In recent times, public debate has seen a long, in-depth disquisition about the differences between migrants and refugees. This distinction is undoubtedly important in legal terms, as international law defines a migrant person as someone who moves from their place of origin for essentially economic reasons, while a refugee is a person who flees from a situation of persecution or war. The distinction is also important insofar as international agreements stipulate some clearly more restrictive regulations for the former and more favourable regulations for the latter. 

Nonetheless, it is clear that events such as a global economic crisis, climate change -with a much harsher impact in certain parts of the planet- and the consolidation of conflicts that are not always considered war but are equally as deadly, lead to human rights violations that markedly affect and form part of the life experience of both these groups of people.

Gender specificities linked to experiences of forced displacement and reception must be addressed because this violation of human rights affects women refugees and migrants in a different, specific way. So much so, that article 4 of the Council of Europe's convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which focuses on basic human rights, equality and non-discrimination, underlines how the status of migrant or refugee cannot be cause for unequal treatment when implementing protective measures, thus recognising a specific vulnerability of these groups. The same agreement also recognises violence against women as one of the requirements for claiming asylum (article 60) and prohibits repatriation policies in cases of violence against women (article 61)

Specific conditions linked to gender can be identified in the reasons for fleeing, the intrinsic risks involved in the migration process, and finally, in the contexts of arrival and reception.

In their reasons for fleeing, women face a myriad of specific adversities ranging from forms of violence against women that are common in contexts of war to the feminisation of poverty in connection to crises and economic upheavals. Within this framework, the sexual division of labour present in the globalised economy always places women in a weaker social and economic position, which consequently makes them more likely to turn to migration to survive. It is calculated that between 1960 and 2005, the number of women among international migrants increased by almost 3 percentage points from 46.7% to 49.6%, reaching a total figure close to 95 million women. In the last fifteen years, the percentage of women arriving in Europe, especially from Africa and Asia, has now overtaken the number of men. Furthermore, in 2016 half of the world’s 19.6 million refugees were women.

Regarding the displacement processes themselves, women soon become the specific target of traffickers and human trafficking mafias. The risk of suffering from economic and sexual exploitation multiplies in the transition countries, mainly because of the multiple actors controlling border arrivals and crossings, ranging from the refugees and migrants themselves to the authorities, the police and local residents. All this takes place within a context of lack of legal protection, which affects all displaced persons but especially endangers and discriminates against women refugees and migrants. 

The risks associated with the transition process across borders remain even after arrival, to which are added all the problems associated with some reception policies that do not consider the gender perspective, preventing an effective response to specific realities such as the presence of minors, who need special attention in the areas of housing, health and general safety.

Thus, a reception that goes beyond resolving immediate problems must also include a gender perspective: the reasons why women decide to migrate require specific responses. A good reception is one that is capable of incorporating elements to repair any damage already done, protect from danger and provide resources, as well as grant women autonomy and rights. 

Within this framework, a substantial change is needed in the perspective from which processes of forced displacement are viewed. International protection instruments must be developed in the transition, arrival and reception processes that are underpinned by gaining rights. Guaranteeing safe passage and citizenship is the way to protect those who are displaced and those receiving them. And doing so with a gender perspective is attending to the entire population.


Paola Lo Cascio (Rome, Italy, 1975). Lecturer at the Department of Economic History and Institutions of the University of Barcelona. Her publications include Nacionalisme i autogovern (Afers, 2008) and La guerra civile spagnola (Carocci, 2012). She is a member of the Centro de Estudios Históricos Internacionales [Centre of International Historical Studies] and of the project “La crisis de los refugiados y los nuevos conflictos armados” [The refugee crisis and new armed conflicts] (ICIP). 

Óscar Monterde Mateo (Terrassa, Spain, 1977). He is the author of El impacto humanitario en los territorios ocupados de Gaza y Cisjordania. Los programas de socorro y servicios sociales de la UNRWA. He is a member of the Centro de Estudios Históricos Internacionales [Centre of International Historical Studies] and is coordinator of the project “La crisis de los refugiados y los nuevos conflictos armados” [The crisis of the Refugees and new armed conflicts] (ICIP). 

Paola Lo Cascio / Òscar Monterde Mateo