Nairuz and her husband Waleed slept with their two toddlers between them every night on the floor of a cramped warehouse, fearing their children would be kidnapped. Having escaped war-torn Syria, they arrived in Greece only to find themselves exposed to a whole new set of dangers: violence, the threat of sexual abuse and exploitation.
The family were sent to the now-closed E1 camp in Piraeus, just outside of Athens, after a harrowing three-month journey from Syria via a dinghy boat from Turkey. With the help of the Greek NGO Praksis, the family was quickly able apply for asylum in Portugal, where they now live as refugees.
“We didn’t know how dangerous the trip from Turkey to Greece would be, but at the end of the journey we realised we might not have survived,” Nairuz, 30, tells Equal Times. “We felt terrible during our stay in the temporary residence [in Greece]. It was dirty, overcrowded and our children got sick.”
Nairuz is one of the lucky ones. This year more than 170,000 people have risked their lives attempting to reach Europe from Turkey via Greece.
Their journeys are perilous and they face uncertain futures when they reach Europe. But for women, the risks are amplified. Yet governments and humanitarian organisations are failing to meet their specific needs.
At the United Nations Refugee Summit in New York in September, the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) pointed out that female refugees in Europe are being placed at risk because of inadequate facilities at reception centres.
“It is traumatic for women to stay in a variety of places and detention centres. It can be unsafe and they are unable to get access to protection and services,” Sarah Costa, executive director of the WRC, tells Equal Times.
As well as being over-crowded and poorly lit, there is very little to assure the personal safety of these vulnerable women and girls.
“If toilets are not separate, if accommodation is not separate and if women are sharing spaces with people that are not family members, that increases their vulnerability,” says Costa.
She says that in many cases, pregnant women don‘t have access to medical care or basic supplies such as nappies, food and baby milk.
Worse still, fact-finding missions carried out by the WRC in Greece and Turkey revealed that refugee women and girls are also vulnerable to sexual exploitation, sexual abuse, and transactional sex.
In a report published in June, the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) noted that while women and children account for half of the thousands of people who reach Greece in search of international protection every month, no one on the ground is documenting cases of reported violence against women at reception facilities.
“Women are often unable or unwilling to report violence, especially when they have recently arrived. That’s why it’s vital for reception facilities to have appropriate mechanisms and ways of identifying victims,” Monica Gutierrez, child rights and migration researcher at FRA tells Equal Times.
Some of Nairuz’s friends were still sleeping on cardboard boxes at the E1 camp in Piraeus, along with thousands of other refugees, up until its closure in July this year since the borderbetween Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was closed in March.
Refugees faced appalling conditions there, due to a “lack of government involvement, poor organisation, scarce resources, as well as a lack of information, anxiety and fear about the new European Union-Turkey deal,” according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report from March 2016.
“The suffering in Piraeus is a direct consequence of Europe’s failure to respond in a legal and compassionate way to the crisis on its shores,” the report says.
Although the stated aim of the EU-Turkey deal, signed on 20 March this year, was a reduction of the flow of refugees into Europe, it has left asylum seekers in an even more precarious situation. There are already over 3 million refugees in Turkey. Those who are sent back (which has so far only been a limited number of people) may face years of waiting for a decision on their case with little or no support in the meantime. As a result, some Syrian women are turning to sex work as a means of survival.
Turkish officials have scaled back on the registration of Syrian refugees, thus leaving them without basic services. Camps are inadequate, lacking clean water and sanitation, according to Amnesty International, and Turkey has been accused of sending back asylum seekers to Syria, including a woman who was nine-months pregnant, in contravention of international law.
In fact, the EU-Turkey is significantly “failing refugee women and girls”, according to the Womens Rights Commission.
“While all of these refugees face risks, women and girls especially have experienced sexual assault, extortion, exploitation and rights violations at every stage of their traumatic journey,” the WRC says in a report. “They include single women traveling alone, female-headed households, pregnant women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied minors and women with disabilities.”
Women’s rights organisations are pressuring the EU to change its approach. In June, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) partnered with the WRC to launch #WomensVoices, a campaign to raise awareness of the situation facing the women and girls in Europe who are fleeing conflict.
The aim is to influence decision-makers, through a series of recommendations, events, and members’ networking across Europe, to put violence against refugee women on the European political agenda.
As part of the project, the EWL has sent recommendations to all member states. These guidelines, in a document titled From Conflict to Peace?, include building transit centres in a gender-sensitive manner, access to reproductive and sexual health and rights, a global approach to the prevention of and response to violence, and empowering women and girls as agents of change.
On several occasions, the EWL has written to EU commissioners asking for a “clear EU response” to the rights of female refugees.
But Pierrette Pape, the director of policy and campaigns at EWL, believes the major problem is the lack of political will, with some member states using a lack of financial resources as an excuse for inaction.
“It simply isn’t a priority for them,” she says.