Male refugees commonly experience sexual violence on the route to Europe

A fraught journey.
A fraught journey.
Image: AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud
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Male refugees and migrants, who make up the bulk of those crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, commonly experience sexual violence along the way, a study by the Women’s Refugee Commission has found.

In the hopes of making migration routes safer and improving responsive care, the commission, a rights advocacy group for displaced women and children, took a deeper look (pdf) at the experiences of men and boys who identify as males, as well as gay, transgender, and bisexual men. They found that while sexual violence is one of many reasons (paywall) thousands of migrants and refugees leave their homes for Europe, it is also something they encounter—sometimes repeatedly—along the route.

Last year, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) reported that requests for care aboard their search-and-rescue ship in the Mediterranean, the Aquarius, from male sexual abuse survivors jumped from 3% of rescued males in 2017 to 33% in 2018.

The Aquarius was among the NGO search-and-rescue ships shut down in the face of opposition by European governments. Since the 2015 migration crisis, the EU has taken a number of steps to keep migratory movement off its shores. However, migrants still try make it to Europe, despite how deadly the routes have become.

The Commission met with more than 50 male refugees between 15 and 40 years old and refugee healthcare providers in Italy, and heard instances of rape, castration, and sexual humiliation. The refugees said the abuse would often occur at borders or checkpoints, with guards requesting payment before crossing. Sexual violence would happen even if they had funds demanded. Sometimes, abuse was taped or aired on a call with families for ransom.

“All along the journey they experienced sexual violence,” an unnamed health provider interviewed by the Commission said. “The whole journey is traumatic.”

Some of the migrants told the Commission that sexual violence was “almost normal in Libya.” The north African country is one of the most frequently used exit points for migrants taking a boat to Europe. Instances of torture in both official and unofficial detention centers have been recorded by the United Nations, NGOs, and journalists. The interviewees struggled to describe Libyan abuse to the Commission.

The Commission conducted the report to highlight how responsive care for victims of sexual violence is needed for both men and women. It hopes that advocating for male survivors could in turn bolster services for female survivors.

The group is calling on the EU to stop deporting migrants back to Libya or their home country, where they may face sexual abuse again. They have asked the new right-wing Italian government to stop the criminalization of search-and-rescue operations and to reopen ports for rescued migrants. And they have also requested support from the UN for local organizations working with survivors of sexual violence.