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Exodus: Our Journey to Europe

This three-part co-production shows a terrifyingly intimate, uniquely epic portrait of the biggest movement of people that Europe has seen since World War Two.

In 2015, cameras were given to some of the million people who were trying to enter Europe in the hope of fleeing conflict, unrest and poverty, so that they could record places no-one else can go.

To find out more about this series, take a look at the BBC programme page

A photograph of a sticker on a wall. Much of it has been peeled away, but the words 'no one is illegal' can still be made out

Gendering Refugee Experiences

More than one million people sought safety in Europe in 2015. Amnesty International called it ‘the worst refugee crisis of our era'. But where do refugees come from, and where do they go to?  

Migrant Crisis or Refugee Crisis? What is the Difference?

A photo of a wire fence

Photo by Miguel on Unsplash

The terms ‘migrant crisis’ and ‘refugee crisis’ are sometimes used interchangeably. Neither are necessarily incorrect, but the term ‘migrant’ encapsulates all forms of mobile people: emigrants, immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and economic migrants (each of which is explained here). The term ‘refugee crisis’ refers to people who are fleeing from conflict or persecution, and also respects that some people flee areas of severe deprivation, poverty and even ecological devastation. 

While it is a Human Right to seek refuge from persecution, people fleeing their countries face the difficulty that once a conflict breaks out, many countries close their borders or impose visa restrictions. It becomes illegal for them to enter a safer country. So, when we talk about the current refugee crisis, it is worth keeping in mind that this crisis is itself caused as much by border crossing restrictions, as it is by the conflicts in the regions from which people flee (see more on this in our interactive timeline down below).

... the majority of refugees seek safety in the region they come from.

Most people entering Europe do so across the Central or Eastern Mediterranean route , and so are fleeing areas of conflict of unrest such as Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. Of the people arriving into Europe in 2015:

  • 57% of those were escaping the war in Syria;
  • 24% of refugees were fleeing impacts of conflict in Afghanistan;
  • 9% were fleeing the impacts of conflict in Iraq. 

It is very important to note that the majority of refugees seek safety in the region they come from. For example, while over one million people have sought refuge in Europe, 4.3 million Syrians have sought safety in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (EESC 2016, p. 4).

Gendering Migration

7 mins 37

Dr Heaven Crawley - Coventry University

One striking aspect of the current crisis is the gendered nature of refugees’ experiences. As Heaven Crawley points out in her interview, while women and children are often depicted in the media and public discourse as victims, men are often shown as virile, active and even threatening.

... gender is not just about women, it’s about the power relations between women and men...

While there are important similarities in women and men’s experiences of migration, there are also differences. Gender-based violence, for example, is defined as ‘violence that is directed against someone because of their status as a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty.’ This can influence women’s decision to mobilise, but can also affect her along her migratory journey. While this definition focuses on women, it is important to note that gender based violence can affect people of all genders, including those who do not identify along binary gender ascriptions.

Gendered impacts of conflict

A table summarising some of the different experiences men and women face as refugees

This table depicts how gender relates to conflict-related violence. It is reproduced from UNFPA 2015: 21. 

Borders and Gender

A picture of a globe, taken through some glass

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

While both men and women become refugees, the numbers of men and women are in flux: The numbers of refugees worldwide are almost evenly divided between men and women , yet there are differences in the mobility of men and women. While women and children tend to flee shorter distances, men tend to make up a larger proportion of refugees fleeing longer distances, for example, to Europe. While women accounted for 25% of refugees crossing from Macedonia into Northern Europe between June and August 2015 (UNFPA 2015: 13), women and children made up 75% of Syrian refugees in Turkey (CTDC 2015: 5). 

However, since late 2015, there has been a changing pattern with women making up a higher percentage of refugees arriving in Europe, many pregnant or with children. The UNHCR reported that two thirds of refugees who arrived in Europe in the first two months of 2016 were women and children . In addition there is an increase in the proportion of women refugees due to family reunification (with refugee husbands already in Europe), and wives hoping that their asylum applications stand a good chance of success in Europe .

Family reunification is generally quite a long, arduous process and changes in laws make this more complex than ever. One major issue is the difficulty in accessing legal support and being able to afford legal aid, as the Red Cross outlines in their report . The length of the process varies from person to person but, in principle, it is no faster in the UK than Germany or anywhere else in the EU.​

Hardening borders

When boats sink or encounter difficulties, women and children are more likely to die because of a range of factors including ‘lower levels of swimming ability, their location below deck, the clothes they are wearing, their vulnerability to sexual violence during crossings, and succumbing to exposure and hyperthermia

The International Organisation for Migration state that 3,770 people died in the Mediterranean in 2015 (BBC, 4 March 2016). European states have reduced opportunities for people to enter countries legally by limiting or closing border. The result is a hardening of borders and the effective criminalization of refugees as people take more dangerous routes to flee their countries of origin and often have to use smugglers.

The hardening of borders and more dangerous border crossings have affected women and children disproportionately : Sharon Pickering argues that crossing borders is more hazardous for women and children . When boats sink or encounter difficulties, women and children are more likely to die because of a range of factors including ‘lower levels of swimming ability, their location below deck, the clothes they are wearing, their vulnerability to sexual violence during crossings, and succumbing to exposure and hyperthermia sooner than men.’

Yet, even for those who survive and arrive, the harsh conditions do not end with their arrival in Europe. A recent report lists ‘Poor reception conditions, smugglers, robbers, incidents of corruption and police and border guard violence, severe weather conditions, closed borders, passport controls and increasingly hostile European citizens’ (EESC 2016: 3) as some of the hazards affecting refugees. In addition to this, women are disproportionately affected by rape, the loss of family members either left behind or lost on their way and these particular traumas have not been adequately addressed in the reception phase of refugees (ibid: 8).

When thinking about the refugee experience, it is important to keep questioning the ethics and politics of migration controls, which lead refugees to rely on illegal means to seek legal protection – and to pay smugglers and force them to use the most dangerous routes into Europe. Nearly all refugees now rely on paying smugglers for at least some part of their journey , and this is becoming big business. Yet, activists point out  that helping refugees to cross borders into Europe should be seen as an act of civil disobedience, similar to the ‘Underground Railway’ which helped enslaved Black Americans to escape or those enabling people to flee Nazi Germany. It is worth remembering that the very need to use smugglers is an additional factor of risk for women, who are disproportionately subjected to sexualised and gendered violence at global borders.  

Smugglers and Transit Migration

A picture of a girl looking out across the sea as the light is fading

Photo by Keenan Constance on Unsplash

For many refugees, the journey to their destination country is long drawn out. The term ‘transit migration’ is increasingly used by researchers and policy makers, referring either to ‘ongoing mobility’ or a period of ‘involuntary immobility’, where migrants are ‘stuck’ in a country and cannot move on.

This has particular consequences for women, who need to make a living and attempt to save money for their onward journeys during these periods of being stuck, sometimes for years. During this time, women (like other vulnerable groups like children and unaccompanied minors) can be subjected to sexual exploitation or enter sexual relationships in exchange for accommodation, food or safety from attack. While most female migrants are under male control during these journeys, even those who manage to make at least part of these journeys independently, are vulnerable to sexual and other violence.

...not all so-called smugglers are exploitative members of criminal gangs, but may just as easily be taxi drivers who want to help out a family who is fleeing torture or war

Although we often think of smugglers as the main perpetrators of such violence, it is important to recognize that such sexual and other forms of violence are also, often routinely, committed by officials such as peacekeepers in camps, police officers or detention officers in immigration and removal centres. Women who are also responsible for children, either born before or during the migration period, are often further circumscribed in their ability to move on or make a living for themselves and their children, spending much longer stuck in refugee camps or transit migration countries. It is also important to bear in mind that not all so-called smugglers are exploitative members of criminal gangs, but may just as easily be taxi drivers who want to help out a family who is fleeing torture or war. It is recognized in the 1951 Refugee Convention that some people may have to resort to criminal means to escape and should not automatically be cast as criminals for doing so.

It is really important to be aware of the language used in media and public debate which might, even unintentionally, criminalise refugees or reduce their experiences to that of a loosely defined term like migrants.

Case Study: Syrian Refugees in Turkey

9 min 25

Dr Nof Nasser Eddin and Dr Nour Abu Assab, CTDC

In a study on Syrian refugees in Turkey, the Centre for Transnational Development and Cooperation (CTDC: 2015) looked at the experiences of women refugees. They found that poverty is a key issue affecting all Syrian refugees, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. For women this is exacerbated as up to 22% of refugee households outside camps are female-headed, and as Syrian refugees have only restricted access to the legal labour market, many find it difficult to make ends meet.

This situation has led to an increase in early marriage, as many women and their families hope that marriage can help them secure their livelihood. However, this often causes even more problems: for example, some Syrian refugees have married Turkish men and become their second wives. Yet, as this is not legally recognized in Turkey, they have found themselves without legal protection and in the case of a separation, they had no right to their children from these marriages.

Women tend to work in informal employment as traders or cleaners, but often find themselves more exposed to sexual harassment in these jobs. Some women have also turned to sex work, as they lack other opportunities to earn a living.

Thus, the difficult living conditions of refugees in Turkey can create particular gendered vulnerabilities. Yet, some Syrian women felt that the challenges of becoming refugees, and needing to work outside the home also opened up opportunities for empowerment and developing independence and resilience.

Gendered experiences of seeking asylum in the UK

It was only in the 1990s and 2000s in response to feminist campaigns that demonstrated that practices affecting women in the private sphere or the home can constitute grounds for persecution and legitimate claims to asylum

When people arrive in the UK, they need to apply for refugee status and during this process are called ‘asylum seekers’. To qualify for recognition as a refugee, claimants must demonstrate that they have a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ which prevents them from returning home, and that the persecution they fear is ‘for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’.

When the 1951 Refugee Convention was introduced, the meaning of ‘persecution’ was interpreted in a very narrow way, seeing it as something carried out by the state against political opponents in the public sphere. It was only in the 1990s and 2000s in response to feminist campaigns that demonstrated that practices affecting women in the private sphere or the home can constitute grounds for persecution and legitimate claims to asylum. Following the lead of courts in Canada and New Zealand, the courts now recognize that such sexual or gender-based violence could become grounds for asylum but only if the woman’s home state did not offer her adequate protection.

While the 1951 Refugee Convention recognizes political opinion as grounds for persecution, it had conventionally been interpreted as referring to membership of a political party that has been banned. More recently, women challenging prevailing power structures, for example by refusing an arranged marriage, ending a violent marriage or refusing to dress according to narrow social definitions of appropriate dress have also been granted asylum. In New Zealand in 2008, a woman who had ended her violent arranged marriage, and as a consequence was under threat of so-called ‘honour-killing’ by her former in-laws, was granted asylum as the court found that:

‘The political opinion ground must be oriented to reflect the reality of women's experiences (…) In the particular context, a woman's actual or implied assertion of her right to autonomy and the right to control her own life may be seen as a challenge to the unequal distribution of power in her society (…) Such a situation is properly characterised as "political"’.

A picture of a motorised dinghy resting on the shore, with two oars on its floor

Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

Since 1999, it has been established that gender can be defined as ‘membership of a particular social group’. Being a woman and being subjected to institutionalized discrimination without recourse to ways of avoiding male violence can constitute valid grounds for an asylum claim. The case of Shah and Islam in the UK in 1999 found that women facing serious domestic violence and failing to be protected by the authorities could qualify as refugees. Since they suffered from ‘institutionalized discrimination’ the judge, Lord Hoffman, argued that the domestic violence was not a private matter. The claimant could not rely on protection by police, and instead, was likely to be arrested herself as the police would believe her husband’s claim that she had been unfaithful.

Since this groundbreaking decision, women from many different countries have been able to be recognized as refugees on the basis of their membership of a discriminated social group as women. It is important to note that even recognition of the status of membership of a ‘particular social group’ does not always result in being offered refugee status. Many women who are subjected to violence at the hands of partners or husbands are told that they would be safe returning to their country if they move to another part of that country (Internal Relocation).

12 min 19

Dr Victoria Canning, The Open University

Refugees are facing more barriers to mobility than ever before, and the result has been increased deaths at global borders, and less protection for those most in need of it. Women seeking asylum can face violence and adversity at every stage of migration. The process of seeking asylum in the UK is also very complex. As well as facing detention, destitution and dispersal, women often feel they cannot speak about their experiences of sexual violence or abuse. Many face disbelief if they do.

Whatever way we look at the crisis, we are looking at a very complex situation that requires political and policy solutions that in July 2016 still seem very remote. Refugees are at the sharpest end of these crises and they are the ones who feel short, medium and long term consequences most. 

A picture of a video camera

The making of Exodus: - Interviews with Keo Films

Professor Marie Gillespie interviews Will, James and Daisy from Keo films on the making of the series 'Exodus: Our Journey to Europe'.

Will Anderson - Executive Producer

6 min 51

Marie asks Will about depictions of refugees in the media, Keo's approach to filmmaking, the ethical challenges that the production team faced along the way and what the hopes are for the series.

James Bluemel - Series Director

7 min 29

James discusses the challenges Keo faced when filming the series, the balance of filming with the refugees and the refugees self-shot footage and the bonds between the production team and the participants in the series.

Daisy Squires - Assistant Producer

4 min 20

Daisy talks with Marie about how smartphones were a crucial part of the film-making process, and how they were used throughout the refugees' journeys. 

Timeline: The Criminalisation of Asylum - 1900s

This timeline looks at the illegalisation of asylum seeking and the consequences it can have on people seeking sanctuary.

A picture of a map of Europe

Aliens Act Established

Aliens Act established as first piece of immigration legislation in Britain. Control at borders becomes the responsibility of the Home Secretary. Details (such as names and nationality) are collected by the captain and given to the state. The act includes powers to detain and deport, and immigrants must prove they are self-sufficient. It was, in some senses, a way to deter and control poor immigrants and Jews fleeing pogroms.

A photograph of some curtains. Unidentifiable lights are visible through it.

Immigration anxieties rising

As persecution against Jews in Germany increases, more leave in search of refuge. On 5th April, Home Secretary John Gilmour raises the question of refugees to the Cabinet for the first time, particularly concerns about destitute refugees arriving in Britain. Anxieties that it would set a precedent for allowing entry to other refugees lead to the United Kingdom delaying the 1933 League Convention concerning the International Status of Refugees.

A picture taken between the columns of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The demonisation of Jewish refugees

The Second World War, and consequently the Jewish Holocaust, was unfolding and 3,000 Jewish refugees had fled to Britain. 

A year prior, The Daily Mail had printed a heading stating ‘German Jews pouring into this country’ after a magistrate judge declared, ‘The way stateless Jews are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to its fullest’. 

The British government attempted to repatriate these refugees to Germany.

Black and white photo of an English beach

Empire Windrush arrives

The loss of life in the aftermath of the Second World War (1939-1945) left significant gaps in the British workforce. To ensure post-war reconstruction, Caribbean workers from British colonies were encouraged to move to England as a form of managed economic migration. The first ship, Empire Windrush, arrives with 492 workers.

Flags of the Commonwealth outside the Houses of Parliament in London

Commonwealth Immigrants Act

Commonwealth Immigrants Act is passed to restrict the number of Commonwealth migrants travelling or relocating to Britain. Aimed mostly at people from Caribbean colonies, the Act facilitated immigration controls by introducing a limited number of employment vouchers and the deportation of immigrant people with criminal convictions. Amended with further controls in 1968.

A picture of the outside of a detention centre in the UK

First detention centre built

Harmondsworth Detention Unit, Greater London, opens and is the first detention centre in the United Kingdom to be built with the purpose of detaining Commonwealth citizens who are denied entry to Britain. 

This preceded the Immigration Act 1971, which took away the automatic rights of Commonwealth citizens to stay in the UK. 

By 2015 it would become the biggest detention centre in Europe, holding 615 men at any given time.

An aerial photograph looking down at a lorry park

Immigration Carrier's Liability Act

The Immigration (Carrier’s’ Liability) Act is introduced in Britain. First legislation to fine airlines and shipping companies for each passenger brought in to the UK without necessary documents (£1000). By 1998, sanctions are extended to Eurostar and haulage companies moving through Calais in France are targeted by border control officials checking for illegalised migrants. By 2001, this includes the Eurotunnel.

A picture of Kensington, London

Asylum and Immigration Act 1996

Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 makes it a criminal offence to employ anyone without permission to live and work in the UK.

A picture of an immigration van taken from the side. Two enforcement officers can be seen in the van.

Increasing criminalisation of asylum seekers

By now, the impact of criminalising asylum seekers becomes evident in some courts. In Uxbridge magistrates court for example (which is close to Heathrow airport) more than half of all criminal cases heard this year related to entry to Britain with false documentation. 

A collection passports from different countries across the world.

The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999

The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 creates 35 new immigration related offences. It also removes choice from accommodation provision for asylum seekers in Britain (dispersal), swaps cash provision to vouchers, and increases the number of airline liaison officers based abroad to reduce the number of immigrants travelling to Britain on forged papers.


The experts who worked on this...

A photograph of Dr Umut Erel
Umut ErelLecturer in SociologyVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photograph of Dr Umut Erel
Umut ErelLecturer in Sociology

Umut's research interests are in migration, ethnicity, gender and class, culture and representation empirically and theoretically. She has explored issues of intersectionality, the social construction of skill and notions of belonging in recent research projects (e.g. on Refugee Women in London’s voluntary sector and on migration and cohesion in the context of the East of England). Umut is interested in how these issues play out in practices of citizenship, differentiated along gender and ethnic lines. 

A photograph of Professor Marie Gillespie
Professor Marie GillespieProfessor of Sociology - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies SociologyVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photograph of Professor Marie Gillespie
Professor Marie GillespieProfessor of Sociology - School of Social Sciences & Global Studies Sociology

Marie Gillespie's teaching and research interests, revolve around migration and transnationalism, media and visual cultures, especially in relation to the South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas. Her recent work has focussed on Syrian refugees and smartphone use, the evaluation of digital resources for refugees, and more generally uses of digital technologies in development projects – including participatory research and photography projects in refugee camps in Greece and Jordan.

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