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Germany Grapples With Sexual Violence In Refugee Camps

Molested, harassed, abused: Women in refugee camps are increasingly victims of sexual violence. Authorities in Hamburg try to react.

Refugee women in Hamburg
Refugee women in Hamburg
Philipp Woldin and Jannik Schappert

HAMBURG — The young woman from Afghanistan was being relentlessly harassed, with men making gestures, whistling and directing other unwanted attention at her in a Hamburg refugee center. Almost 600 people are staying there, and only 87 of them are women. Another 34 are underage girls. The 20-year-old woman preferred to be on her own and rarely set foot outside. Then one day, one of the men groped her.

In cases like these, Angelika Damm, a staff member at Hamburg's women's shelter, is called in to help. The shelter is the last resort for women who don't feel safe in the container villages, and there are hundreds of stories like the young Afghan woman's. Damm says that increasing numbers of women are concerned and afraid. The Afghan is now one of seven women in the women's shelter — whose location is kept secret — who have "escaped" the refugee camp.

In the first half of this year, 11 women with 13 children sought refuge in one of Hamburg's five women's shelters, and authorities registered nine cases of sexual violence in the centers. Those figures have since risen, as Damm alone has registered two more cases since. And the number of unrecorded cases is even higher, she explains, because it's extremely difficult to convince refugee women to report anything to the police. There are both cultural barriers and fears that reporting violence might negatively affect their asylum applications.

"Many woman in those camps feel like young female students visiting a male prison," says a former camp employee. His female colleagues too were often confronted with men making offensive gestures and crude verbal suggestions. Sexual violence against refugee women has become a major issue, and it's about to become even more urgent, given the rising number of asylum seekers, which numbered 10,000 in Hamburg alone last month.

Segregated accommodations

Heike Rabe, a researcher of gender-based violence for the German Institute for Human Rights researches, detects no link between refugee camps and country of origin in terms of potential for violence. "What's happening there also happens to German women outside of refugee camps," she says.

But Rabe has identified some potentially aggravating factors in refugee camps, such as lack of privacy and limited space. "House regulations are not enough," she says. "Legal protection and education of staff members are vital so that they know how to react properly."

Authorities are aware of the issue. Isabel Said, head of victim protection for the social security office, confirms that the number of reports from women in refugee camps has continuously increased over the past few weeks and months. "Staff members are asked to pay particular attention to women traveling alone, and they are trained to quickly detect attacks," Said says.

Though authorities are now distributing information booklets in Arabic, Rabe says it's important to "find new ways of approaching refugee women." Said stresses, meanwhile, that "the aid system from women shelters is available to any refugee woman seeking for help."

All of the victim advocates agree that separate accommodations are desperately needed, especially for women who are traveling alone. Indeed, four new shelter tents have been created, paid for with donations and offering women the privacy they need to remove their headscarves or breastfeed their babies.

After an assault

Though German lawmakers have traditionally opposed segregated accommodations, the state has begun to make concessions, perhaps because of pressure from the public. More facilities for women traveling alone with children are planned.

There is one unanswered question, though. What happens to refugee women after an assault? The answer is troubling, as officials say they've not yet developed a process for victim support.

Damm has been providing guidance to refugees for years, but this situation presents new challenges. The 1,355 women who lived in shelters in 2014 all moved to their own apartments after a couple of months. But finding housing today is more difficult given the huge numbers of asylum seekers. That's why women's shelters too might soon reach their limits.

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