Where are the women? Gender and migration in the Western Balkans.

In late August 2021, the world’s attention was fixed on chaotic scenes at the airport in Kabul, as desperate Afghans sought to flee the country before the takeover of the Taliban. In looking at the crowds gathering at the airport and the faces of people crammed onto planes, a question went viral on social media: ‘Where are the women?’1 Despite concern within the international community that the return to power of the Taliban could threaten the rights of women and girls, the majority of the people seen fleeing the country appear to be men.

Although women make up almost half of all people on the move,2 the same question is frequently asked in other parts of the world, for example in West Africa, North Africa and the Sahel, and the Western Balkans. Since the closure of the Balkan route in 2016, most of the refugees and migrants moving through the Western Balkans have been young men, particularly from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Morocco.3

In 2015, at the beginning of the refugee crisis, between 17% and 18% of all migrants transiting the Western Balkans were women.4 But this already low percentage fell after 2016. In October 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that only 4% of registered arrivals in Serbia were female5 and only 3% to 4% of arrivals in the transit border camps Tabanovce and Vinojug-Gevgelija in North Macedonia were women.6 In the most recent data, from May 2021, only 3.2% of all migrants in the Western Balkans were reported to be female.7 But why is the percentage so low?

There is little reliable research on gender and migration in the Western Balkans. The limited data available suggest that most women participating in migration through the region move as part of households; very few are moving alone. However, despite this dearth of information and analysis, a few observations can be made.

Figure 1 Cetinje, lying between Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, and the Adriatic, is home to a number of the country’s criminals.

A refugee waits to cross the Greek–Macedonian border near Gevgelija. North Macedonia erected a double-razor fence along parts of its border with Greece.

Photo: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

First, societal barriers at home and physical barriers along the Balkan route have made it less attractive for families and unaccompanied women to travel through the Western Balkans, meaning that the route is usually attempted by young men on their own. This is partly the conscious choice of families who consider young men to have a higher chance of success, but is also often a reflection of gender roles within the societies that people are emigrating from.

This is confirmed by previous research on gender and migration, which shows that migration is not equally accessible to all. The potential of women to migrate is often negatively affected by a limited access to resources, education and political participation. In addition, women tend to migrate to neighbouring countries rather than across long distances. Family roles and gender norms are also believed to influence female migratory patterns, as they can determine whether a woman moves on her own or as part of a household.8

Secondly, the small number of female refugees and migrants who are on the move through the Western Balkans tend to spend more time in the region and take fewer risks than men. While men are more likely to move as quickly as possible across the region, including at night, women and families tend to stay in refugee camps whenever possible. Moreover, women reportedly apply more frequently for asylum in the Western Balkan countries than men.9 They often stay in special reception centres or rented apartments while their documents are processed,10 and are sometimes left behind along the way, while men continue the journey to Western Europe. For example, an interviewee in North Macedonia described how men travelled across the country, leaving their wives and children in Greek reception camps, to reunite later on.11

A third observation is that female migrants are more vulnerable to gender-based risks. Although both female and male migrants are exposed to a number of dangerous circumstances as well as abusive and violent treatment during their journeys, it is generally accepted that migration holds more dangers for women than for men. There are numerous testimonies of gender-based violence being committed against women in the Western Balkans12 by the police, smugglers and fellow migrants.13 Similarly, there are several accounts of women being forced into sexual and/or labour exploitation. For example, in April 2021, a female Afghan migrant was allegedly sexually abused by a Croatian border police officer during a search of a group of migrants on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.14 In a separate case, a female Iranian migrant is reported to have been locked up in an apartment by her smuggler, threatened with rape and forced to clean the rooms and prepare food for dozens of transiting migrants.15

For refugees, many of these gender-related risks and challenges can be overcome by resettlement. Resettlement to a third country enables refugees in need of protection to be moved in a safe and regulated way. It cuts out the need for smugglers and facilities integration. It is worth noting that Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia were quick to agree to provide temporary refuge for refugees – including women and children – fleeing Afghanistan as part of the NATO airlift.16 Unfortunately, the current reality is that resettlement and other legal options are only open to very few refugees and migrants.

More focus should be put on gender and migration, both in terms of understanding the demographics, needs and challenges of people on the move, but also in designing policies to address gender-specific protection risks. Border management and migration policies that contribute to situations where there are mostly young men on the move are a leading indicator that something is wrong. In such cases, we need to ask: where are the women?


  1. Daniel Sohege, Where are the women fleeing Afghanistan?, Washington Post, 17 August 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/08/17/women-flight-refugees-afghanistan-kabul/

  2. International Organization for Migration, Gender and Migration, https://austria.iom.int/en/gender-migration

  3. W Kemp, K Amerhauser and R Scaturro, Spot Prices: Analyzing the Flows of People, Drugs and Money in the Western Balkans, GI-TOC, May 2021, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/Spot-Prices-Analyzing-flows-of-people-drugs-and-money-in-the-Western-Balkans.pdf

  4. UN Women, Gender assessment of the refugee and migration crisis in Serbia and FYR Macedonia, January 2016, https://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eca/attachments/publications/country/serbia/gender%20assessment%20of%20the%20refugee%20and%20migration%20crisis%20in%20serbia.pdf?la=en&vs=3308

  5. UNHCR, Serbia Snapshot – October 2020, 18 November 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/serbia/unhcr-serbia-snapshot-october-2020

  6. Statistics on female migrants were provided to the GI-TOC team by a local NGO active in the camps. 

  7. UNHCR, Western Balkans – Refugees, asylum seekers and other mixed movements as of end of May 2021, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNHCR_RBE_DIMA_WB_Asylum_and_Arrivals_20210531.pdf

  8. UN, Women and international migration, https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/events/pdf/3/P01_DAW.pdf

  9. Interview with a local expert in North Macedonia, November 2020. 

  10. Interview with a civil society expert in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, November 2020. 

  11. Interview with a local expert who has been working with migrants in Veles, North Macedonia, November 2020. 

  12. UN Women, Gender assessment of the refugee and migration crisis in Serbia and FYR Macedonia, January 2016, 14, https://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eca/attachments/publications/country/serbia/gender%20assessment%20of%20the%20refugee%20and%20migration%20crisis%20in%20serbia.pdf?la=en&vs=3308

  13. An NGO representative from North Macedonia explained that women sometimes arrive in a larger group at reception centres with men who claim to be their relatives; based on this, the police allocate them shared housing. Yet, these men and women are often not connected, and the police practice makes women more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Interview with an NGO representative in North Macedonia, November 2020. 

  14. Lorenzo Tondo, Croatian border police accused of sexually assaulting Afghan migrant, The Guardian, 7 April 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/apr/07/croatian-border-police-accused-of-sexually-assaulting-afghan-migrant

  15. Interview with a civil society expert in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, November 2020. This was confirmed by representatives of the State Investigation and Protection Agency in Bosnia and Herzegovina in September 2021. 

  16. Perparim Isufi, Sinisa Jakov Marusic, Balkan Countries Offer Refuge to Afghans After Taliban Takeover, BalkanInsight,16 August 2021, https://balkaninsight.com/2021/08/16/balkan-countries-offer-refuge-to-afghans-after-taliban-takeover/