By Melanie Goldberg, René Cassin intern
“There was not a single safe place in Ukraine…Everyone was afraid and panicked, explosions were heard…We ran in a panic…” (Katerina, May 2022, Poland)
A recently released report from the University of Birmingham, ‘Not a single safe place’, details the harrowing struggle of Ukrainian refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in their search for safety in Ukraine and Poland. Through a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, the report primarily focuses on violence experienced by women and children, highlighting the increased vulnerability of these groups in periods of war to violence, trafficking, and abuse.
Primarily focusing on gender-based violence (GBV) and its proclivity during times of war and mass violence, the report delves into the many barriers to support refugees and international displaced persons face in Poland and Ukraine. In Poland, language barriers, a lack of legal support, appropriate accommodation and ingrained misogynist culture are just a few obstacles to cope with, with a failed “violence against women sector” having been “reported to reinforce guilt and stigma against GBV survivors”. Many women have decided to return to Ukraine, despite the increased danger of death, due to “healthcare exclusion and lack of access to reproductive rights, including abortion” and lacking the capital to survive. Because of a lack of accessible legal structures, exploitative working conditions are also the norm, with reports of “unfair pay and labour exploitation in informal cash-in-hand catering, hospitality and agricultural work”.
“Memories of the past do not allow me to sleep peacefully… As soon as the plane flies, you immediately feel horror and fear…” (Alina, May 2022, Poland).
Countless examples of violence, trauma and degradation are provided in the report. Many experienced both psychological and physical effects such as “panic attacks”, “suicidal thoughts”, “sleep disorders”, “depression”, “broken bones”, “physical disability” and “chronic pain”.
The report chronicles the nature of violence in pre-war Ukraine, comparing the pre-existing forms with the forms of violence experienced during present-day Ukraine. “Structural factors” that existed in pre-war Ukraine, such as “patriarchal norms”, “objectification of women”, and “normalisation of gender based violence” paved the way for certain forms of violence experienced by women today.
The actual act of seeking refuge was often the most dangerous; “sexual harassment, physical and emotional violence” is prevalent during these journeys, on trains, at checkpoints, and women have been forced to resort to appear more ‘masculine’ to avoid abuse.
Other, even more marginalised groups are at greater risk of violence, abuse, and even death. The COVID-19 pandemic posed an acute danger to internally displaced people and refugees with underlying health conditions already at high risk. Ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community, amongst others, faced additional risks of discrimination and marginalisation. Lack of accessible and appropriate sanitation facilities when fleeing the war have put those most vulnerable at greater risk.
There is much in this report that is not dissimilar to conditions here in the UK for immigrants, refugees and those seeking asylum, who are unlawfully detained in detention centres with horrific living conditions and others seeking refuge being denied safe routs to access the UK.
For the past 10 years, the UK government has been postulating on the adoption of the Istanbul Convention in its entirety, a treaty that aims to curb violence against women and children. In May 2022, after a decade of delay, the then Home Office Secretary Priti Patel announced that the government would finally officially ratify the Convention – but with some reservations, meaning not all women will be protected. Migrant survivors, in particular, will be denied life-saving support and protection. There are undoubtedly parallels between the accounts described in the report and the testimonies of immigrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum in the UK, highlighting the importance of implementing the Convention in its entirety.
Jewish history is widespread with stories of persecution and servitude. Not so long-ago Jews were seeking refuge from war and persecution. Just as countries are creating hostile environments for refugees and those seeking asylum from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, and more, we were also not welcomed. As an organisation, we channel our history into activism, with the intention to inspire Jewish advocacy.
The right to freedom is a fundamental principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 4 states that “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms”. Named after a co-drafter of the Declaration, René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights, often employs the Declaration’s principles and embodies its values.
As a Jewish human rights organisation, we understand from experience what it is like for our rights to be relegated and denied and to ensure the Jewish community is regularly informed and mobilised on this issue.