Left behind, but not at home: the hidden migration stories of the women who stay

Nour’s husband and 10-year-old daughter left Jordan for Europe in October 2015, just a month after she gave birth to their youngest child. They wanted to travel together but Nour was still weak following the delivery and they decided that the journey was too dangerous to risk leaving with four small children. In any case, they assumed that family reunification would be quick and they would soon be able to travel in a safe and legal way.

A year and a half later, Nour remains a refugee in Jordan with her three youngest children, while her husband and daughter are in Sweden. Both have been granted asylum, but the family reunification process has been much slower and more difficult than they imagined. “The journey was very hard” she explained, “After arriving in Sweden, my daughter didn’t speak for three months due to the shock.” Time spent apart under challenging circumstances has caused her relationship with her husband to suffer, and the high volume of applications means that family reunification is unlikely before 2018. “I still think it’s viable to come to Europe, but now I realise it might take years”.

When families decide to migrate, women and girls are much more likely to be left behind. In 2016, just under a third of asylum applicants to European countries were female[1], underlining this imbalance. Far away from the media on Greek and Italian shores, we know much less about the experiences of the women and girls who stay than we do about those who make the journey.

This International Women’s Day, Nour’s story is an example of the challenges faced by some of the mothers, sisters and daughters who do not, or cannot travel. Her story was one of many collected by REACH as part of ongoing research for the Mixed Migration Platform into the experiences of separated families in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The project sought to answer several questions – what makes some family members travel while others stay? To what extent are migration decisions made individually or jointly? And how are those left behind affected by migration?

The research found that those who remain often face considerable challenges due to debt, reduced income and interrupted access to humanitarian assistance. Displaced families like Nour’s are among the most vulnerable, especially when the main breadwinner or head of household leaves.

For those who hope to reunify, the situation can be harder still, since changing policies, slow processing times and limited information mean that even families who qualify for such schemes often fail to adequately prepare for the time it takes. Of the 90 families interviewed for the study, only half made any contingency plans at all to look after those left behind. Nour’s family was one of the few that did, but like many, their meagre preparations – paying a month’s rent up front before her husband left – were nowhere near enough. Eighteen months later, reunification is still long way off and Nour has no work and three small children to care for. Her only source of income is humanitarian aid, and even this was problematic at first, since both food vouchers and cash payments were registered in her husband’s name. At first, she was cut off from assistance for five months – two before she realised that she needed to re-register as the household head, and another three while the change was being processed.

In some ways, Nour was lucky – despite being a refugee, she had other family members in Jordan that she could turn to for support. After selling her furniture to pay the bills, she had nothing left and eventually moved in with her brother. The separation has been incredibly tough for the whole family, but she insists that they made a joint decision, taking into consideration the risks to their children. “I encouraged him to migrate, hoping it would get us a better life” she explained. “Until now it’s been a very negative experience – I would not recommend to anyone to take this gamble…Currently there have been no positive changes. Only later, when we reunify will it be positive”.

Our study on Separated Families: who stays, who goes and why, will be published in the coming weeks. If you would like more information, or are interested in republishing this blog, please contact: admin@mixedmigrationplatform.org.

[1] According to Eurostat data [migr_asyappctza], women and girls accounted for 32% of first-time asylum applicants to EU countries in 2016.
Image: A Syrian refugee woman in  Za’atari camp prepares her son for school. Credit: UNWomen/Christopher Herwig

Migration to Europe: four myths about women and girls on the move

On a global scale, women and girls make up half of the world’s refugees and half of global migrants, but when it comes to those travelling to Europe, the story is quite different. According to the latest figures from Eurostat, females accounted for only 32% of all asylum applicants to EU countries in 2016 and have made up similarly low proportions for the past seven years.

Despite this, the proportion of women and girls among refugees and other migrants to Europe is increasing, especially among asylum seekers of certain nationalities. Compared to the year before, 2016 saw increased proportions of female applicants from all but one of the top ten nationalities of new arrivals to Europe – including a 47% increase in the proportion of women and girls from Iraq and 46% from Afghanistan.

So why is this happening? And will the gender balance continue to shift? We take a look at some myths and some facts to help explain what’s so remarkable about the migration of women and girls to Europe.

Myth 1: Cultural traditions mean that women are less likely to migrate than men

In the past two years, over 60% of all asylum seekers in the EU have originated from just five countries: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, all affected by war, ongoing conflict and chronic insecurity. Despite coming to Europe for the same main reasons – safety and security, followed by access to employment, education and healthcare – the proportion of women and girls among asylum seekers of each of these nationalities differs greatly. In 2016 for example, women and girls made up over a third of all Syrian asylum seekers – 36% – compared to 29% of those from Afghanistan and only 6% from Pakistan.

While the figures above clearly show that nationality plays a role – influenced in part by social and cultural norms – women are often active rather than passive actors in the decision to migrate. One assessment from the Western Balkans found that married women frequently reported that the decision to travel was taken jointly with their husbands, while a small minority of women had deliberately left ahead of male family members, believing it would be easier for them to be granted asylum. With evidence from Syria suggesting that ongoing conflict is changing traditional gender roles and leaving some women with increased access to employment, greater autonomy and aspirations of continued independence, it is possible that evolving cultural norms may bring further tangible change to the composition of migration flows in the future.

Myth 2: Girls are just as likely to travel as boys

The UN refugee agency provides data on arrivals by sea for women, men and children, grouping all those aged under 18 into a single category and reinforcing the idea that girls are travelling as often as boys. Eurostat data, however, shows greater numbers of boys than girls applying for asylum – of the 291,665 minors for whom information was available in 2016, boys accounted for 58% and girls 42%.

Grouping girls and boys together as simply “children” also fails to take into account the difference between children travelling with family members, and unaccompanied minors, who are ten times more likely to be male than female. According to the latest available figures from Eurostat, girls made up only 9% of all asylum applications by unaccompanied minors in 2015. Girls and boys have different specific needs and face differing levels of risk along the journey – grouping them together as children fails to take this into account.

Myth 3: Women and girls on the move face greater risks than men and boys

Early last year, news about the growing numbers of women arriving in Europe led to numerous reports on the specific risks they faced along the journey, including health complications, sexual and gender based violence, exploitation and trafficking. While of significant cause for concern, available evidence suggests that women and girls on the move face different levels of risk relative to men and boys at different moments of their migration, leaving them both more and less vulnerable to different threats – a nuance that is often overlooked.

One IOM study of 1,545 refugees and other migrants along the Eastern Mediterranean route found that men were more likely than women to report exposure to a range of risks, including being forced to work, held against their will, or not having received payment for work completed. While the short surveys of this study are not exhaustive and it is possible that protection incidents – particularly of a more sensitive nature – may have been under-reported, these findings show how men can often be more vulnerable to certain threats, especially those travelling alone.

Myth 4: Women are as likely to be granted asylum as men

Despite generally being considered a more vulnerable group by humanitarian responders, women and girls are actually slightly less likely than men and boys to file a successful claim for asylum in the EU. According to figures from Eurostat, 51% of female asylum applicants were rejected by EU states in 2015, compared to 49% of male applicants. According to a study of reception and asylum in Germany, women frequently struggled to access female interviewers, interpreters and childcare, adding to their difficulties to file a successful claim. Ensuring a gender-sensitive asylum application process is vital to ensure all cases receive fair consideration, regardless of gender.

So what now?

Since the formal closure of the Western Balkans route and general tightening of borders across Europe, women, men, boys and girls have continued to leave conflict-affected countries in search of asylum in Europe. While a lower overall number of new arrivals, 2016 saw more people travelling through “covert means” due to a lack of legal alternatives – a situation likely to continue into 2017. Such covert means include overstaying visas, using the services of smugglers, or travelling through other irregular means. For those hoping to join existing family members already in Europe, access to family reunification schemes will also continue to be important. Tightening restrictions suggest the process is getting more difficult, however, leading to fears that it may be at best drawn-out and at worst unattainable, and raising the possibility of increasing reliance upon more dangerous alternatives.

More information is available in our latest briefing paper: Women and girls on the move: a gender analysis of migration to Europe.


Figures on asylum applications and decisions are based on Eurostat’s database on Asylum and managed migration. Unless otherwise stated, figures for 2016 are collated from monthly data covering the period from January to October. Photo credit: Noe Falk Nielsen/DRC.