By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 18 November 2022
As part of an 8-month engagement in one of the ‘hotspot islands’ in Greece, Ignacia Ossul Vermehren shares insights into how FGM/C is an invisible yet pressing issue for female asylum seekers.
Despite its deadly and widespread presence female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) remains a taboo, particularly in Europe. Managing a Women’s & Girls Safe Space and collaborating with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Samos, Greece, I saw how big an issue this is, and how little is currently understood about it.
FGM/C is a type of harmful traditional practice – grouped with child marriage and virginity testing – which involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Present in 92 countries, it is estimated that at least 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM/C. It is entangled in complex relations with culture, economy, politics, and religion, in many cases is a vehicle for women to get married, and thus access resources and acceptance in their communities.
However, FGM/C is a violation of the human rights of women and girls, and it is grounds for International Protection for asylum seekers. In practice, though, despite an increase in the percentage of women and girls potentially affected by FGM/C who arrive in Europe, there are multiple obstacles for survivors to claim asylum and receive the medical, legal and psychological support they need.
In a hostile environment in which violence against asylum seekers consistently increases in Europe – including against women and girls and boys – “the practice of FGM is unfortunately often instrumentalised to serve an anti-migrant and racist agenda.” As a result, upholding human rights has become a challenge, and more needs to be done to provide consistent and dignified support for women and girls in the asylum procedure.
Forced displacement – why women leave home
Whilst women’s motives for leaving their communities amidst humanitarian crises are not dissimilar to those of men, the effects of violence, war, displacement, climate change have specific costs for women. An increase in gender-based violence (both conflict related and domestic violence), early child marriage due to scarce resources in a household, and deprioritising of food consumption for women and girls, are just a few.
There are several reasons why only one fifth of asylum seekers in Greece in 2021 were women and girls. In a long and difficult journey, women are at a higher risk of sexual exploitation and trafficking than men and tend to have fewer financial means to pay for the high cost of the trip. Adolescents, older women and women with disabilities are at an even higher risk. Hence, women are less likely to take expensive, high-risk routes into Europe, such as through Turkey and Libya and on to the Greek islands, The Balkans or Italy. Instead, women tend to move within their country of origin, constituting a much larger proportion of internally displaced population and/or settle in neighbouring countries. Being in the minority means that women’s needs are deprioritised.
By the end of 2021 and first semester of 2022, most of the women arriving to the Greek island of Samos – the first of the Aegean islands to build a Closed-Controlled Reception Centre as part of the ‘hotspots approach’ – were from Somalia, Sierra Leone, DRC, Chad and Cameroon. All are countries widely affected by FGM/C.
“When we get our period, we get sick and it is difficult to move”
For five months between November 2021 and March 2022, I worked for Samos Volunteers managing the only Women & Girls Safe Space (WGSS) for asylum seekers and refugees on the island. WGSS is a well-known strategy in humanitarian action to facilitate support, information, and empowerment of women in emergencies, where sharing concerns and finding collective solutions is a key goal. In this context, many women raised specific concerns around FGM/C and access to healthcare.
In a series of participatory workshops on access to health care women identified the key issues that affect survivors. They mentioned frequent urinary tract infections, extreme pain during periods, complications during childbirth, difficulties having sex and depression among others. They said:
“In the camp the bed bunks are very high, they are difficult to reach if you have your period”
“When we get our period, we get sick and it is difficult to move.”
“The women in the camp are suffering because we don’t get the healthcare we need.”
The fact that most women raised FGM/C as an important issue provides important, if anecdotal, evidence of how widespread the issue is in the asylum seekers’ community. However, according to UNHCR, during 2017 alone, 24,000 women and girls could potentially have already been affected by FGM at the time of their asylum application in the EU.
Not all women were against the practice, but all of them agreed that it had serious health consequences for their bodies, particularly for those that had undergone infibulation. Some went even further and spoke out against the practice altogether, stating that they wouldn’t not do it to their daughters:
“No more girls should go through female genital mutilation, it needs to stop.”
The asylum system is broken – and it is failing women seriously
Claiming asylum is a human right. The Greek Asylum Service conducts interviews to identify those people that should be granted asylum based on their vulnerabilities. However, as seen in Samos and in further evidence from the End FGM European network, there are serious obstacles for granting international protection to survivors of FGM/C.
The case of Samos showed the following:
- Lack of information available for asylum seekers: Women claiming asylum tended to be unaware that they were entitled to international protection if they experienced physical and/or psychological consequences due to FGM. The grassroots legal NGOs working on the island provide information, however their capacity is limited and do not focus on gender issues. For example, they said that women tend to contact them less than men to inquire about legal information.
- Interview mechanism is not geared to support FGM/C survivors: Asylum seekers had the perception that interviewers were not trained to discuss the topic. For those that did mention it in their interview, they did not know if this was translated correctly by the interpreter or if it was a topic that the interviewer had been trained for. Furthermore, applicants need to bring this up in the first interview or use the 5 days after their asylum interview to submit new evidence, after which FGM/C will not be considered in their application, an incredible tight deadline for women that have just arrived in Europe after a long journey.
- Evidence of physical and psychological consequences is hard to gather: Being a survivor of FGM/C is not sufficient to receive international protection in Greece, and furthermore the law states that vulnerable persons “should be certified by a medical certificate issued by a public hospital or by an adequately trained doctor of a public sector health care service provider”. This is challenging as hospital certificates takes a longer time and although MSF could provide with a certificate for the interview, this may be not deemed enough.
- Lack of awareness of the medical, legal and psychological staff: There also seems to be a lack of training for medical and other professionals involved about how to communicate, diagnose and support survivors working in the hospital.
- Women have normalised it and/or are ashamed: For women coming from countries or communities affected by FGM/C, the health difficulties associated tend to be normalised, and thus are not in the forefront when discussing their health and wellbeing during the asylum interview. Some said that they did not know that it was relevant and/or a practice known in Europe.
As a consequence, FGM/C tends to go unnoticed in the asylum application process – and thus, women and girls, do not receive the protection and support they need.
More coordination and gender-sensitive support is needed for female asylum seekers
Collaborating with MSF in Samos during April to June 2022, we developed a dossier based on feedback from survivors to train and raise awareness of FGM/C within the humanitarian response. The purpose was to provide top line information to female asylum seekers about the support available as soon as they arrive to the island. The trainings also included a session for the NGOs medical staff on the island, raising awareness to Health Promoters in MSF and working closely with the affected community. Developing a dossier like this is a fundamental first step to highlight the importance of an issue that is under researched, under implemented and misunderstood in the Greek asylum seeker system.
Despite this initial effort, more coordinated work is needed across the five ‘hotspot islands’ and mainland Greece to raise awareness, work hand-in-hand with survivors to develop more information and support sessions, train NGOs and State staff on the topic, and ultimately change the fact that women are not guaranteed consistent gender-sensitive treatment when they seek protection in Europe. As one of the participants raised in the workshop:
“We thought that in Europe we would get the respect that we deserve as women, but that has not been the case.”
 The word “cutting”, avoiding the term “mutilation” on its own, is used by researchers and international development agencies to engage with the complexity of the practice in a more culturally sensitive manner.
 Workshops conducted during January and February 2022 with 20 women staying at the Closed-Controlled Reception Centre in Samos. They had arrived in the last 1 to 6 months. The participants were between 17-45 years old and all of them were from African countries.
 Quotes from women that participated in the workshops, they have all given their consent to publish them. Their names, ages and nationalities have not been used to protect their identities.
 Infibulation or type 3 is the narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and apposition the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris.
Ignacia Ossul Vermehren is currently deployed to Ukraine as the Gender Coordinator for Oxfam. She holds a PhD from DPU-UCL.