration needs to become a central element of subsequent National Action Plans. This means that the German interministerial group on the agenda’s implementation must cease to strictly treat it as a foreign policy tool that is applicable only outside the EU.

The WPS agenda is crafted to promote peace and security for women in all regions of crisis. If the German government acknowledges its global applicability, it should implement the agenda’s standards to account for all of Germany’s activities, which potentially affect women refugee’s (in)security, be it on the European continent or beyond. That should include how Europe’s borders are monitored and how people are treated.

Explicitly Name Borders as Regions of Violence and Prevent Gender-Based Violence 

A look at the recurring violence and human rights violations at European borders forces us to challenge the idea that EU borders are regions of order and peacefulness. They are regions of crisis where women and other marginalized refugee groups often face high levels of insecurity.

The shift towards migration becoming a security problem has caused the externalization and militarization of the EU border regime to expand well into the African continent, facilitated by binding agreements with third countries. Militarization of borders in the form of security infrastructure consists of surveillance technology and military equipment to monitor these regions. In addition, the EU also supports administrative and police training of local officers. While not all forms of migration are criminalized, security infrastructure is explicitly directed towards those incapable of migrating to Europe otherwise or who are deemed illegal. Activists and academics have repeatedly criticized the installation of such infrastructure for its disproportionate character and found them to be breeding grounds for violence and insecurity rather than a means against it. Crucially, studies show how racism and sexism play a particular role in ‘managing’ and upholding these infrastructures as well as the refugees who encounter them. 

The EU justifies building this security infrastructure by referring to the need to restrain the activities of smugglers, including gender-based violence committed by such smugglers, on common migration routes. It, therefore, identifies security infrastructure as a tool to provide security to refugee women and locates GBV as a problem external to its borders. However, not only smugglers commit violence. On the contrary, studies have demonstrated that exposure to GBV does not stop when arriving at or passing EU borders. Administrative, security or border personnel also commit GBV. Forms of this include transactional sex, i.e. forced sexual intercourse to continue one’s journey, and sexual assault to degrade and exploit vulnerable situations women refugees face. The next German national action plan on WPS should therefore explicitly name borders as regions prone to violence and set goals to propose concrete measures to counter GBV at borders. This step requires refuting the notion of EU borders being peaceful. In its next NAP, the German government should acknowledge gender-based violence committed at borders and terminate its support for the externalization and militarization of the EU border regime.

The NAP Should Acknowledge (Post)Colonialism as a Cause for Migration

Acknowledging the link between continuous militarization of the EU’S external borders and violence is also paramount in the reappraisal of Germany’s colonial past.

Especially on the African continent, reasons for migration are closely linked to postcolonial realities. Understanding its responsibility as a former colonial power, Germany should treat this connection as essential for a reappraisal of colonial history which the government committed itself to in the 2018 coalition agreement. For its new National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, such a reappraisal would mean to incorporate the link between Germany’s colonial past on the African continent, respective postcolonial realities and migration.

Therefore, Germany should urgently end its involvement – financially and with personnel – in EU migration policies that treat migration as a threat from the “outside” and aim to prevent people from moving across borders by militarizing them, such as in Niger or Libya. At EU level, Berlin should push for the establishment of sufficient support structures to report GBV and to allow legal prosecution of those committing it along borders. Additionally, the Foreign Office and the government as a whole should seek demilitarization and prevent further expansion of the EU border regime in dialogue with third parties, including EU member states and EU institutions as well as states such as Libya and Niger. Finally, the Federal Police as a provider staff to FRONTEX should receive gender-sensitive and anti-racism training to counter racist and sexist stigma towards refugees. Acknowledging a postcolonial responsibility and incorporating this in a next NAP can form a holistic first step towards reducing insecurities for refugee women at borders.

Involve Women Refugees in Developing Policies towards Reducing Gender-Based Violenc

Lastly and most importantly, the agenda’s potential lies in its inclusivity. Women refugees are not just victims. Without causing harm, refugees should play a central role in developing policies towards reducing GBV. Furthermore, it is crucial to account for intersectionality when including refugees in the process.

As long as the Global North profits from the Global South’s poverty, the structurally discriminated against, such as women and other marginalized groups, will be moving towards more affluent regions. Germany needs to acknowledge its (historical) responsibility in causing such inequalities, but also in being able to provide solutions to overcome them. With militarized borders designed to stop refugees, violence will prevail as part of the system. Implementing the WPS agenda can at least prove a symptomatic treatment of wider-ranging internationally systemic and structural aspects that perpetuate the continuum of violence to which women and other marginalized groups are exposed. Applying the agenda to border regions can provide a framework in which refugees face fewer insecurities at EU borders.

Europäische Union Politikkohärenz Frauen Gender

Madita Standke-Erdmann

Madita Standke-Erdmann is a doctoral researcher for the FWF-funded project GBV-MIG: Violence against women migrants and refugees. After having completed her MSc International Relations Theory at the LSE, her current research deals with the nexus of humanitarianism and security at EU-borders through a feminist postcolonial lens. @erdfraeuleinMa