"I want to decide about my future"
Refugee women in Greece speak out.
When Soraya, 24, closes her eyes, the images are as vivid as if it all happened yesterday.
The freezing cold water. The small, shaky boat. Her son throwing up, barely able to move among the dozens of other people risking their lives that night.
“Always I say bravo to myself for passing that sea, because I wanted to make a better future for my children”, Soraya said.
Her memories are similar to those of thousands of other women and girls fleeing persecution and conflict, and who undertake extremely difficult journeys to Greece.
Facing closed borders and no possibility to travel legally, they are compelled to make a journey fraught with risks in the hope that Europe will be a place of safety. For many, those dreams are shattered on arrival in Greece.
Trapped in overcrowded and squalid EU-sponsored camps on the Greek islands, women and girls are exposed to several dangers, including harassment and sexual violence. They are having to grapple with a dysfunctional reception system that keeps thousands of people in severely overcrowded camps with poor sanitation and medical care, that were never intended or equipped to house people long-term.
To make matters worse, not knowing where to go for help and not having female interpreters to talk to makes it very hard for women to access essential services, such as sexual and reproductive healthcare or legal aid.
As women, we need to fight to achieve our rights.
Soraya’s demand to be heard also reflects the wishes of many women Amnesty International spoke to when researching their living conditions in Greece.
This overview draws on their insights and reflects their stories and experiences – from the perilous journeys and hardship on the islands to obstacles faced when trying to rebuild their lives in mainland Greece.
These are not just tales of adversity, but also of the life-changing initiatives set up in Greece, such as community-led female-friendly spaces.
Amnesty International is grateful to each of the women who courageously shared their personal stories, and also to all the people and organizations providing them with invaluable support.
Those in power should listen to the voices of these women and act on their words.
Share their stories and help raise the voices of refugee women in GreeceTWEET NOW
Stories of courage and strength
Since March 2017, Amnesty International has spoken to more than 100 women and girls who have fled their homelands, and who are living in camps and flats on the Greek islands or on mainland Greece.
Regardless of nationality, personal circumstances or hopes, all had one thing in common: they had crucial things to say about their rights, safety, wellbeing and the challenges ahead. They also had clear demands for change.
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Perilous journeys to reach Europe
Since European governments refuse to open safe and legal alternatives to perilous land journeys or life-threatening voyages across the Aegean Sea, women and girls are put at increased risk of violence on the way, including sexual violence and human trafficking.
From January to July 2018, women accounted for 24 per cent of the arrivals on the Greek islands in the eastern Aegean, most coming from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan (UN Refugee Agency).
There was no choice. Either you are left behind in the middle of nowhere with criminals [smugglers] who would do anything to you. Or you squeeze on that boat despite the risks.
All of the women interviewed said they had no choice but to use people smugglers. Women described how they had to wait for days in secret houses in one of the coastal cities in Turkey before being taken to the coast; some also had to spend several nights in the open air near the coast if the weather was too bad to board the boats.
“We stayed there for 20 days. It was cold and wet. There was not enough water or food. We didn’t know any of the people in the group. They were nice, but the smugglers weren’t… They pushed my mother away, when she begged to go back to Bodrum. I was so scared, I couldn’t sleep at all. When I wanted to go to the toilet, my brother walked with me away from the group. But the smugglers followed us once, so we ran back. After that, I did not pee so long that I became ill.”
Yara*, 22, from Syria, who travelled from Turkey to Greece with her mother and her 17-year-old brother
Going to remote places with unknown men made women feel extremely uncomfortable and unsafe, especially if they were travelling on their own. As a result, they were at particular risk of physical, verbal and sexual harassment at the hands of smugglers. One woman said that a smuggler had asked her to give away her teenage daughter for marriage:
“They harassed me a lot. One smuggler was very persistent. He said: ‘I’ll send you to Germany by plane but give me your daughter’. Of course, I didn’t but I’m still afraid of them.”
Women said that sometimes they were also harassed by the police, gendarmerie, and locals in Turkey as well as their own relatives or individuals making the journey with them. A woman from Iran said that her husband forced her to have sex with smugglers when they ran out of money to continue their journey.
When the European governments closed the doors to refugees we got more exposed to the abuses of the smugglers.
Trapped on the Greek islands in overcrowded camps
When women and girls arrive on one of the Greek islands in the eastern Aegean, they encounter the devastating consequences of a recent agreement between EU governments and Turkey, dubbed the EU-Turkey deal.
Since 20 March 2016, asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands have not been allowed to move onto mainland Greece because the EU-Turkey deal requires that they are returned to Turkey.
But the returns are not happening in the numbers envisaged by EU leaders. As hundreds of people are reaching Greek shores on a weekly basis, thousands of people have been trapped in inhumane conditions on the Greek islands for months on end as a result of the EU-Turkey deal.
The majority stay in EU-sponsored camps on the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Kos and Leros. Overcrowding in most of these camps is at a crisis point with more than 15,500 people living in five camps which were designed for 6,400.
Lack of hygiene and sanitation, insufficient clean drinking water, streams of raw sewage and infestations of mice and rats are common in all camps.
“For two months, we slept in a small tent near the toilet... There was no electricity and it was very cold. And when it rained, the water soak[ed] through the tent. We are now in a container with another family of four. Still difficult. My mother suffers from severe back pain and cannot climb up and down the camp to see a doctor.”
Saman*, 19, from Afghanistan
Several pregnant women described to Amnesty International having to sleep on the floor and having very little, if any, access to antenatal care.
“Everything is dirty here. It’s impossible to keep clean and when we have our period, it is very difficult.”
Adèle* from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Many women and girls seeking refuge have experienced sexual or physical violence in their country of origin, or on the perilous journey to Greece. They are still at risk when they reach Greece, as many camps have become extremely dangerous places.
The lack of facilities, such as separate toilets and showers for men and women, and severe overcrowding, especially on the islands, are all factors that contribute to sexual assaults and violence, particularly against women and girls.
From camp to camp: Life on mainland Greece
But life for those making it to mainland Greece is still not easy. Most are also enduring harrowing reception conditions there.
“Everyone loses their mind here.”
Darya* from Afghanistan, interviewed in one of the three now closed-down camps in the area of Elliniko, Athens
The lack of facilities and the poor conditions in camps place a particularly heavy burden on women who often shoulder the majority of care responsibilities for children and other relatives. The psychological impact of prolonged stays in camps is profound. Women spoke of their anxiety, nightmares, lack of sleep and depression - symptoms all corroborated by the humanitarian organizations working in the camps.
Many women living in camps said they felt they had been abandoned. In July 2018, Amnesty International met a group of visibly distressed Yezidi women from Iraq staying in Skaramagas camp, located near Athens. One said:
“We feel totally forgotten. Some of us have been in the camp for two years and nothing is changing. We don’t know what will happen to us. We can’t do anything here and our children are getting crazy. And after all this time, I can hardly communicate about my problems because no one speaks our language.”
By the end of July 2018 there were more than 16,400 people living in the 26 temporary camps on the mainland. The majority were set up to respond to the humanitarian crisis that was triggered when European countries along the Balkans route sealed their borders in March 2016.
With adequate housing largely lacking even pregnant women and women with young babies have no other choice but to remain in camps.
This is very difficult now, they haven’t given us anything, not even blankets to put on the floor. All we have we’ve collected from the street. I must look after my one-month baby and three small children. I need a better place.
The situation does not look set to improve soon. The Greek government has not appointed sufficient staff and major humanitarian organizations are gradually moving out of Greece mainly due to lack of funding. There are fears that access to essential healthcare services, including sexual and reproductive health, and legal assistance in camps could deteriorate further.
In worst case scenarios, women, including pregnant women or those with small children, have had to spend days homeless with the rest of the family outside camps because they cannot access shelter.
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Lack of female interpreters
Women need the opportunity and support to claim their rights and express their needs. Few are in a position to do so without information provided to them or access to female interpreters.
Female interpreters and female interviewers are especially important during “vulnerability” assessments and asylum interviews
In the second interview, I had to talk about the past abuse I suffered in Iran and the sexual assault I experienced in Greece in front of a male interpreter. He was not taking me seriously. He laughed at me.
Azadeh told Amnesty that she felt disoriented and very stressed out after the interview. She couldn’t even find the way back to her flat. After this experience, she repeatedly asked for a woman to do the interpretation. One thing was certain: She would not talk in front of that man again.
In the end, I was heard but I had to be persistent. Other women may not do it and their stories are then untold.”
The lack of female interpreters in camps, hospitals and shelters is also a barrier to accessing essential services. “I don’t feel comfortable talking about problems with male doctors or male interpreters. I don’t go anymore”, a Syrian woman said when referring to appointments with doctors.
Women as decision-makers
Many women are the primary care givers for their families. Without childcare services many are therefore unable to attend meetings or training sessions. Such services are also crucial for their integration. To arrive at decisions that effectively protect their rights, women must be consulted and given the opportunity to inform the relevant authorities of their needs.
Sadly, such consultations rarely happen. As a result, crucial information is missing when decisions are made, and women and girls do not receive the specific help and assistance they so urgently need.
Women-only centres offer life-changing support
“Such a simple thing as being greeted properly, looked in the eye and seen as a human being.”
Mary*, from Gabon, describing the importance of such a centre
Women-only centres, both on the islands and on the mainland, offer life-changing support and services for many uprooted women. These centres are often set up by women and local grassroots organizations. Respecting women’s agency and providing interventions and activities that empower them are at their core.
The women Amnesty interviewed wanted to contribute outside of their work in the home, learn new skills, be able to participate more in society and live independently.
I want to be independent. I have two children, I have to think about them.
These centres offer a range of services that can help women to rebuild their lives, including psychological and legal support and classes to acquire language and other key skills. They also provide crucial information on sexual and reproductive health. Such centres can act as a bulwark against isolation in the camps and flats.
Being part of a strong women’s network made all the difference for 33-year-old Firooza.
She came to the Greek island of Chios with her husband and four children from Turkey after fleeing their home in Afghanistan. After a month on the island, she hid in a hotel to escape her husband’s beatings. Terrified, she did not dare to speak to anyone. Then a woman from the Athena Centre for women on Chios came to see her.
“She told me that I deserve a better life. She used to come and pick me up from the hotel.”
At the Athena Centre, run by the organization Action for Women, she felt comfortable and safe enough to start to study English. Now Firooza has custody of her children and when Amnesty met her, she shared a flat with another single mother in Athens. Her aim is to be able to fully support herself and her children.
I am completely different now. I'm not afraid anymore.
The Athena Centre has offered psychological, legal and medical support to more than 900 uprooted women since it opened in July 2016. Its founder, Gabrielle Tay, told Amnesty International:
“These women never saw themselves as victims. Rightly so: they are survivors. They just needed resources and a stable environment, to rebuild and transition into a new chapter.”
The Melissa Network is a day centre in Central Athens that was set up by Greek and non-Greek women to offer a safe haven for women trying to make a new life in a new country. It is run by a network of migrant and asylum-seeking women and provides workshops and courses for other uprooted women. Their main goal is to empower women to take control over their own lives.
“I came to Melissa to learn the language. For me, Melissa is a place of happiness.”
Zahra*, who fled Iraq with her family
On Lesvos, the Bashira refugee women’s centre offers a place to relax, socialise, take a shower, make new friends and engage in language support classes and arts and crafts. It offers a space for women to come together, reclaim their dignity and agency, empower each other to take the next step and take a much-needed break from the daily hardship of camp life. Sonia Andreu Barradas, the manager of the centre, described how women are often very reserved when they first arrive:
“After a while they understand that they are safe there and open up. It becomes the place where they cry, laugh and dance.”
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European rules tear families apart
Family reunification is almost the only way people can move safely from Greece to another European country. However, it is severely restricted: asylum-seekers can only reunify with their nuclear family members: spouses, children, or in the case of unaccompanied minors, other relatives in other EU countries.
Women travelling alone or with children account for most of the people waiting to be reunited with relatives in other countries. Many have been stranded for over a year.
A European responsibility
European governments are closing their eyes to the suffering of thousands of people who reach Greek shores in search of a place of safety.
The majority will remain in Greece as European asylum rules - the so-called Dublin Regulation - set out that asylum-seekers must apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive. Greece, as the country of first arrival, bears the responsibility of assisting and protecting them, with only few exceptions.
Greece has a legal obligation to provide women and girls living in the country with protection, ensuring dignified and safe reception conditions, fair access to asylum as well as integration opportunities for those who remain. Greece must fulfil these responsibilities and in doing so guarantee women and girls the opportunity to actively participate in discussions and decisions that affect them.
However, the responsibility for their living conditions in Greece lies not only on Greek authorities, but on the rest of Europe as well. The deal between the EU and Turkey, adopted by European leaders in March 2016, and European asylum rules are the two main factors which lie at the heart of many of the problems experienced by refugees, including women and girls.
First, because the deal is forcing many women and girls to remain on the Greek islands in camps fraught with dangers. No improvement in camp conditions on the islands, however necessary they may be, will ever be sufficient to mitigate the risks stemming from confining refugee women and girls on the islands. Second, because the European asylum rules oblige Greece, as the country where refugees first arrive, to bear the brunt of the responsibility for their assistance and protection while many other European countries benefit and refuse to change this unfair asylum system.
European leaders should welcome their fair share of people fleeing violence and persecution. They should offer safe and legal routes to Europe and reform the European asylum system to make it fair and compassionate. Failure to do so is not only failing people in urgent need of protection, it is also failing the people of Europe more widely who are losing confidence in their governments’ ability to stand by EU’s founding human rights principles.
Ten demands from refugee and asylum-seeking women
Uprooted women and girls living in Greece have confronted fear, uncertainty and violence. These resilient survivors are determined to rebuild their lives. Their fundamental rights are currently being violated, and those in power should listen to their voices and act on their words.
Based on conversations with more than 100 women, Amnesty has summed up their wishes in 10 overarching demands aimed at Greek and European authorities.
- SUITABLE ACCOMMODATION. Camps should be the exception and a temporary measure. Women travelling alone or with children, survivors of violence, pregnant women, new mothers and those who face persecution because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, among other groups, should be offered an alternative to camps from the moment they arrive. Hygiene, sanitation, safety and security in reception centres should urgently be improved.
- STOP CONFINING PEOPLE ON THE ISLANDS. The Greek authorities, supported by other EU governments and the European Commission, should end the deliberate confinement of asylum-seekers and migrants on the Greek islands and transfer them to adequate accommodation on mainland Greece, taking into account the particular risks facing women and girls. Ensure that vulnerability assessments result in women and girls having access to the specialized services they need.
- PROTECT WOMEN AT RISK OF VIOLENCE. Increase the number of appropriately trained staff in reception camps and urban areas who can identify and prevent violence against women. Ensure women at risk have information about and access to shelters and ensure accommodation provided guarantees them the security and stability necessary to recover and rebuild their lives. Guarantee adequate counselling, medical assistance and legal aid.
- MORE FEMALE INTERPRETERS AND STAFF. Increase the number of female interpreters as well as medical, psychological and social assistance staff in shelters, temporary reception centres, urban settings and during the asylum process
- ACCESS TO INFORMATION. Provide information about access to services, the asylum process and emergency protection in languages people can understand
- FULL ACCESS TO SERVICES. Increase the capacity to offer mental health support to women and girls; ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services in reception centres, hospitals and clinics; and offer education and more language opportunities to women and their children, considering women’s childcare needs.
- SUPPORT SAFE FEMALE ONLY SPACES. Promote, fund and collaborate with community-based initiatives, set up in consultation with women and girls, to empower women and help their integration
- LIVELIHOOD OPPORTUNITIES. Include women’s perspectives, skills and capacities in government plans to increase employment options as part of an integration strategy for refugees and migrants in the country.
- WELCOME REFUGEES. European leaders and institutions must open safe and legal routes to Europe and offer alternatives to dangerous and irregular sea and land journeys. They should also open legal options for travelling from Greece to other European countries. A further urgent change that must be made is to ensure faster and expanded family reunification options and agreement on a fairer system to accept refugees reaching Europe’s shores. Finally, no one should be sent back to countries where they are at risk of human rights violations, including gender-based violence.
- FULL PARTICIPATION. Above all, women and girls know what is needed to ensure their safety and a better future. Their meaningful involvement in consultations, plans and measures that affect them is crucial to guarantee their success.
Stand with refugee women in Greece
Uprooted women in Greece have crucial things to say about their future. Let them know that you hear their voices and share their demands for a safe future in Europe.
Thousands of women and girls fleeing persecution and conflict undertake extremely difficult journeys, hoping that Europe will be a place of safety. For many, those dreams are shattered on arrival in Greece.
Severe overcrowding and dire living conditions are making the camps, especially on the islands, extremely dangerous places for everyone. Everyday activities such as taking a shower or going to the toilet had become dangerous missions, as without separate facilities they are at risk of sexual harassment or abuse. not knowing where to go for help and not having female interpreters to talk to makes it very hard for women to access essential services, such as sexual and reproductive healthcare or legal aid.
“I want to decide about my future”, Soraya from Afghanistan told us. Her demand to be heard reflects the wishes of many refugee women in Greece.
Despite having lived through horrendous ordeals, they still keep fighting to rebuild their lives and keep their families safe.
Regardless of nationality, personal circumstances or hopes, all had one thing in common: They had crucial things to say about their rights and safety, as well as clear demands for change.
Those in power should listen to the voices of these women and act on their words.
Help strengthen their voices by adding yours.
Send your message of solidarity now!