For years, female migrants and asylum seekers in Greece have contended with pervasive and consistent sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). On repeated occasions, international NGOs such as UNHCR, Human Rights Watch, MSF, and Amnesty International have decried the disproportionate risks faced by women and girls at various stages of their journey to Greece, ending in ill-equipped refugee camps on the islands and on the mainland.
Nowhere have these risks been more apparent than on the Greek islands. An estimated 13,000 refugees are confined in Moria, a detention facility on Lesvos that is only equipped to handle 1,800 refugees. There, women and girls are routinely harassed, subject to discrimination, without access to adequate hygiene or gender specific showers, amongst other indignities. These squalid conditions perpetuate a cycle of trauma, and exacerbate health conditions for a population struggling with trauma.
As early as 2016, Human Rights Watch reported on unsafe conditions for women and children in “reception and identification” facilities in the Greek islands, which are part of the EU-Turkey deal to offshore asylum processing. In a 2017 report “A Dramatic Deterioration for Asylum Seekers on Lesvos,” medical aid organization MSF revealed that nearly half of the women who had visited their clinic in Lesvos for gynecological consultations in a six months period reported experiencing sexual violence, with two-thirds of these violations occurring during their journey. UNHCR echoed these findings in 2017, sharing 622 reports of SGBV on the islands, with 28% experienced after arrival in Greece. It is worth noting that these incidents are likely drastically underreported, as many women may not come forward for fear of repercussion.
Despite recommendations from the UNHCR, and a slight reduction in overcrowding, the situation for women, girls, and other vulnerable individuals on the Greek islands remains untenable. As reflected by Cecile Pouilly’s 2018 remarks in a press briefing in Geneva, many women in Moria (Lesvos) and Vathy (Samos) camps are unable to bathe because bathrooms and latrines are particularly dangerous for women and girls. One woman said she had been unable to to take a shower for two months.
Globally, women and girls make up a large proportion of refugees and migrants. According to the United Nations Population Division, 49% of all international migrants are female. Because of the disproportionate risk of violence women and girls face, examining migration with a gender lens is instrumental to understanding and improving humanitarian responses. Despite the risks they face, women play an instrumental role in ensuring the well-being of refugee and migrant families. According to a UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs report, “in countries of destination, migrant women work to improve their own and their family’s standards of living, and they often press for changed gender relations within their families. In many countries, they also form and participate in non-governmental organizations that lobby for gender equality.”
It is essential that the voices of displaced women and girls remain central to the narrative around migration, and that their perspectives are incorporated into humanitarian response on the local, national, and global levels. To that end, Amnesty International recently released a report highlighting the voices of refugee women in camps and apartments on the Greek islands, as well as in and around Athens. The report shares their unfiltered voices, gathered through interviews, shedding light on their perilous journey to Greece, the inhumane conditions they face there, as well as experiences of sexual abuse and/or discrimination. The report also shares the initiatives migrant and refugee women have spearheaded to form bonds and empower themselves.
Women’s voices can provide a pathway out of the horrific reality in Moria and many other such facilities. The Amnesty International report concludes with a list of overarching demands by displaced women in Greece, a list which includes ensuring the full participation of women in humanitarian response. These recommendations should provide the backbone for national policy, as well as NGO responses, to ensure people on the move retain the dignity and safety to which they are entitled.