A few years ago, in Portugal, a team comprised of myself and colleagues from Lisbon
University Institute initiated an action research project entitled "Trajectories of
Refugee: Gender, Intersectionality and Public Policies in Portugal”, to assess the
experiences of refugee women in the aftermath of the so-called refugee crisis, so
our research team enthusiastically got on board with trying to fill that gap.
On the journey, this project endured not only the refugee crisis, but also the global health crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, we managed to successfully overcome some of the limitations, growing as research team during difficult times.
Initially in 2015, when the European Union (EU) Solidarity Relocation Refugee Program was established, it was met with some resistance. This resistance was in part due to the fact that most refugees were arriving to Italy and Greece, countries where asylum claims had skyrocketed, and each was dealing with an unimaginable scenario, having to shoulder the influx on their own.
Thus, the EU designed a plan to relocate refugees across its member states. Relocation meant the transfer of persons who needed international protection from one EU Member State to another EU Member State. It aimed at relocating about 120,000 refugees, but it never reached those figures; many EU member states were opposed to the relocation plan, mainly those located in Eastern Europe. While the program involved EU funding for the implementation, the reception and welcoming policies were established locally. The relocation program was only one of the programs aimed at assisting refugees. Other programs included the old system created after WWII, based on the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, guarded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and implemented at the individual country level. Most countries have a system in place to implement the convention. In general terms, people have the ability to request asylum, but they only become refugees when they are granted this status, initiating protection protocols.
The UNHCR also includes a resettlement program, which translates into the transfer
of refugees from an asylum country to another state that has agreed to admit them
and provide an option for permanent residence (many times due to health-related issues
or other vulnerabilities). For example, in the case of Portugal, resettled refugees
came from Egypt and Turkey. Additionally, some countries from the European Union improvised
another program seeking to transfer asylum seekers who arrived by boat in the cost
of the Mediterranean and that had been rescued by solidarity missions.
Overall, the countries of origin and profile of the refugees and asylum seekers from each of these programs in Portugal was extremely diverse. Yet, the commonality we found was that these programs did not account for any gender specific consideration, besides identifying women as possible victims of domestic violence, as if that was always the case. We also found that there was very limited groundwork done to prepare the refugees for the society of where they would be relocating.
Our findings indicated a disconnect between authorities (both national and local) and the local non-governmental organizations implementing the receptions programs, which usually last about 18 months. The results showed, that women felt disoriented about basic services, such as healthcare and education for their children (or themselves); most of them, due to bureaucratic and other barriers, had limited access to language programs. Unfortunately for these women, Portugal was still recovering from the world economic crisis. Many new refugees were told there was a work requirement, oftentimes for very low pay. This added another layer of complexity to the societal adjustment, and increasing stress for the newcomers who often had their children in tow.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, we faced more challenges in connecting with the refugees, which unfortunately led to postponing some of the planned interventions (training and workshops for refugee women). However, we remained committed to following through with the promise of the community alliance, which would provide sustainability to the community-building process, a primary goal we set from the beginning.
In concluding our research, our team organized a virtual community forum to discuss our findings. Here, stakeholders including authorities, academics, NGOs and other civil society organizations had an opportunity to come together and hear about the experiences of those we encountered and collaborate on ways to address the critical issues, even after the dedicated research time had expired. The community forum unfolded in a three-part experience: the presentation of preliminary study results, shared experiences by community partners, and breakout sessions that enabled more detailed discussions among community partners.
Breakout session groups focused on the reception and integration challenges faced by women, each with a different emphasis:
- Motherhood and changes in gender roles
- Health and education
- Labor markets and housing
- Impact of COVID-19 pandemic
- Collaborations between civil society entities governmental organizations
In the end, each group presented the main topics discussed and some further recommendations for change.
Nearly 100 individuals participated in the initial community forum and we have since held follow up meetings to provide advice to civil society organizations. Our team has also been invited to present in an event organized by the Delegation of the Catalan Government in Portugal. This event will address the experience of Portugal, Catalunya and Mozambique in the field of migrant and refugee women, certainly taking the issue across borders and across continents. Likewise, our team has proposed to the University of South Florida to replicate this initiative by organizing an international event with similar dynamics and creating a transnational virtual exchange between stakeholders in Portugal and those in the Tampa Bay area working with refugee women, which could render a rich interchange.