Refugee Women are Particularly Vulnerable: Balance after two years of Operations in the Mediterranean

Two years ago today, the European organization SOS MEDITERRANEE performed its first rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, it has been operating without interruption and has saved over 27.000 refugees – amongst them more than 4.000 women. For World Women’s Day on March 8th, SOS MEDITERRANEE documents the experiences from refugee women and introduces some of the women behind SOS MEDITERRANEE.

At least half of the world’s refugees are women and girls. It is estimated that there are more than 32 million refugee women worldwide. They normally leave their countries of origin alone or with their children. At the various stages of their refugee route, they are exposed to the arbitrariness of smugglers, officials and other refugees who often exploit their vulnerability. This also applies to the 4,268 women rescued from distress by the rescue vessel Aquarius, which is operated jointly by SOS MEDITERRANEE and Doctors Without Borders.

Many of these women have suffered sexual abuse in their countries of origin and throughout the refugee route – mostly in Libya, where women are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations; as reported in November 2017 by a young woman from Cameroon who was abducted in Libya: “While in Prison, a woman died after giving birth to her baby. We had to cut the umbilical cord with a thread because we had nothing else to do it with; there were no doctors, no nurses. We could not wash ourselves. They put drugs in our food so we would sleep. The water was not drinkable. My child was born in Niger in the desert. In Libya, the baby and I were in captivity in Sabratha for five months. I still keep him quiet to protect him. He is one and a half, but he looks older because he has seen so many bad things. He cries a lot “.
The route to cross the Mediterranean also brings special risks for refugee women. They are usually placed in the inside of the dinghies, because they believe that this is the safest part of the boat. But it is precisely there where they will suffer most harm: When water starts getting in the boat, panic prevails amongst them, because most of the refugees do not know how to swim. The people sitting in the inside are then more likely to suffocate, be trampled to death, or even drown in the water, knee level, in the boat.
In 2017 alone, a total of 130 cases of sexual abuse were documented on the Aquarius. From these victims, 17 were under aged. 57% of the cases of sexual abuse were nationals of Nigeria. 12 % of them had already suffered sexual abuse in their home country, 22 % during their refugee route and 42 % in Libya. Many of the refugee women show severe psychological trauma and physical injuries.

In 2017, a midwife aboard the Aquarius reported: “One of the women told me that she had been raped several times with the passage of a Kalashnikov. (…) I have heard stories like this one, or similar to this one, many times, but I still cannot get used to it. Some women are treated so inhumanely, that they don’t understand the difference between rape and consented sexual intercourse”.
To be able to provide the necessary support and protection for refugee women, a special room for women and children was created on the Aquarius. There, a midwife takes over the medical care of women and girls.

For immediate release. More information is available on the website in the press kit “The Journey of Women Adrift in the Mediterranean“.

For interviews and photo material and footage, contact:
International: Mathilde Auvillain /
France: Julie Bégin /
Germany: Jana Ciernioch /
Italy: Barbara Amodeo /
Switzerland: Caroline Abu-SaDa /

SOS MEDITERRANEE is a European maritime and humanitarian organization for the rescue of life in the Mediterranean. It was founded in 2015 and it is since 2016, together with Doctors Without Borders, operating with the rescue vessel Aquarius in the Mediterranean. Since then, SOS MEDITERRANEE has saved over 27.000 refugees and in 2017 was awarded the UNESCO Peace Prize. The NGO with offices in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy is financed mostly through donations.