Nour, a Syrian woman who completed a treacherous journey to Germany in 2015, spoke with relief and optimism upon her arrival in the country. “There is nothing impossible...We want to go to Germany, now we are here in Germany…That tells me I am strong and can do anything I want…When I think about a target, I can do it.”
“Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”) That same year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with similar optimism about Germany’s response to the refugee crisis. The nation’s openness quickly made it the primary EU destination for asylum-seekers, “receiving around half of the 3.1 million asylum applications submitted between 2015 and 2017.” By the end of 2019, about 1.15 million refugees and 309,000 asylum seekers were living in the country, and in 2020, Germany took in more asylum seekers than any other EU nation. As of March 2021, most of these refugees emigrated from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Upon receiving these refugees, Germany shouldered the responsibility of proper aid, accommodation, and assimilation. Dividing refugees among the 16 German Bundesländer (states), the German government started offering extensive support through the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). For example, BAMF course offerings cover not only the German language, but “modules on the country’s history, law, and cultural norms” as well. Other courses combine vocational instruction with German, a hybrid model geared to help with social and economic integration. These courses then help with both language and critical cultural fluency.
While such efforts have proven effective and comprehensive, they are merely a step in the right direction. All refugees face considerable adversity upon arrival in Germany—87 percent left their home countries because of severe safety threats—but gender is a compounding factor. For multiple reasons, the migration and integration journey is particularly difficult for refugee women. Until the German immigration system successfully accommodates the unique needs of this demographic, Germany will fall short of Angela Merkel’s vision.
Inequalities in Language Proficiency
Among several hindrances, refugee women are less able to consistently attend German language courses, participating in BAMF instruction less frequently than their male counterparts. The primary barrier to participation is family and childcare obligations: women are less likely than men to risk the treacherous journey to Germany alone, so they tend to arrive more commonly with family members. In 2017, over 50 percent of male refugees in Germany were single, compared to only 27 percent of females. Mothers constitute two thirds of the female refugee population, and of these mothers, an entire third have the added responsibility of toddlers. Since women are one third of the German refugee population, these statistics indicate that roughly 22 percent of refugees in Germany are mothers. Considering the fact that these mothers “tend to predominantly focus on...the housing provision and the welfare of their children,” a significant portion of the refugee population in Germany must balance childcare obligations with integration programming.
This disparity in language program participation manifests in a wide language fluency gap between male and female refugees. A 2017 survey found that 44 percent of refugee men felt they had cultivated strong German skills, compared to only 26 percent of female refugee respondents. However, when mothers were removed, 37 percent of females felt confident in their German skills. With less German fluency, refugee women socialize less with German citizens, hindering their ability to assimilate into the local community. Not knowing German puts women at a social disadvantage and severely restricts their support networks as they navigate an unfamiliar foreign society.
A significant disparity between the German abilities of wives and their husbands may create or perpetuate power imbalances within the family. Women who cannot speak German must rely more heavily on their husbands for interpreting information on goods stretching from newspapers to nutrition labels. They also may not feel confident venturing out and navigating German society on their own, further restricting their contact with others. A positive-feedback cycle may thus develop where women are increasingly dependent on their husbands’ German, which makes them less likely to cultivate proficiency, further exacerbating the dependency. Once children begin to learn German in school, mothers may be the only family members without German proficiency. Knowing German is not only helpful to navigating German society, but rather crucial to actually becoming part of it. Especially considering the fact that refugees who complete an integration program are two times more likely to get a job than people who have never attended such programs, refugee women’s limited participation in these kinds of initiatives puts them at an economic disadvantage.
Inequalities in Homeland Conditions
However, language is not the only factor. Home country conditions are also incredibly influential. For example, over three-fourths of refugee men had work experience before fleeing to Germany, compared to just over a third of women. A BAMF study in 2014 offered further insight into this disparity, indicating that 69 percent of women “had neither started nor completed a vocational training or degree courses, compared to 58 percent of men.” A similar study indicated that women—particularly mothers—are less likely than men to arrive with a degree. Once in Germany, refugee women’s employment chances are 12 points lower than those of men. Similarly, their monthly wages average 90 euros lower. In addition to economic disparities, the 2014 BAMF study found that 21 percent of refugee women “were not able to attend school in [their] country of origin.” Even though the vast majority of refugees arrive with no German skills, past schooling experience is still relevant. Women who cannot read and write in their first languages will face the added difficulty of becoming literate in German—some of these women never even learned how to hold a pencil properly. Furthermore, school teaches students how to learn, preparing and empowering them to forge their own futures. Not having this experience limits both cognitive and intellectual growth and the ability and confidence to function independently. As such, inadequate economic and education opportunities in their home countries make it even more difficult for refugee women to navigate German society, learn German, and access employment opportunities.
Vulnerability to Sexual Violence
Aside from language, education, and economic barriers, sexual violence disproportionately impacts refugee women. Many women experienced sexual violence in their home countries or during their journeys to places such as Germany and elsewhere. In addition to sexual assault at home or by smugglers, “sexual harassment, sexualized violence or kidnapping are common incidents at the myriads of checkpoints manned by either government forces, armed rebel groups, or ordinary criminals.” Once these women arrive in Germany, they are disproportionately affected by inadequate trauma therapy and support, compounded by the fact that women and people over 40 are more likely to have psychological issues such as PTSD or depression. Although this propensity is not tied exclusively to sexual violence, sexual violence helps explain the disparity between women and men who require additional psychological care. Female victims of sexual violence typically have “very little access to support services and resources,” so they often cannot receive the care they require. Demonstrating the inadequacy of available mental health resources, physical health can also go under-evaluated. For example, due to shortages of medical personnel in Berlin, “in the beginning of October 2015, women with advanced pregnancies, ill persons and children were left untreated.” German healthcare infrastructure will need to become more extensive and dynamic to accommodate increasing numbers of refugees.
Many communal refugee shelters are not safe for refugee women. Restrooms are oftentimes communal or outdoors, and sometimes rooms or showers cannot be properly locked from within. German law does not mandate the separation of men and women in these facilities. As a result, overcrowding often exacerbates policy weaknesses, creating tighter living conditions in which women have even less privacy and making them more vulnerable to sexual violence. When sexual violence occurs, many women do not report it because they fear that doing so will hurt their chances of being granted asylum. Even if they do report it, victims have reported that “security advised them to stay away from men or to stay in their rooms instead of going after the perpetrators of sexual violence.” Additionally, “perpetrators of sexual violence are sent back to reception or accommodation centres after their time in prison,” further jeopardizing the safety of female residents.
Given the permeance of sexual violence and other barriers to successful integration—language acquisition, economic advancement, and educational opportunity—the future for refugee women in Germany may seem like an uphill battle. However, there are concrete steps Germany can consider to improve the ability of refugee women to assimilate into society.
Proposed Solutions to Gender Inequities among Refugees
The German media, the Transatlantic Council of Migration, and the The Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) of the European Parliament are some of the many sources acknowledging the role that childcare and supervision plays in refugee women’s access to integration resources. BAMF started offering childcare assistance in March 2017, but the initiative is still relatively new. As childcare responsibilities are one of the primary reasons that women do not attend language courses, programs such as these are designed to improve women’s engagement in German study. The chance to cultivate German proficiency would open up a host of new opportunities, educational, economic, and social, for these women and their families. Furthermore, childcare might affect the early stages of the asylum application process. Women who have to take their children to asylum interviews may have a difficult time staying focused and describing traumatic experiences, such as sexual assault, that contribute to their request for asylum.
A recent study for the FEMM committee of the European Parliament suggests that education surrounding gender issues is of paramount importance. Many “female asylum seekers...are not aware of their rights in Germany” and do not receive that information until they interview for asylum, which, given the influx of refugees into the country, can take long periods of time. If female refugees could learn more about “gender equality legislation and that sexual assaults are criminal offenses,” they would be in a better position to advocate for themselves and others without worrying about jeopardizing their asylum applications. Especially if “gender equality classes were combined with German language classes,” not only women would benefit. Men would also learn about progressive German approach to gender issues. Such gender-related courses are already part of refugee integration programs in Norway and Finland.
Kathleen Kuehnast at the United States Institute of Peace articulates this need effectively: “We don’t spend enough time asking how we can better prepare male refugees—many of whom are coming from conservative, patriarchal societies—for the enormous loss of power and identity that can come from transitioning into a new, more egalitarian society.” Teaching both men and women about German gender norms would aid in their successful integration and likely mitigate domestic strife.
Women would also benefit from more trauma support and protection from sexual violence. As the FEMM Committee of the European Parliament recommends, female interpreters and interviewers for refugee women might help victims of gender-based or sexual violence recount these traumatic experiences to make an effective case for asylum. Because national German regulations about communal shelters remain vague, this creates inconsistencies in support offered across various German states. Mara Bierbach, a journalist who writes for Info Migrants, notes how “some female asylum seekers end up in women-only shelters with extensive support from volunteers and social workers,” while others “have to live next door to men in rooms with no locks and no women-specific services.” She also notes how “many women’s rights and migrant advocacy groups” implore Germany to consider placing female migrants traveling alone or with children in their own apartment accommodations.
There are a handful of other solutions that might merit further consideration. At the federal level—in addition to Mara Bierbach’s advocacy for separate accommodations—Germany can mandate explicit requirements for gendered bathrooms and locks. Shelters should also offer gender-neutral restrooms (especially for nonbinary residents) with female-only bathrooms as a consistent option. This process would improve shelter conditions until separate accommodations are available. It would also be practical to assign a primary care provider to incoming refugee individuals or families to complete regular health evaluations and ensure they have a point of contact for any medical needs. With organized initiative from within the health care sector, offering mental health services could be feasible for all shelters, including specialized therapists who are uniquely trained to help victims of sexual violence. Mental health services should also recognize religious preferences; for instance, Muslim refugees tend to prefer “Arabic-speaking mental-health professionals” who would offer “culturally sensitive care practices.”
Aiding, educating, and empowering women would also improve their ability to advocate for themselves and other refugee women. These women are not just victims, and could prove effective liaisons and spokespeople weighing in on refugee support and integration programs. In order to properly protect refugee women, the German government should listen to their voices. If given the chance, refugee women would probably have a lot to say.