A theoretical model based on the Dember mechanism is proposed to describe the steady state photorefractive gratings generated in semiconductor multiple quantum wells (MQW). It has been applied to an GaAs/AlGaAs MQW in parallel configuration (external electric field applied parallel to the MQW layers) for which recent experimental data are available. The model predicts a dependence of the first-order diffraction efficiency on the applied field in qualitative accordance with experiments, including the occurrence of saturation at high field values. Absolute values of the efficiencies are in good agreement with the experimental ones. Finally, high second-order diffraction efficiencies, associated with the development of a perpendicular space charge field, are also predicted by the model.