UN raises alarm over sex abuse of migrant women, children in Europe

Children huddle inside emergency blankets as they arrive with other refugees and migrants on the Greek Island of Lesbos.
Children huddle inside emergency blankets as they arrive with other refugees and migrants on the Greek Island of Lesbos.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (AFP) - Women and children among the migrants and refugees moving through Europe face a high risk of violence and sexual abuse, the UN warned on Friday (Oct 23), calling on European countries to do more to protect them.

The UN refugee agency said more than a third of the more than 600,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived in Europe this year are women and children, warning they are "particularly subject to abuse." "We are raising the alarm bell," spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said, pointing to numerous testimonies about sexual violence at overcrowded reception sites, for instance on the Greek island of Lesbos where reception centres are buckling under the arrivals of thousands of people daily.

Such reception centres often "lack adequate lighting and separated spaces for single women and families with children," she pointed out.

Many migrants and refugees are also forced to camp out in the open, in parks and along roadsides, or in train stations, where women and children are also especially vulnerable to abuse, she said.

Perhaps most worryingly, she warned, some children appeared to be engaging in "survivor sex" to pay smugglers to continue their journey, either because they have run out of money, or because they have been robbed en route.

"Unaccompanied children can be particularly vulnerable, as they lack the protection and care of an adult who is responsible for them," Fleming told reporters.

In the cases where children are forced into "survival sex", the perpetrators of the abuse are the human smugglers, while other migrants are often the attackers in situations where large numbers congregate in crowds, she said, stressing that "they are all criminals." In a number of countries, children were also being detained alongside adults, which she warned was "fertile ground for further child abuse." Detention of children, many of whom are already traumatised by the situations they fled from back home or experiences along their route, is in any case "inhuman", she said.

Fleming said UNHCR was in the process of launching an assessment to determine how widespread the abuse of the women and children moving through Europe was.

In the meantime, she called on national authorities in Europe to ensure protection of the most vulnerable arriving on their soil.

UNHCR, she said, also wanted European countries to find "adequate and safe reception facilities" and to urgently find alternatives to detention of children.