Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Guest Post: Jean Lambert MEP

Today we are extremely happy to present our first in, hopefully, a series of Guest Posts.  It's been our idea for quite some now to gradually move away from being a purely informative blog, and becoming a more analytical and innovative site for our readers.  But until EASO sets up its own website, we feel slightly duty-bound to keep on providing useful information which - we hope - will soon be provided by EASO itself.

Our first post is by MEP Jean Lambert, and explores the gender dimension of asylum and how EASO ought to position itself vis-á-vis this perspective.  Gender is used in its broader sense to also include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Many thanks to Ms. Lambert and her team for accepting to contribute to this blog.

Enjoy the reading!

During 2010 over 257,000 asylum applications were made across the EU, 35 per cent of which were made by women or girls.  For thousands of these women, the experience of attempting to claim asylum was one hallmarked by crippling shame, anxiety and confusion.

For this is a process where even vulnerable women with complex asylum claims, based on family violence, rape or trafficking, are often shunted from police station to holding centres and subjected to humiliating body searches and medical examinations.  A process where women who have suffered from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), forced abortion or sexual attacks, can be forced to relive painful memories as they are asked probing personal questions by a male police officer, whilst their children mill about their feet.

I recently hosted a special seminar in the European Parliament with Asylum Aid to launch a new body of research which has raised grave concerns about the inconsistent and poor standards in the treatment of women asylum seekers in Europe.

The GenSen report, based on the interviews of 60 women who have claimed asylum in the EU since 2008, found vast and worrying inconsistencies in the way nine different EU states handle asylum applications by women. For example, fewer than half of the nine Member States have guidelines to help make asylum decisions on gender-related cases. Only a handful publish gender-disaggregated asylum statistics, despite legally binding obligations and even where positive policy is in place, it is often overlooked in practice.

This authoritative and timely research only goes to prove what many of us have suspected for so long: that national asylum systems across Europe are continuing to let women down.  Despite the obvious need for high-quality harmonisation between Member States on questions of asylum, national policies continue to be a patchwork of dramatically varying standards and approaches which all too often lack gender expertise and sensitivity.

The GenSen research shows that some forms of harm unique to women asylum seekers are overlooked in national practice. Authorities in France, Malta and Romania do not always accept that FGM – a cruel and degrading practice carried out on thousands of girls and women around the world on a daily basis – amounts to persecution.  As a further example, Spain doesn’t recognise trafficking as a form of persecution.

The accounts of the brave women interviewed for the paper also prove that the services provided for those seeking asylum are worryingly disparate. While all EU states provide female asylum interviewers on request, only Belgium, Sweden and the UK systematically ask women for their preference. Childcare during interviews is only provided in Belgium and the UK – elsewhere, women must choose between withholding important information and disclosing traumatic details before their children.

These examples go to prove that whilst gender equality continues to be one of the common founding principles of the EU, there remains a lack of recognition that women may be persecuted for reasons different to men and specific to their gender. As a result, women are not guaranteed anything close to a consistent, gender sensitive treatment when seeking protection in Europe.

Whilst this makes for depressing reading, there remains a glimmer of hope in the comprehensive set of recommendations put forward which consider the role of the European Asylum Support Office as well as those of the European Commission and the Council, in creating a fair and dignified asylum system for those forced to flee gender-related persecution.

Ultimately, the aim of EASO is to ensure protection for those who need it, and to provide real added value when it comes to improving the quality and capacity of Member States’ asylum systems.  As a result, the office has a vital role to play in supporting the implementation of asylum procedures that are gender sensitive to ensure women asylum seekers benefit from a non-discriminatory and supportive process, as well as consistent high-quality decision making.

This vision is reflected in the GenSen recommendations for EASO. The paper urges the office to promote the implementation of existing UNHC R guidelines and standards on gender sensitive asylum systems; integrate a gender sensitive perspective into all aspects of its work programme; and enhance its collection of statistics and data on selected gender-related issues.

EASO is also called on to create a competent gender working party to address issues related to womens’ rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, and to include organisations with expertise in gender and asylum in its consultative forum. The office exists primarily to implement a more harmonised asylum policy by improving access to accurate country of origin information, training and sharing examples of good practice – the aim of the GenSen recommendations is to ensure that gender sensitivity is placed at the heart of these attempts to create a common European asylum system.

The GenSen proposals are clearly a step in the right direction, but EASO cannot solve everything.  The responsibility to ensure the high quality delivery of gender aware asylum policies ultimately lies with individual Member States, and until each and every one takes this responsibility seriously, we cannot guarantee that those in need of protection will always receive it.

At the seminar, speakers from EASO, Commission and the Danish Presidency responded directly to the study’s recommendations and in positive tones – which is not to say they were prepared to commit to proposals on the spot.  However, those presenting the study felt they had been listened to, and that progress was possible.  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.

With this in mind, the recommendations in the GenSen report must be read and read again before being used to push for far reaching change in Europe’s asylum system. To fail is to repeat the denial of fundamental human rights – the very reason these women seek international protection in the first place.

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