ATHENS: When Warda left her hometown of Idlib in Syria, she knew she had a long, difficult journey ahead, but it never crossed her mind that she would face increased danger as a young woman.
For the past four months, the 18-year-old has been living in a makeshift refugee camp by Pireaus harbour in Athens with her fiancé and six relatives, who also made the perilous journey to Greece via Turkey. Forced to share a tent with her parents and use a mixed bathroom, the lack of privacy is stifling. The large numbers of young, single Syrian and Afghan men, many of whom sit in groups, commenting on the women they see, is also unnerving.
“It’s hard for everyone here, but particularly for women,” said Warda, who like many asylum seekers declined to give her full name. “The Afghan guys like to harass the young women here. They don’t care that I’m engaged or Muslim,” the teenager told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “But when they bother us, there’s nowhere for us to go. It’s really scary.”
Female asylum seekers are vulnerable to violence, exploitation and sexual harassment from the moment they leave Iraq and Syria to their arrival on European soil, Amnesty International says. In March, the European Union published guidelines to protect the rights of women asylum seekers and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people fleeing persecution. The EU recommended separate bathrooms and sleeping areas but these are non-existent in many refugee camps and reception centres in Greece, exposing female asylum seekers to sexual violence, exploitation and harassment, human rights groups say.
UNABLE TO STOP CRYING
Ahmed Hammoud and his family were forced to sleep in a park while they attended interviews on their claims for refugee status at the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Athens. Although the family had requested accommodation during their visit, citing the ill-health of Hammoud’s father who had suffered a stroke, none was made available.
For two nights, they slept rough before going back to the island of Lesbos and Kara Tepe refugee camp which prioritises families and vulnerable people.
“The first night was bad enough. My father was in a bad way but the second night was awful,” Hammoud, 18, recalled. “I woke up to my little sister screaming and crying. My first thought was that she’d been hurt but it was actually my mother.” When Hammoud found his mother a few seconds later, four men were assaulting her. They ran off before he was able to identify them.
“They were trying to rape her,” he said, sadly. “But that wasn’t enough for them. They also cut and burnt her. My mother hasn’t stopped crying since.” Hammoud said when he and his family asked EASO for help the following day, they were told that nothing could be done. Then the police were called to escort them off the premises.
Women and children accounted for 55 percent of migrants passing through Greece in January, according to the latest UN figures, more than double the number last year. Ever since she arrived in Lesbos in March, 17-year-old Mariam Hussain has repeatedly tried to separate from her father, a man who has long abused her emotionally. Following months of mistreatment and failed attempts to be resettled elsewhere, she attempted suicide.
“I was so depressed. I still am,” Mariam said, explaining that staff in the camp did nothing when she asked to be moved from her father. “In fact, they told my father what I’d said.” Hussain is pinning her hopes on turning 18 in September. “I can’t wait for September 12. Hopefully I’ll be free of him at last,” she said.
Iota Peristeri from the Greek Asylum Service in Athens, said she was shocked to hear Hussain’s story, adding that she was unaware so many female refugees were experiencing violence during the asylum process. “Normally, a person like Mariam would go to one of EASO’s regional asylum offices, sign an official declaration saying she wants to be separated from her father and that’s it,” Peristeri said. “The process should be relatively quick and painless.”
Many asylum seekers, women included, say they have been victims of police brutality in Greece – an allegation police officials deny. Syrian-Palestinian refugee Salaam, 20, said she was on her way to visit a friend at another camp when she was hit by a police officer trying to prevent her from entering the camp.
“They punched me so violently they’ve broken one of my ribs. I’ve been in bed for a month,” she said. Peristeri from the Greek Asylum Service said this was the first time she had heard of police violence. “I find it surprising,” she said. “But, then again, we never actually visit the people or go to the camps.”