07 Mar 2019

Women refugees in Germany struggle to get the help they need

When refugees are discussed in the German media, the conversation is about men -- but what about women refugees, are they being given the help they need to overcome their own challenges and integrate?

Daria Sukharchuk
Daria Sukharchuk NewsMavens, Central & Eastern Europe
Women refugees in Germany struggle to get the help they need - NewsMavens
Woman's hands. Pexels.

If you look for news about refugees in the German media, you are unlikely to find much coverage of refugee women in particular. When politicians discuss refugees, they’ll probably mention that “most of them are young Middle Eastern men,” like German Health minister Jens Spahn did last year in an interview. In that same interview, he also advocated for stricter policing of refugees and hinted at the supposed connection between immigration and the rising crime rate. When organizations like unions or employer federations explain how refugees from the last wave in 2015-16 are making great progress at integration by finding jobs, they often overlook the women who came then too, simply because they are a minority. However, refugee women are substantial in number, and given that the world refugee population has reached a record high in 2018 and is likely to continue growing, we decided to put together all the known facts about the specific challenges that refugee women face.

First, refugee women with children (and they are a majority) learn European languages at a lower rate than men, and take longer to find jobs in their new country. Conversely, childless women learn the new language and find jobs at the same rate as men, but they face more hurdles than men due to the traditional mindsets of their families.

According to Barbara Wessel, an immigration lawyer from Berlin who consults with many refugee women, gender-based and sexualized violence are often the main reasons that women flee from their home country. For example, women leave to escape forced marriage in cases when they cannot get protection in their own countries. Women are victims of sexual violence more often than men, which adds an extra burden of shame.

In such cases, Wessel explains, “some women, who come here with their husbands and children and apply for asylum, want to keep their husbands in the dark about the sexualized violence they experienced.”

As a result, lawyers are tasked with organizing interviews to allow a woman to share all the needed details with the authorities without her husband’s presence, if that is her choice.

Wessel usually encourages her female clients to start learning German because many of them stay home with their children while their husbands complete all the necessary paperwork. Wessel recalls that some men needed reminding that they cannot act as their wives’ legal representatives and sign all of their paperwork, but this depends on the family. Wessel notes that if a family is more traditional, and the woman is not expected to work, then she is likely to stay at home after moving to Germany, as well.

Lack of language skills does, of course, affect one’s prospect at finding jobs. However, in 2018, Germany did relax its labour law, which allows asylum seekers to work three months after arriving to Germany. The country needs more workers, but it’s not uncommon for refugees that lack professional qualifications to work odd jobs -- for men, the most typical choice would be security, and for women, it would be cleaning.

Lack of proper child care is another hurdle to overcome for refugee women. From a legal point of view, refugee children are obliged to go to school, and have the right to a place in a kindergarten, however, in reality, schools or kindergartens might be out of reach for refugee families -- just like they might be for locals.

The lack of visibility of refugee women often means that local authorities are unaware of their specific needs.

For example, temporary, large-scale housing that many of the refugees have to spend an extended period of time in, are less safe for women than they are for men. Many refugee women have shared stories about security guards taking advantage of their vulnerable position to sexually harass them.

After taking in a large number of refugees in 2015-16 and witnessing those problems up close, German authorities have made some much-needed amendments to their integration mechanisms.

Since summer 2017, the immigration agency started sponsoring integration courses paired with childcare that allowed parents to study without leaving their children unattended.

Many of the hurdles that we described in this article are not specific to refugee women. Access to childcare can be problematic for locals as well, and not all oppressive families come from a refugee background -- just like not all refugee families would restrict freedom for their women and force them to stay at home. If a woman’s husband turns abusive, lack of friends or limited language skills would make it even harder for her to leave him and seek help and protection.

However, it still makes sense to underline that since refugees are particularly vulnerable, lack of integration into local society makes them more susceptible to hardships. Recognizing these problems and building on the few already existing solutions is the only way German authorities can help these women refugees integrate into German society, and secure their future.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

The information and views set out on this website are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

NewsMavens is a media start-up within Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's largest liberal broadsheet published by Agora S.A. NewsMavens is currently financed by Gazeta Wyborcza and Google DNI Fund.
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