The Non-Negotiables of Refugee Integration: Ensuring the Safety and Sexual Liberty of Women

by Sheeva Seyfi

In the wake of over one million asylum-seekers’ migration to Europe from sexually conservative regions, effective integration methods regarding total gender equality must be developed and thoroughly implemented.

Band-Aids on Broken Bones

“Women should in general not go out on the streets at night alone,” advised Vienna’s Police Chief, Gerhard Pürstl. His statement came just days after the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, which, according to official police reports, held hundreds of men of North African and Middle Eastern descent, including a number of asylum-seekers, responsible for the mass sexual assault of women. Yet, Pürstl’s suggestion of a self-imposed curfew coupled with a sort of buddy-system serves as nothing more than a feeble attempt to heal a much deeper wound – one that pervades the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region – sexual violence against women. Pürstl’s advice, which was met with criticism from the Viennese, penalizes the wrong people. Instead, he and other European leaders should advocate preventative and punitive measures targeting the perpetrators themselves.

The absence of a legal right to initiate divorce, unequal inheritance laws, gender-discriminative clothing mandates, the prevalence of stoning adulterers, honor killings and child marriage, these practices demonstrate that the social and legal codes of the MENA region are highly stacked against the freedom and safety of women. These codes, commonplace throughout the same region from which upwards of one million asylum-seekers arrived in Europe over the last year, foster an overall lack of respect for women. Indeed, for those who have studied or experienced gender norms in MENA, the magnitude of the Cologne attacks was surprising – the nature of the attacks was not.

Other Countries, Other Manners?

The problem arises when refugees, whose cultures are comparatively conservative and oppressive toward women arrive, for example, in Germany, where prostitution is legal and the country’s most powerful position is held by a woman. This problem is then exacerbated by the fact that, according to reports released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR), around 60% of these refugees are young men, who are statistically the most violent demographic of any society, regardless of nationality or religion.

To be sure, not all European men are angels. Sexual harassment and rape were not imported solely by asylum-seekers, but are a sickening reality for countless women throughout the globe. Nevertheless, there exists the idea that all cultures are inherently equal. Although a comparative study is well beyond the scope of this article, the theory of cultural equality is unconvincing, particularly if one bases the merits of a culture on its ability to foster an absence of physical violence against women.

… [F]or those who have studied or experienced gender norms in [the Middle Eastern and North African region], the magnitude of the Cologne attacks was surprising – the nature of the attacks was not.

And, of course, not all young, male asylum-seekers pose a threat to the sexual liberty of women. A good number of them are active advocates of their safety and freedom. A few days after the events in Cologne, a group of Syrian asylum-seekers, male and female, gathered to denounce the attacks with signs that read: “We respect the values of German society.” Furthermore, the attacks were condemned by Arabic social media outlets, a testament to the wide-ranging disgust of both the English- and the Arab-speaking world. But to pretend that a sizeable portion of refugees do not have to adjust their understanding of gender roles would be irresponsibly optimistic. As one female Arabic journalist based in Germany stated: “The ugliness of our region is reaching Germany.”


Women refugees from Syria at a clinic in Jordan, Department for International Development, flickr

Standardizing Expectations: Preventative and Punitive Measures

It only takes a handful of violent events to change the way society operates. Following Cologne, these incidents can no longer be considered hypothetical, nor can the fear of them be deemed paranoia. A handful of measures intended to address this problem in a forward-thinking manner are worth implementing. None of these include asking the women of Europe to stay home at night, to wear longer skirts or to be constantly wary of any man who comes within arm’s length. The host state’s unwillingness to properly and openly address this issue, perhaps as a result of fearing the further negative stigmatization of asylum-seekers, cannot and ought not to result in the deterioration of what European society has fought to achieve.

Instead, a cultural orientation course highlighting gender-relations should be made mandatory for asylum-seekers. Norway, Denmark and Finland have already established voluntary courses available to those who are interested. In Austria, according to Profil, the majority of integration funds flow into smaller integration products and language courses, in addition to the gender mainstreaming programs already offered by the Public Employment Service Austria (AMS).

These courses inform refugees that it is normal for men and women in Europe to talk in public, to be friends and to flirt without it being considered an invitation for sex. They teach that a smile or a short skirt does not communicate sexual availability, and that, as highlighted in a recent BBC News article, in Europe one cannot simply buy a wife. Educated, liberal-minded refugees may nod knowingly and supportively at these lesson plans, while still others may raise their eyebrows in quiet surprise. The issue with voluntary courses, however, is that those who need them the most are often also the least likely to attend. As such, this step towards integration must become a requirement for refugees.

In addition, consequences, in the form of deportation, should be enforced for any asylum-seeker who deviates from what is acceptable. Germany is currently looking to change their laws to make it easier to deport criminal asylum-seekers. This may become tricky in the face of the

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