Unprecedented overcrowding in Greek camps for asylum seekers is putting women and girls at heightened risk of sexual violence and harassment, a new report by Refugees International charges.
The situation is especially stark on the islands of Chios and Lesvos, where this week residents clashed with police over the construction of new “asylum reception centres” intended to replace the existing centres that have been overwhelmed by a recent surge in arrivals entering from Turkey.
In September, more than 10,000 mostly Afghan and Syrian refugees arrived in Greece, the highest monthly level since 2016. Now, more than 36,000 asylum seekers are crammed into five sites built for a maximum of 5,400, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The sites are on the islands of Chios, Kos, Leros, Lesvos, and Samos.
“I can’t use the toilet. Men and boys are everywhere and there are no rules here,” Aziza, a young Afghan woman living with her family in an olive grove, part of an overspill area near the Moria camp on Lesvos, told researchers.
The researchers visited camps on Lesvos, Samos, and Chios in December to investigate the impact of overcrowding on the safety of vulnerable women and unaccompanied children. “I just try not to drink anything so that I don’t need to go outside my tent,” Aziza added.
Report author Devon Cone – senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International – told The New Humanitarian that, “women and girls feel completely unsafe, they are living in tents next to strangers and are scared to go to the bathroom at night.”
In the past, refugees tended to form communities, typically based on ethnicity, but, with the tensions from overcrowding, refugees said they were afraid of each other, she added.
Cone said she was alarmed to see conditions had significantly worsened since her last trip to the camps in 2016-17.
At the most overcrowded camps, such as Moria and the Vathy Centre on Samos, informal settlements are spilling out onto the muddy hillsides and olive groves surrounding the camps. New arrivals are making their own shelters out of wooden pallets and tarpaulin, and digging their own toilets.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Hilde Vochten, the medical coordinator on Lesvos for Médecins Sans Frontières, agreed with the report’s findings. She said her clinic on Moria had taken care of up to 20 sexual violence cases a month for the last six months. “Without promoting this service, we are aware we only see the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) has been a high risk in these camps for several years. In 2017, UNHCR received reports from 622 SGBV survivors in camps on the islands, of which at least 28 percent had experienced SGBV after arriving in Greece.
But frustration and anxiety coupled with the dire conditions and limited security are amplifying the dangers and risks for single women and unaccompanied children, which number 1,700 on the islands, according to UNHCR.
“Girls and women but also some men and boys are frequently harassed, and we receive continuing reports of abuse,” said UNHCR Greece spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov.
As well as fearing targeted and opportunistic sexual violence and harassment, women told the report’s researchers that they are also afraid of moving around the camps because of frequent violence between members of different groups of asylum seekers. The stabbing to death of a young migrant in January was the second such incident in Moria in 12 months.
“There’s really no policing,” Cone explained. “There’s no one to protect them if something were to happen.”
The lack of safe bathrooms within the official camps and the overspill areas was a particular problem, the report noted. In some places there is only one latrine for every 200-300 people.
“There are not enough latrines for a basic humanitarian response in a conflict zone such as South Sudan, let alone what should be happening on a Greek island,” remarked Cone, pointing out that the EU has allocated €2 billion to Greece to manage the migration challenge, but this has not resulted in meaningful improvements in conditions in the camps.
All the women interviewed for the report said they were afraid to use the few latrines in central areas because they risked being attacked. Some said they had resorted to wearing nappies at night.
‘The harassment is unbearable’
Single female asylum seekers are at particular risk of sexual violence throughout their journeys. Mercy, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who spoke with Cone, said she was pregnant and had also been sexually abused by her smugglers on route, but that she felt no safer in the Moria camp than before she arrived.
“Greece is a long way from Congo, but it’s so much worse here than I ever could have imagined, and the harassment is unbearable,” she told Cone.
Some humanitarian organisations blame the 2016 EU-Turkey deal – under which Turkey agreed to take back migrants that enter Greece – for the Greek government’s decision to force asylum seekers arriving by sea to the Aegean islands to remain at the camps until asylum procedures are completed. Only then are they transferred to the mainland or relocated elsewhere in Europe.
“Greece is a long way from Congo, but it’s so much worse here than I ever could have imagined.”
Long delays in processing asylum claims have caused a bottleneck; 90,000 asylum cases are now pending in Greece. Many asylum seekers remain in the camps for more than a year, and conditions are rapidly deteriorating with the added pressure of the new arrivals.
“They lack access to the very basics including power, heating, or hot water,” UNHCR spokesperson Cheshirkov said in reaction to the Refugees International report. “Health services are woefully insufficient for their needs.”
In theory, SGBV survivors, along with other vulnerable groups, should be fast-tracked to more appropriate facilities elsewhere on the islands and the mainland.
But a severe shortage of social service providers, such as doctors, psychologists, and social workers, as well as interpreters, is causing delays in assessments. During one three-month period, no vulnerability interviews were carried out on Lesvos, Refugees International reported.
Refugees International, along with a growing number of other humanitarian organisations, including MSF, is calling for an end to the EU-Turkey deal to prevent vulnerable people from becoming trapped on the islands.
But Greece’s new conservative government, which was elected in July, has other plans for tackling the overcrowding. In November it announced that it will close at least three of the most crowded camps, listing those on Chios, Samos, and Lesvos as priorities.
Up to 6,000 people will be relocated to new centres on the islands, which will have facilities for identification, relocation, and deportation, while 20,000 others are to be transferred to the mainland. In January, the government overhauled its asylum system to speed up decisions, with the aim of returning 10,000 rejected asylum seekers by the end of the year.
Cheshirkov said UNHCR supports the Greek government’s plans to close down inappropriate facilities on the islands, but this will take time because of the shortage of accommodation on the mainland.
He added: “We are strongly advocating for the government to take decisive action and use emergency measures to quickly create shelters on the mainland because the situation on the islands is unsafe.”
It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.
This demonstrates the important impact that our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and shine a light on similar abuses.