Risks for Women and Children

The passage to Europe is especially dangerous for women and children.

Many women and children suffer physical abuse during their journey, such as torture, rape and enslavement, as well as other forms of psychological abuse.

Irregular migration is particularly dangerous for women and girls. Smugglers often try to force women to pay for services with sexual favours. A 2017 study by UNICEF showed that women and children had to rely on pay-as-you-go schemes with smugglers (where the full cost of the journey is paid either on route or at the destination) and often ended up in debt, becoming even more vulnerable to abuse and trafficking. The study also found that almost half of the migrant women and children surveyed in Libya reported having suffered sexual violence and abuse on their journey. 

Once they arrive in Europe, many women say they face high levels of harassment and abuse

while staying in reception centres, detention facilities and other temporary accommodation. A study by charities in Germany showed that most women live without adequate support for the traumas they faced along the migration route.  

The specific needs of vulnerable female migrants, are often not addressed. For example, pregnant women struggle to access healthcare and get regular check-ups. Unhygienic living conditions also increase the risk of complications for pregnant women.

The irregular migration journey is extremely dangerous for children. There are many recorded cases of death, abuse and exploitation of children en route to Europe. A recent UNICEF report said that many children making the journey to Europe have gone through violence and abuse, which have taken a toll on their psychological and physical wellbeing. This is particularly true for arrivals in Italy where nearly all women and girls reported having survived some form of sexual or gender-based violence.

Child migrants are even more vulnerable than other migrants during irregular migration journeys. There are many recorded cases of death, abuse and exploitation of children en route to Europe. An IOM survey of over 4,700 migrants in Italy, showed that 77% of children said they had been held against their will, mostly in Libya. 

Even when a child makes it to Europe, they continue to face major challenges. While living in camps, they often struggle to access basic services, like adequate healthcare and education. A recent report from the UN showed that only 1% of all children in migrant camps on the Greek islands go to school. They often become isolated and miss their families as they can be placed with hosts who do not understand their language or culture. 

Once unaccompanied minors reach Europe, a substantial number go missing. A 2016 report by Europol, the EU’s police intelligence unit, estimated that almost 10,000 unaccompanied minors had gone missing in Europe. There are concerns that these children are the victims of criminal organisations and are at risk of sexual and labour exploitation as they have to pay back the traffickers who smuggled them into the country. Many young migrants end up in prostitution in order to survive.

Women and children face particular risks at the border between Belarus and Poland. There have been reports of women who have miscarried due to the harsh conditions, while others have been separated from their children by border guards, and been hospitalised.

Many women and children have been forced to sleep outside in makeshift camps due to the lack of adequate access to shelter, food, water and medical care.  A one-year-old Syrian boy was among 13 people reported to have lost their lives due to exposure from the cold, as of November 2021.

Learn more about the physical risks that migrants face during irregular migration journeys here.

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