Women refugees and migrants

Refugees getting ready for the train in Gevgelija to travel to the border with Serbia.
Photo: UN Women/Mirjana Nedeva

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The issue

Today, around the world, people are on the move. They are migrating to escape poverty, improve their livelihood and opportunities, or escaping conflict and devastation in their own countries. Women represent almost half of the 244 million migrants and half of the 19.6 million refugees worldwide [1].

In 2015 over one million women and men sought asylum in Western Europe. The transited from Turkey to Greece and traveled through the Western Balkans to reach destination countries further north. For the countries of the Western Balkans, especially for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Serbia this was the first time they were confronted with such a massive refugee flow since the Yugoslav wars. Up to 42 per cent of refugees and migrants in the Balkans are women and children [2]. The March 2016 closure of borders along the Balkan route tens of thousands of people stranded.

Refugee and migrant women and girls face specific challenges and protection risks in transit, including family separation, psychosocial stress and trauma, health complications, particularly for pregnant women, physical harm and injury , and risks of exploitation and gender-based violence. Women also often serve as the main caretakers for children and elderly family members, further deepening their need for protection and support.

Fast facts

  • In 2015 over one million women and men sought asylum in Western Europe.
  • Up to 42 per cent of refugees and migrants in the Balkans are women (17%) and children (25%).
  • By October 2015, women comprised 18%, 12% and 15% of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers respectively.
  • Everyday, about 100 refugees per day are being pushed back from FYR Macedonia to Greece. In different reports from field workers it can be seen that approximately 100 people a day are crossing into the country illegally with the help of smugglers.
  • In Serbia, access to information on legal rights and services to women and girls' refugees and on the specific risks of trafficking and smuggling provided to 4,000 women and girls. 
  • Between 2000 and 2015, the number of international migrants has increased by 41 per cent to reach 244 million. Almost half of them are women [3].
  • Migrants, especially migrant women, have higher labour force participation rates (72.7 per cent) than non-migrants (63.9 per cent) [4].
  • Almost every sixth domestic worker in the world is an international migrant, and women make up 73.4 per cent of international migrant domestic workers [5].
  • Today, 50 per cent of the world's refugees are women and girls [6]. Yet, only 4 per cent of projects in UN inter-agency appeals were targeted at women and girls in 2014, and just 0.4 per cent of all funding to fragile states went to women’s groups or women’s ministries from 2012 to 2013 [7].
  • According to UN reports, 60 per cent of preventable maternal deaths take place in humanitarian settings and at least 1 in 5 refugees or displaced women are estimated to have experienced sexual violence [8].

Placing women in decision-making roles and including their needs and realities in policies and solutions designed to address global migration and the refugee crisis make them more sustainable and responsive.

Looking for more facts and figures? See our related infographics.

The United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants

Addressing the unprecedented large movements of refugees and migrants needs a more humane and coordinated approach that all countries can endorse and implement. On 19 September, on the occasion of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, Heads of State and Governments will come together at the first-ever high-level summit for refugees and migrants to discuss the key elements of a global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration and a global compact on responsibility-sharing for refugees.

The day-long summit is expected to generate global commitments to address the root causes of large movements of refugees and migrants; to ensure at all stages, the human rights, safety and dignity of refugees and migrants; to provide protection from violence; and to prevent discrimination and xenophobia.  World leaders are also expected to discuss a more predictable and equitable way of responding to large movements of refugees through responsibility-sharing and a comprehensive response plan for refugees.

With refugee and migrant women playing a pivotal role around the world to sustain communities and economies, the global commitments must include achieving gender equality, the empowerment of all women and girls and their human rights as underlying principles, address the unique needs of women and girls, include their voices, and be accountable to them.

Snapshots of our work

Whole families are on the move and pass through the one stop center in Presevo, Serbia. Photo: UN Women / Mirjana Nedeva - See more at: http://eca.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2016/01/un-women-assesses-the-needs-of-syrian-women-refugees-in-serbia-and-fyr-macedonia#sthash.Rhvg8Hl1.dpuf

UN Women assesses the needs of women migrants and refugees in Serbia and fYR Macedonia
Despite gender-sensitive good practices, a UN Women assessment found that response-planning, services, protection capacity and information are not yet sufficient to meet the needs of migrant women and girls in Serbia and fYR Macedonia.

Sayokhat Tashbekova welcomes visitors into her workshop where she, along with other abandoned wives of Tajik migrant workers, creates traditional crafts for sale. Photo: UN Women

Left behind Tajik women overcome hurdles through trainings and self-help groups
As Tajik men migrate for work overseas in pursuit of a new life, some abandon their wives and children. A UN Women programme supports livelihood trainings and self-help groups for abandoned wives of migrant workers. The project has also led to the recognition of abandoned wives and children as a socially vulnerable group in the law, facilitating their access to free legal, economic and psycho-social services.

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UN Women calls for effective protection fo refugee women and girls in the context of European Council Summit
In the context of European Council meeting held on 17-18 March 2016, UN Women calls for the specific needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls to be addressed in the response to the refugee and migration crisis.

Womens corner 307x205

Women refugees and migrants get a place of their own
Complete with Middle Eastern music, smells of home-cooked recipes and plenty of smiling faces, Women's Corner officially opened its doors in Belgrade. It's a place where women refugees and migrants mingle with Serbian women to exchange experiences, feels like a best friend's living room.

Tajik Beekeeper 307x205

Women's self-help groups in Tajikistan foster independence and pride
In Tajikistan's Rasht Valley, budding entrepreneurs and women who dream to better their circumstances get training and support from a UN Women project that changes lives and builds futures.

From where I Stand

This editorial series captures the unique and powerful stories of people around the world, through compelling first-person accounts of their daily sustainable development challenges and how they are bringing about change. Read more»

Lenche Zdravkin. Photo: Mirjana Nedeva

“It took me only two days to realize who they were and why they were passing by my house by the railway track...”

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

Lenche Zdravkin, a legend in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for her work with the refugees, speaks about how meeting refugees crossing the border has shifted her perspective on life. Read more»

Photo: UN Women/Mirjana Nedeva

“The main challenge for women migrant workers is that they don’t know what rights they have....”

SDG 10: Reduced inequalities

Sonja Dimitrijoska, a humanitarian aid worker, helps support women and girl refugees in transit centres in Western Balkan. Read more»

Photo: UN Women/Humairo Bakhtiyar

“After my husband was killed in Russia, I had to take care of everything on my own. How many gallons of water can a woman carry each day? "

SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation

Surayo Mirzoyeva took part in a self-help group supported by the UN Women speaks about how they provided clean drinking water to their village. Read more»

Speeches and statements

Join the conversation

Help us bust the myths about women and girls on the move! With your tweets and posts you can move the conversation forward and raise awareness about the rights and needs of women refugees and migrants using the hashtag #UN4RefugeesMigrants. A social media package with sample messages in English, Spanish and French is available here.

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Many of the civil society participants in the Women on the Move workshop were meeting for the first time. Photo: UN Women/John Bleho

Civil society advocates forge recommendations ahead of World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul
Ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit, UN Women and Oxfam brought together more than 50 refugee advocates from 15 countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa to formulate a joint position on how to respond to the challenges faced by refugee women and girls. Governments should ensure refugee women’s participation in decisions that affect them, said participants at the “Women on the Move” workshop.

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To support women and girl survivors of trafficking, UN Women in Albania has been supporting service-providers in shelters with capacity-building and salary subsidies. A national public awareness campaign against the trafficking of women and girls has been launched, and journalists have been trained to report more accurately and effectively on human trafficking.

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UN Women’s series Transforming Our World presents succinct thematic documents with the aim of raising awareness on the importance of tackling inequality and on the legal framework that protects the rights of women as well as promote solutions to these issues from all areas of society.

Gender Assessment of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in Serbia and fYR Macedonia
This publication is a gender analysis of the response in fYR Macedonia and Serbia which looks at the main risks that women and girl refugees face; classifies the services available for women; determines which barriers exist to access services and information for women and recommends how gender issues can be mainstreamed in the national and international response. 

The Effect of Gender Equality Programming on Humanitarian Outcomes

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The Status of Domestic Workers in Kazakhstan

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Domestic Workers in Russia and Kazakhstan

One of the first of its kind in Central Asia, this study by Moscow's Migration Research Centre assesses the needs and priorities of Central Asian and internal migrant domestic workers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia and Astana and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Its findings provide the basis for further work to improve the policies regulating domestic workers.