Audrey Reeves and Aiko Holvikivi discuss how an imagined division between a ‘safe’ Europe and ‘unsafe’ outside has marginalised refugee women within the WPS agenda and introduce their new working paper ‘The Women, Peace and Security agenda and the ‘refugee crisis’: missing connections and missed opportunities in Europe’.

Conflict-affected women who have been forcibly displaced, especially those seeking asylum in Europe, have remained peripheral figures in the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, and problematically so. In a new Research Paper, we argue that including refugee questions in WPS policymaking and scholarship carries the potential to improve security provision for those who have fled to Europe, as well as to revive the transformative potential of the WPS agenda.

Our curiosity was piqued when we noted that in a 2015 survey of the role of parliaments in advancing the WPS agenda in the 28 NATO member countries, only Turkey’s parliament mentioned refugee protection as part of its efforts to implement WPS. How could the 27 other member states remain silent on this topic when the so-called ‘Refugee Crisis’ dominated security discussions and the number of forcibly displaced persons was climbing to a global historical high? Was the treatment of refugee questions outside the remit of the WPS agenda?

With further research, we found that the WPS agenda gives limited attention to refugees after they leave the conflict zone. The Security Council resolutions (SCRs) at the core of the WPS agenda place obligations on UN agencies to provide protection from sexual violence in UN-managed refugee camps (SCR 1820); on parties to armed conflict to respect the humanitarian nature of refugee camps (SCR 1325); and on the Security Council to consider violations of international humanitarian law, including forced displacement, when adopting sanctions (SCR 2242). But the scope of obligation placed on UN agencies, the Security Council, and conflict-affected parties, does not extend to UN member states who host refugees ‘on the move’.

Despite this, eight European states (Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy and Spain) have expanded on these commitments by making specific mention of refugees and asylum seekers within the host country in their National Action Plans (NAP). Thus, the 2015 French NAP commits to ‘increase consideration of issues linked to gender and violence against women in asylum procedures’. This evidences the possibility of a broader interpretation of the SCRs – one that views conflict-affectedness as attaching to people rather than places.

Unfortunately, this broader interpretation remains hampered by an imagined division between a safe/civilised Europe and an unsafe/uncivilised outside. As Laura Shepherd perceptively argues, recent NAPs produced by four European nations interpret WPS in a way that ‘represents war and insecurity as something that happens primarily “overseas” rather than within the national context’. This framing links the European ‘self’ to peace and security, and locates conflict and insecurity as only playing out beyond Europe. Within this framing, European states self-present as already able to uphold protection and participation standards that the ‘women, peace, and security’ agenda aims to promote.

by Dragan Tatic [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the notion that European states are already protecting and including women grossly simplifies the variety of experiences that unfold within them. Asylum seekers often experience states of intense insecurity heightened by forms of gender-based violence (GBV), as reports the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. EU states’ policies of closing borders has contributed to refugees’ reliance on smugglers, thereby rendering them more vulnerable to abuse or obliging refugees to use sex to pay for their passage. There is also evidence of police and security forces committing gender-based violence against women, which has been met with little action at national or EU levels. From the conflict-affected woman’s perspective, the boundary between a supposedly safe Europe and an unsafe ‘conflict zone’ is thus unreliable. The maintenance of policy and research separation between a ‘women, peace, and security’ field and a ‘refugee crisis’ field may protect the self-image of European countries that imagine themselves to be conflict-free and more gender progressive than non-European societies, but it does not serve conflict-affected women. Overcoming this separation, we argue, would be beneficial in three ways.

First, overcoming this separation would improve the sharing of valuable knowledge across scholarship on the refugee crisis and on the WPS agenda. Scholarly discussions on the gendered experiences of insecurity of refugees share many similarities with debates on the WPS agenda. Jane Freedman identifies a plethora of gendered concerns in refugee protection: an overly narrow focus on sexual violence, and a lack of attention to men and masculinities and to the concerns of gender and sexual minorities in refugee camps. These concerns echo debates in WPS scholarship as the catchphrase ‘Women, Peace and Security’ yields to a more inclusive ‘Gender, Peace and Security,’ attentive to men as gendered actors, to the limitations of heteronormative assumptions and to a continuum of violences.

Second, moving from research to the decision-making level, extending the concern for the conflict-affected woman who resides in a ‘zone of conflict’ to the one who seeks asylum in Europe would enhance attention to the conflict-affected woman and gendered security dynamics in the implementation of refugee and asylum policies. Freedman notes that the EU and (by extension) European countries have a robust policy framework addressing gendered concerns in forced migration, but that a notable implementation gap hinders the adequate consideration of women and girls’ needs, leading to rampant GBV. Shortcomings include inadequate mechanisms for victims to report violence, inadequate housing conditions, including insufficient provision of gender-segregated sleeping, personal hygiene and recreational facilities, and an “alarming” lack of data on GBV experienced by refugee women and girls. In short, lessons learned from other refugee contexts as documented in WPS scholarship are not being applied in the handling of the refugee situation in Europe. If they were, European states would devote more resources and attention to making refugee and asylum policies gender-sensitive, consulting conflict-affected women when taking decisions over who and how many refugees to take, where to house them, what support services to provide, and so on.

Third and finally, at the level of media representations and public opinion, making refugee women visible would support the development of counter-narratives to xenophobic discourses that circulate around the refugee crisis. The latter represent the archetypical refugee as male, and as a security threat. An alternative discourse endows a conditional concern for those refugees seen as ‘deserving’ of care due to a combination of experience of vulnerability and display of gratitude. By contrast, we are hopeful that expanding the frame of WPS to concern for conflict-affected women seeking asylum could contribute to the development of counter-discourses on refugees that recognise the continued responsibility for their protection as well as emphasising their agency through a frame that is attentive to participation.

Read more: ‘The Women, Peace and Security agenda and the ‘refugee crisis’: missing connections and missed opportunities in Europe’ Aiko Holvikivi and Audrey Reeves LSE Women, Peace and Security Working Paper Series 6/2017.


About the authors

Audrey Reeves is a teaching unit organiser in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol, where she completed her PhD. She researches transnational security challenges and their representations in everyday cultural experiences from feminist and postcolonial perspectives. Audrey was previously a lecturer in Feminist Thought and Global Justice at Cardiff University.

Aiko Holvikivi is a PhD candidate at the LSE Gender Institute and a researcher at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security. Her research centres on the governance of gender in international security, with a particular focus on gender training in the military. Aiko previously worked in the field of gender and security at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces and the European Commission.