3.1. Prevalence of SV in Migrants, Applicants for International Protection, and Refugees in Europe
Compared to the attention given to SV in the general population, research on SV in MARs is extremely scarce. In this section, we discuss the prevalence of SV victimization and perpetration in MARs in Europe. The findings regarding both victimization and perpetration will be presented together when they stem from the same studies.
As we will discuss in more detail later, estimating the prevalence of SV in MARs involves several challenges. The combination of these challenges led to the identification of only five studies on the prevalence of SV in MARs in Europe that matched our predetermined inclusion criteria, and may be the primary reason for the scarcity of data on prevalence, consequences, and mediating factors of SV in this population.
One frequently cited paper concerns a community-based participatory study by Keygnaert et al. from 2012 [23
] on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) in refugees, applicants, and undocumented migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands. This study showed that approximately 57% of the participants indicated that they had been confronted with SV experiences, comprising rape and sexual exploitation among others. Compared to the general population, the nature of the experienced SV included more incidences of multiple and gang rape [23
]. A fifth of all respondents in this study reported having been sexually victimised themselves. A total of 332 acts of SGVB were described in 223 interviews, including 188 cases of SV, of which 47 were personal experiences and 141 were experienced by a close peer of the respondent [23
]. These results indicate a high risk for MARs of becoming confronted with SV. At a more detailed level, 69% of individuals victimized since their arrival in Europe were women, and 29% were men. In 2% of the cases, the gender of the victim remained unclear or multiple victims of both sexes were involved. The opposite pattern can be found when asking about who the assailants were. In 72.6% of the cases, the assailant was a man, in 1.5% it concerned a transgender assailant, in 19.6%, the gender was not clearly specified, and only in 6% of the cases the assailant was a woman [23
]. In line with findings from studies in the general population [4
], most victims knew their assailants [23
]. The assailant was in most cases an intimate partner (31%) and less frequently a professional (23%), a family member (16%), an acquaintance (15%), or a stranger (12%) [23
]. In a third of the incidences, the assailant was a European citizen [23
When looking further into the European situation, another much-cited study by Keygnaert et al. [25
] from 2014 in eight European countries (Belgium, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain) examined the prevalence of SV in refugees, applicants for international protection, and undocumented migrants in a wider European context. This community-based participatory study showed that in the European asylum reception sector, both sexes as well as both residents and professionals are at risk of being exposed to different forms of violence, including SV, with 58.3% of the 562 respondents reporting having being directly (23.3%) or indirectly (76.6%) confronted with SV [25
]. This study also showed that victimization and perpetration of violence seem to be more gender-balanced in comparison with the general population. Both sexes indicated a comparable tendency to have experienced all types of violence perpetration and victimization. However, men were more likely to be involved in SV perpetration and emotional victimization, whereas women tended to be more likely to become the victim of SV and perpetrate emotional violence [25
It should be noted here that the findings may be an underestimation since many of the respondents in the study indicated that they did not want to disclose or were hesitant to disclose personal SV experiences as long as they remained and/or worked in reception centres. Fear of reprisals by community members and feared impact on their asylum case or stay in the facility may have influenced the number of reported cases [25
]. Although these studies give us an idea of the magnitude of the problem in this population, their objective was not to present representative prevalence numbers.
In the same period, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) [9
] published an EU-wide survey about violence against women (VAW), which included a section on the prevalence of violence in migrant populations. They concluded that women who were not a citizen of their current country of residence were more likely than women without a migration history to become victims of physical and/or SV by both partners and non-partners after the age of 15. However, they did not find notable differences from the general population in physical, sexual, or psychological violence before the age of 15, and sexual harassment and stalking after the age of 15 [9
]. Unfortunately, these numbers cannot be broken down according to legal status, do not consider SV against men, and are not comparable with the figures by Keygnaert et al. in 2012 and 2014 [23
In 2015, Doctors of the World (Médicins du Monde
, MdM) [26
] disseminated a report on the access to healthcare in 2014 for vulnerable people, such as MARs in 11 countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Canada). The data were collected by means of social and medical questionnaires administered to patients who attended a MdM consultation in one of the 11 countries [26
]. Unfortunately, questions on SV were not asked in every country and strongly depended on the healthcare providers’ willingness to address the issue. Even though the numbers could not be generalized, the results indicate that applicants for international protection were disproportionately highly represented among victims of violence [26
] and thus may support the hypothesis that MARs are more vulnerable to SV than the general population. Among the patients who were questioned about their experiences with SV, 27.6% (37.6% of women and 7.3% of men) reported sexual assault. Rape was mentioned by 14.9% of those patients (24.1% of the women and 5.4% of the men). Interestingly, male patients reported a quarter of the total number of sexual assaults [26
]. The figures cannot be considered representative, but they provide an impression of the current situation.
Another important finding in this study, which continues in the line of the results found by Keygnaert et al. [23
], relates to the experiences of SV throughout the trajectory of MARs from country of origin to country of destination. MARs do not only experience SV before migrating, but also during and after their arrival in Europe [26
]. In the population studied by MdM, 21.1% of the reported rapes and 17.7% of the sexual assaults took place after the victim’s arrival in the host country. This is an important finding since most studies on SV in MARs only consider violence cases in the country of origin, ignoring the experiences en route or after arrival. Keygnaert et al. [27
] found in another study published in 2014 on SV among sub-Saharan migrants in Morocco that 45% of them had experienced SV in a direct or indirect manner during their migration or in Morocco itself. These are important findings to consider when asking about SV in this population. Identifying aspects related to SV before leaving the country of origin, during transit, and after arrival in the host country is necessary in order to provide appropriate and adequate policy recommendations and prevention strategies.
In 2009, the Refugee Council’s Vulnerable Women’s Project (VWP) [28
] published some numbers in line with the trends reported here. In a 21-month period (2006–2008), the project supported 153 refugee and asylum-seeking women in the United Kingdom. Of those, 76% indicated that they had been raped either in their home country or in the United Kingdom, had been sexually abused (22%), or had been confronted with threats of being raped or sexually abused while in detention in their country of origin (9%). Men were not included in this study [28
We will briefly discuss some non-European studies on conflict-related SV (CRSV) to illustrate the specific SV experiences that may have taken place before the migration process started. During the Rwandan genocide for example, up to half a million women were raped. In parts of Liberia, more than 90% of women and girls above the age of three became the victim of CRSV, and in parts of Eastern Congo, it is estimated that about 75% of the women were confronted with SV [28
]. CRSV presents itself in specific forms, such as gang rape, depending on the war in which it takes place and the underlying function of the practice [29
Although clear and robust prevalence rates of SV in MARs in Europe are lacking, the evidence we have right now supports the hypothesis that MARs are vulnerable to becoming victims of SV. In addition, it is in line with the wide recognition that in times of conflict everyone is more exposed to violence and more particularity to SGBV [33
]. The numbers reported on the situation in Europe also follow the same trend as shown in a systematic review and meta-analysis from 2014 on SV among female refugees in complex humanitarian emergencies. Vu et al. [34
] estimate the prevalence of SV in this population as approximately one in five women. Given the multiple barriers associated with disclosing the experiences, the researchers stress that these numbers are most likely an underestimation.