What is being done to protect women from violence in asylum shelters in Germany? Not enough, many activists say. So what can women do if they don’t feel safe there? Here’s what you need to know.
Are female asylum seekers safe in communal accommodation? That question has gotten quite a bit of attention in Germany recently after a woman from Kenya was found dead not far from the asylum shelter she lived in with her two sons. According to media reports, Rita Ojunge was allegedly threatened by a male neighbor before she disappeared and was later found dead.
The case has brought renewed attention to demands from women's rights and refugee activists who say that not enough is being done to keep women safe in communal shelters. Most asylum seekers in Germany are typically required to live in these shelters for a prolonged time. The rule was tightened this summer by the “Orderly return law”, which mandates that single adult asylum seekers have to stay in reception facilities for up to 18 months while their application is processed.
One third of asylum seekers are female
Women and girls made up 35 percent of all people who asked for asylum in Germany between 2015 and 2018. Adjusting to life in Germany is often even more difficult for them – studies show that female refugees are less likely to enter the job market than their male counterparts, they are also less likely to interact regularly with locals. In communal shelters, women -- particularly if they are there alone or with just their children – are often having a harder time feeling safe and comfortable.
“For women, there is always the threat of sexual violence and harassment," refugee activist Elizabeth Ngari from the group “Women in Exile and Friends” says. "Many women don’t feel safe because there is no privacy.”
Regardless of gender, communal shelters can be difficult for anyone. Many people from many different cultures live together in close quarters where they have little to no privacy. Many residents also have to deal with the trauma they experienced before or during their refugee journey to Germany.
“The structures in large communal shelters – like anchor centers – favor violence, they harbor and foster potential conflicts”, says Simone Eiler, who works for “We talk!”, a project that aims to help refugee women in Bavaria.
Women more prone to sexual harassment and assaults
Most experts agree that women are much more likely to become the victims of sexualized violence at the shelters. Potential aggressors are both fellow asylum seekers and staff at the shelter, in particular security personnel, which is often predominantly male. Most “crimes against sexual autonomy” are committed by men against women. According to the Federal Criminal Police Agency, for example, 98.7 percent of all migrants, refugees and asylum seekers who were suspects in sexual harassment and violence cases in 2018 were men.
According to the authors of a study on conflicts in accommodation for refugees, the way refugee shelters are set up often create circumstances in which gender-based violence and sexual harassment is more likely to occur. “Only a small fraction of communal shelters have rooms with bathrooms attached to them; often, toilets and showers can only be reached via a communal hallway… or they are even located outside. At times, the showers can’t be locked from the inside… In some refugee accommodation, rooms can’t be locked,” the study says.
The study was published in 2017 and only looked at shelters in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s biggest state. But based on interviews InfoMigrants conducted with experts and advocates, the findings still apply today and to shelters nationwide. In anchor centers in Bavaria, for example, most rooms don’t have locks, Simone Eiler told us.
Many women stay silent, fear impact on asylum application
Some individual cases of women who were victimized in asylum seeker shelters have made headlines. There are cases of brutal rape: Like the one of a woman in her 40s who says she was raped by two young men in an initial reception center for asylum seekers in Eisenhüttenstadt. In Gießen, a male asylum seeker was sentenced to seven years in jail after he brutally raped a female asylum seeker.
But there are also accounts of day-to-day sexual harassment. Recently, Bavaria’s public broadcaster BR shared an account from two young female asylum seekers who said that male security guards would frequently enter the women’s showers. They said: “It seems to us that they come in on purpose to see us naked.”
Finding out exactly how many women have been affected is difficult. That’s not just because there are no official federal statistics on sexual violence and harassment in asylum shelters. It’s also because many women don’t come forward to share their stories. “We know of cases of sexual assaults and threats [against women]. But the victims are afraid of making their experiences public. They are worried it could have a negative impact on their asylum application,” a spokesperson for the Saarland refugee council told InfoMigrants.
Triggering trauma, feeling unsafe
But it’s not just about actually being safe for many of these women, though. It’s also about feeling safe. Many women who have come to Germany experienced gender-specific and sexual violence back home (this might even be the reason they fled) or on their way to Germany, in countries like Libya, where many female migrants and refugees are reportedly sexually abused by militias and traffickers.
For abuse victims, having to spend time in a male-dominated space (which most refugee shelters are) can trigger trauma and make them feel unsafe, even if nothing bad actually happens.
This is why many women's rights and migrant advocacy groups have long called for single women and single mothers to be transferred out of communal shelters and into their own apartments. This, however, would require a radical change in asylum seeker reception structures in Germany - and could potentially be much costlier than the current system.
What is the legal situation?
The laws and regulations on what refugee shelters should do to keep women (and men) safe from sexual violence are relatively vague.
A 2013 EU directive “laying down standards for the reception of applicants for international protection” states that “member states shall take into consideration gender and age-specific concerns and the situation of vulnerable persons [and] take appropriate measures to prevent assault and gender-based violence, including sexual assault and harassment, within the premises and accommodation centers.”
Many of the 16 German states have issued “violence prevention concept” directives for refugee accommodations, but these are usually non-binding and often only rudimentarily address sexual violence.
This is why shelters in Germany differ significantly when it comes to dealing with women's safety issues. While some female asylum seekers end up in women-only shelters with extensive support from volunteers and social workers, others end up in shelters where single women have to live next door to men in rooms with no locks and no women-specific support services.
What you can do if you don’t feel safe
The experts we talked to said that the first person women should talk to if they don’t feel safe in the shelter or they are being harassed is the shelter’s social worker.
Organizations like the local chapter for the Caritas, Diakonie and German Red Cross might also be able to help.
Women in need of help could also contact the state refugee council (this homepage has an overview of all 16 state refugee councils), which should be able to point them towards local organizations that help and protect women.
The hotline Hilfetelefon Gewalt gegen Frauen offers advice to women who’ve experienced violence and harassment in 17 different languages, including English, French, Arabic and Dari. Their number is 08000 116 016.
If you have been the victim of a crime, the emergency police number in Germany is 110.