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MEP Jean Lambert supports EWL call for gender perspective in asylum policies

[Brussels, 19 October 2011] In a guest posting on Women’s Views on the News, Member of the European Parliament Jean Lambert considers the importance of a gender perspective in European asylum policies, giving credit to the work of the EWL together with Amnesty international and ILGA Europe in this area. Read her article below.

Gender in asylum policies, by Jean Lambert, Member of the European Parliament for the Green party

Picture the scenario.

After being persecuted and violated simply because you are a women from a minority group, after having been failed and betrayed by the authorities in your home country, you make the heart wrenching decision to leave behind all that is familiar and seek protection in a country where you feel you might be safe and where a women’s right to protection is more advanced.

You embark on a long and dangerous journey, having no option but to put your trust in smugglers and traffickers, risking further harm on the way. You hang on to the thought that you will be safe when you arrive but can’t help thinking of everything you have left behind.

On arrival, you are interviewed in a stark and intimidating holding centre, you undergo medical examinations, but no one really explains what is going on or what will happen next.

Although you have a grasp of the local language, no one asks if you need any help to understand the complex information you are given about asylum procedures.

You don’t feel comfortable or safe and your children are anxious and unsettled whilst you give painful and personal details about your experience to a male immigration officer. You’re not used to having conversations with men without a family member being present and you are too ashamed to tell him the full story.

As a result, and after many difficult months of waiting, not knowing what the future will hold, your asylum claim is refused. You are cast adrift in an unfamiliar country, vulnerable and alone with your children, terrified at the thought of returning home.

Shamefully, this is the experience of thousands of women who seek asylum in member states of the European Union (EU) each year.

During 2010, over 257,000 asylum applications were made across the EU, around 35 per cent of which were made by women or girls.

Yet despite the obvious need for high-quality harmonisation between member states on questions of asylum, national policies remain a patchwork of dramatically varying standards and approaches which all too often lack gender expertise and sensitivity.

Gender equality is one of the common values which the EU proclaims in its treaties, yet there remains a lack of recognition that women may be persecuted for reasons different to men and specific to their gender.

These include female genital mutilation, forced abortion or rape in situations of conflict or war, and therefore may need different forms of protection and services upon arrival in Europe.

The EU is pushing to mainstream gender awareness in European asylum legislation, not least through the Qualifications and Procedures Directives which set out the basic standards of protection and procedure for granting asylum to non-EU nationals.

As recently as 2010, member states recognised the need for a ‘gender sensitive’ asylum system. The European Commission adopted a similar position in 2008, citing the need to incorporate gender ‘considerations’ in the development of the Common European Asylum System.

Yet despite these statements, female asylum seekers continue to experience wildly differing standards of protection and reception in member states.

For example, within the EU, only Sweden and the UK have adopted their own gender guidelines which cover the issues that should be taken into account when assessing asylum claims, including gender-related persecution and the absence of state protection.

Belgium has also appointed a Co-ordinator for Gender Issues. However, asylum seekers in other member states are simply left to rely on whatever makeshift measures may have been put in place.

There are a few glimmers of hope for the future such as the recent opening of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).

Its role is to support member states in their efforts to implement a more harmonised asylum policy by improving access to accurate country-of-origin information, training and sharing examples of good practice.

As a result, it could support the implementation of asylum procedures that are gender sensitive to ensure women benefit from a non-discriminatory and supportive process as well as consistent, high-quality decision making.

Amnesty International and the European Women’s Lobby are now working to have this built in to the development of the EASO. It is equally important that we see a similar approach relating to gender identity and sexual orientation.

The revision of the Qualifications Directive offers a further opportunity to raise the standards of protection offered to women seeking asylum in the EU.

The revised text, which is due to be voted on by the European Parliament later in October, obliges member states to take gender related aspects, including gender identity and sexual orientation into account when assessing asylum applications.

The text also specifies that female genital mutilation, forced sterilisation and forced abortion should be given due consideration.

This is an historic recognition of some of the different types of persecution likely to be faced by women and as such represents a real step forward to mainstreaming gender sensitivity in the EU’s asylum policy, building on the existing work of UNHCR.

Ensuring that female asylum seekers fleeing from gender-related persecution are protected is not just a role for European institutions – all member state governments and asylum authorities must commit to the proper implementation of EU legislation and to develop good practice and gender sensitive systems.

It is disappointing to say the least that the British Government has decided not to opt in to the new version of the Qualifications Directive. The revision of the Procedures Directive is still under negotiation and could offer further improvements, set down in law.

It would be wrong to deny that some progress has been made towards the recognition of gender in asylum policies and legislation.

Yet the challenge now lies in these commitments being implemented through the adoption of concrete and strong measures which incorporate an understanding of the unique experience of women.

To fail is to deny women their fundamental human rights; the very reason they seek international protection in the first place.

*Jean Lambert is a member of the Green/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament and rapporteur (author) of the parliamentary report on proposed changes to European Asylum legislation (the recast Qualifications Directive).

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