(HRW) – Greek authorities are failing to provide adequate protection for women and girls living in government-run, European Union-sponsored facilities for asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos, Human Rights Watch said today.
In November, 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 asylum-seeking women and girls as young as 13, living in the Moria “hotspot” on Lesbos. They described harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks. Human Rights Watch found that the conditions resulted from insufficient security, poor hygiene and sanitation facilities, and failures in the system to identify and address the needs of vulnerable people.
“There is no excuse for failing to meet even the most basic standards for protection of women and girls almost two years after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The risks to women’s health and safety in Moria are dire, and as winter arrives, they will only get worse.”
Thousands of women and girls are trapped on Greek islands, often in horrendous conditions, due to a “containment” policy for asylum seekers, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. “Hotspots” were established on several Greek islands to receive, identify, and process asylum seekers and migrants. Human Rights Watch has previously documented violence, insecurity, and unhygienic and unsanitary conditions in the hotspots. As of December 13, the population in Moria, which has a capacity of 2,330, was 6,238.
The women and girls interviewed described pervasive sexual harassment and a persistent sense of insecurity in Moria, and said authorities are unresponsive to their complaints and do not take adequate action to ensure their safety. One woman said she had been approached by a fellow asylum seeker asking for sex in exchange for money. Many said they do not feel safe moving around Moria alone and leave their shelters only in groups or accompanied by male relatives. A 17-year-old girl from Syria said: “Out of fear, I stay in the tent. I don’t go out.”
A 13-year-old girl from Syria who lives in a section of Moria reserved for women and girls travelling alone, said that male asylum-seekers call to women and girls using insulting and sexual terms. “The guys [living here], it’s like they’ve never seen a girl before,” she said.
She said another girl asylum seeker approached her about marrying the girl’s brother. “I was really scared,” she said. “I told her to go away. She left, but she looked at me with a lot of anger. I’ve seen her brother standing at the door [to the section], looking at us. I’m really afraid to go out.”
Frequent fights among asylum seekers – often among intoxicated men – leave women and girls feeling unsafe, and they said that authorities do nothing in response. “Even if there is fighting, the police just stand there watching while the men are bleeding,” said a 31-year-old Syrian woman. “It is impossible to go out by yourself because of the drinking [and] the fighting.”
These findings echo what dozens of other female asylum seekers and representatives of agencies that provide aid to migrants told Human Rights Watch about conditions in the Greek hotspots, citing harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks, during earlier visits in 2016 and 2017.
Concerns about safety and inadequate facilities hinder women and girls’ access to toilets and showers. Female asylum seekers said that toilets and showers in Moria are not secure or private, and that they fear going alone. “We tell someone to come with us or we don’t wash ourselves,” said a 15-year-old girl from Syria.
Women and girls also said the toilets are unsanitary and unhygienic, with feces in some showers and toilets, and a lack of running water, forcing them to venture further from their tents to use alternate bathrooms. Human Rights Watch researchers have visited a number of toilets and showers in Moria and have confirmed these conditions. Some who live in tents in the section designated for unaccompanied women and girls said that other asylum seekers living in the containers, which house the section’s toilets, refuse them access.
Those interviewed also said that sanitation and hygiene are especially difficult during their periods, and that camp authorities provide few supplies such as sanitary pads.
In some cases, officials had failed to identify vulnerable women and girls, as Greek laws require, and to refer them to appropriate support services and accommodation. They include pregnant women and women who have recently given birth, survivors of sexual and other serious physical or psychological violence, trafficking victims, and people with disabilities.
Such vulnerable people are also entitled to exemption from the accelerated asylum border procedures and returns to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal, and to be given priority for transfer to the mainland, where more services are available. Human Rights Watch has previously documented indirect pressure from the EU on aid agencies and Greek authorities to minimize the number of people categorized as vulnerable and eligible for priority treatment.
Human Rights Watch interviewed women who clearly meet the vulnerability criteria but had not been given that status, including two who were nine months pregnant and sleeping on the ground in tents, and four who had informed authorities that they are survivors of rape, trafficking, or other gender-based violence.
Greek authorities, with EU support, should promptly investigate reports of harassment and violence in Moria and take urgent action to ensure that asylum-seeking women and girls can move freely around the hotspot and safely and securely access all of its facilities. There should be separate, secure shelter for women and girls traveling alone, and separate, secure, accessible, and hygienic toilets and bathing facilities that ensure privacy for men and women. Authorities should provide adequate lighting and identify and monitor high-risk areas. The EU and the Greek government should work together to identify asylum seekers in hotspots who meet “vulnerability” critera and facilitate their access to appropriate shelter, services, and asylum processes.
The recent announcement by Greece that 5,000 asylum seekers will be moved from the islands to the mainland by December 15 as an emergency decongestion measure is a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. A total of 2,000 people had been transferred from early December through December 13. But this measure is not sufficient to alleviate the overcrowding or address the systemic issues linked to the containment policy that have created this emergency situation.The Greek government should end the containment policy on the islands, including for women and girls, and, with the support of the EU and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, transfer asylum seekers to the mainland, and provide adequate accommodation.
Greek authorities are aware of overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, and protection risks in Moria but have not acted to rectify the problems, both officials and aid workers interviewed at Moria told Human Rights Watch.
Greece should also ratify the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty on prevention of and response to violence against women, which guarantees protections and services for all women and girls regardless of residency status. Greece signed the Convention in May 2011 but has yet to ratify it.
“Asylum seekers fleeing war or abuse shouldn’t have to hide in their tents to feel safe in Europe,” said Eva Cossé, Greece researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Greek and EU authorities have a responsibility to put a stop to conditions that increase the risk of violence and harassment, and that deny women and girls privacy and dignity.”
Accounts of Women and Girls in Moria
Nearly all of the 25 women and girls interviewed said that sexual harassment by male asylum seekers prevents them from moving freely around Moria. “Someone stopped me and asked me to have sex with him and he said he would pay me,” said Yusra, 31, from Yemen, whose name, as with others interviewed, was changed for her protection. “You hear this kind of thing every day: ‘Big ass,’ ‘Let me kiss you,’ ‘Come with me.’”
Nabila, 19, from Afghanistan, said that men also intimidate women by insulting them for not wearing a veil: “If a girl is walking alone, if she is not wearing a headscarf, they will say, ‘In just a few days here you have changed. What has happened to you?’ ”
Cynthia, 18, fled Cameroon – where homosexuality is illegal – because of persecution due to her sexual orientation. She said that fellow asylum seekers in Moria regularly harass and abuse her because of her sexual orientation and because she does not wear feminine clothing. She said that one male asylum seeker from Afghanistan threatened and assaulted her repeatedly: “He once pushed me against a tree by the throat. He said, ‘Don’t talk to Afghan women.’ I haven’t reported it. I’m afraid…. If I report it to the police, maybe they won’t do anything, [but] if he is reprimanded, his friends will come and hurt me.”
Women and girls said that when they reported harassment or protection concerns authorities in the hotspot did not address them. Several asylum seekers in the section for women and girls said that unaccompanied boys in an adjoining section or other males in the camp scale the fence between sections, and that they regularly come in and around the section at night, often drinking or using drugs. The women and girls’ section does not have its own designated guard.
Amal, 47, from Syria, said she reported the behavior to camp management, but to no avail. “I said we need someone to protect us in our section,” she said. “You told us when we arrived, ‘You are in a safe place here.’… But it is not a safe place. They didn’t respond – they did nothing.”
Yusra, 31, from Yemen, said that despite security at the entrance to Moria’s grounds, once inside the hotspot, there is little protection: “In your section, no one can save you. You are dealing with men, with drunks, with everything.” Yusra said she complained to police about an area near her section where people regularly do drugs, drink alcohol, and fight, but the police did nothing.
Wahida, 15, from Afghanistan, described a lawless atmosphere: “There are places to go report things, but they don’t care. That’s why mostly people solve this kind of problem themselves and there are fights.”
Women also said that inconsistent electricity sometimes leaves parts of the hotspot in darkness, creating additional fear and risk, especially at night. Sadia, 36, from Afghanistan, lives in Moria with her son and three daughters, ages 9 to 15. “We don’t go out alone,” she said. “If it’s possible, we don’t go outside at night. If you have to, you wake up another woman [to go with you].” Fatima, 31, from Syria, said her 11-year-old daughter fell on an unlit path one night and scraped her leg badly. Both women said they had requested flashlights from the management but had not received them.
Vulnerable Women and Girls
Under Greek law, pregnant women, new mothers, and survivors of sexual and gender based violence and trafficking are among those categorized as vulnerable and requiring access to special protection.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented the failure of Greek authorities and supporting partners to identify vulnerable people, and the lack of access to urgently-needed mental health care and psychosocial support for all asylum seekers on the Greek islands.
Human Rights Watch interviewed women at Moria who clearly meet the vulnerability criteria but had not been classified as such by Greek authorities, including four survivors of rape, trafficking, and other gender-based violence.
Farah, 42, said she fled Iran when her family threatened her for marrying someone from a different ethnic group, and that a smuggler raped her en route to Greece. She said she disclosed her experience, including the rape, to a government psychologist when she arrived on Lesbos, but the psychologist did not categorize her as vulnerable. She attempted suicide at Moria by swallowing prescription medications but was not relocated or provided psychological care.
“When I went to the psychologist and explained that I had tried twice to kill myself, she just passed over it like it was nothing,” Farah said. When she sought additional help, “[The doctor] said I need to see a psychologist. I went to the psychologist. She said I need to make an appointment. They gave me an appointment for January . I told them that’s too late, but they said that you have to pay money to go sooner.”
Cynthia, 18, who fled Cameroon because of persecution based on her sexual orientation, said she has experienced ongoing harassment in Moria since arriving in June because she identifies as a lesbian and wears clothing that does not conform to gender norms. She said that she disclosed full details of the harassment at Moria, as well as her previous experiences of persecution based on her sexual orientation, during her asylum interview in July. She also said she had sought help from a social assistant at Moria, telling the person about the recurrent harassment and threats and that she needed to be transferred elsewhere. As of mid-November, she remained at Moria.
Human Rights Watch interviewed three pregnant women in Moria, and one who was pregnant upon arrival but suffered a miscarriage soon after. Two women who were nine months pregnant were sleeping on the ground in tents.
“It is very difficult to sleep comfortably,” said Qasima, 20, from Afghanistan. Her previous pregnancy ended in a stillbirth. “I really need to move. I told [officials], but they didn’t say anything specific. They just said I’m on the list [for transfer to another site].” She also said that accessing the hotspot’s toilets and other facilities is a problem: “It is difficult to walk because there are no real paths. I am afraid I will fall.”
Rasha, 19, from Syria and also nine months pregnant, said: “Going to the toilet is very difficult, because my belly is big, and it is very cold.” Rasha said that she had been living in a tent with her husband and 8-year-old brother for a month, and that no one had discussed moving her to other accommodation. The family uses one of their three allotted blankets to cover the ground, and shares the other two for warmth.
With winter approaching, Rasha said, she was suffering from the cold: “We went [three times] to the place to get blankets and said I was pregnant, but they didn’t give us more.” International humanitarian standards call for vulnerable people, including pregnant and lactating women, to receive additional bedding and clothing in line with their needs.
Neither woman had received comprehensive pre-natal medical care or had information about whom to contact when she went into labor or where she could deliver her baby. “I don’t know if they will even take me to the hospital to give birth,” Qasima said. “Most of the time I just cry because I don’t know what will happen” There have been reports of women giving birth in their tents at hotspots on other islands due to lack of available medical care.
A third woman, who was five months pregnant and whose five previous pregnancies ended in miscarriages, said that doctors at a Lesbos hospital told her she needed specialized medical care in Athens for her high-risk pregnancy. She continued to live in a tent in Moria for one month, and though she had been transferred to a site with better conditions on Lesbos, she had still not been relocated to Athens or seen medical specialists.
Poor Hygiene, Sanitation
All of the women and girls interviewed said that they did not feel safe using toilets and showers in Moria, and that the facilities are unsanitary, unhygienic, and insecure. Mariam, 21, from Syria, said that because of the distance to other toilets, men and women living in her area were sharing one toilet without a secure door. “The door is only tied with a rope,” she said. “The lock is broken.” Guidelines on prevention of gender-based violence in displacement settings from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) call for gender-separated toilets and bathing facilities with working locks, adequate lighting, and privacy.
Wahida, 15, from Afghanistan said that the toilet near the tent she shared with her mother, four sisters, and one brother was too dirty to use, but that other toilets are difficult to access. “There was a toilet closer to our tents, but it is so dirty – inside, it is full of shit everywhere,” she said. “The other one is better, but it is far away. It is 50 meters uphill and my mother has a knee problem, so it is too difficult for her.” Other women said that not all the toilets in the site have running water, forcing them to use toilets far from their shelters and making the functioning toilets overcrowded.
The lack of toilets for overcrowded shelters leads to open defecation in non-toilet facilities. Wahida said the tent she lives in with her family was meant for 10 people but houses 17. She and other women and girls said that people defecate in the showers, and there is increased risk of exposure to human feces, especially for females, due to lack of privacy in the shelters. Wahida said that the only place to change clothes in private is in the dirty showers: “It is horrible because, in the shower, you go normally to clean yourself, but [in Moria] you worry about getting dirty because inside, people use it as a toilet.”
Some women said that, because they share living space with other families, they are unable to remove their hijab, or headscarf, as they normally would at home. They said that the difficulty of bathing and changing and washing clothing, caused skin conditions and gynecological infections. They described symptoms including skin irritation, itching, and burning during urination.
Some women and girls said there had previously been distributions of sanitary pads, but that these ceased around September. Others said they were given sanitary pads only once or twice after arriving on Lesbos. Wahida, 15, from Afghanistan, said that having her period is very difficult due to the lack of clean and easily accessible toilets with running water, and a dearth of supplies. “When we first arrived, they gave us a bag with some women’s stuff inside,” she said. “But it finished quickly, and you don’t know if you can ask for more.”
Women and girls said that since the distribution of sanitary pads stopped, they have to use their cash allowance to buy the products or rely on distributions at volunteer-run centers. Djamila, 13, from Syria, said she had not yet received cash assistance and had to ask other asylum seekers for sanitary pads. “I have to go to another girl to ask for one or two to manage [my period],” she said. “It’s like [the people distributing them] make fun of us because we go back and ask [for more] and they don’t give it to us.”
Some women said that poor sanitation in Moria exacerbates the difficulty of managing their periods and maintaining hygiene. They said that, during their periods, they carry water to their shelters every day to wash their clothing, and use the toilets even if they are not clean or easily accessible. “It is very difficult because the bathroom is far from here, and I have three kids, and I also have to carry water,” said Yara, 21, from Syria.
Legal Obligations; International Standards
Under Greek law, nine categories of people, including pregnant women, unaccompanied children, victims of torture, survivors of sexual or gender-based violence, and people with disabilities are considered vulnerable or at-risk. The law grants them special protection, including access to services, and exempts them from the accelerated admissibility process under the EU-Turkey deal. They are entitled to priority in the regular Greek asylum system and, transfer to the mainland, where they could more easily access services.
The Greek Reception and Identification Service, staffed by government doctors, psychologists and social workers, is responsible for identifying and registering people in vulnerable groups upon their arrival. The European Asylum Support Office supports the Greek Asylum Service in conducting vulnerability assessments.
The Sphere project, which sets international standards for hunaitarian assistance, calls for safe and equal access to water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities for everyone in the affected population, including private, secure toilets and bathing areas for women. The standards also call for provision of “appropriate materials for menstrual hygiene” to all women and girls of menstruating age, as well as means to discreetly launder or dispose of menstrual hygiene materials.
International guidelines on prevention of and response to gender-based violence in emergencies call for mitigating the risk of gender-based violence from the earliest stages of crisis response, including by providing sufficient lighting in all communal spaces; separate, private, and secure toilets and bathing facilities for men and women; and separate, secure accommodation for unaccompanied women and children. Authorities should also ensure appropriate mechanisms for reporting violence and harassment; promptly investigate and respond to complaints; and identify and monitor areas in displacement sites where there is high risk of gender-based violence and take needed security measures.
Under the Minimum Initial Services Package (MISP) for reproductive health in emergencies, displaced populations and relevant service providers should have information about how to access health services that can manage both normal and complicated pregnancy and delivery. Women in late-stage pregnancy should receive clean-delivery kits for home births if delivery in a clinic or hospital setting is not available. Referral systems for emergency obstetric care should be established in the initial stages of an emergency, and pregnant women and health providers should know how to get such care.
Response from Authorities
Greek authorities are aware of overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, and protection risks in Moria but have not acted to rectify the problems. In a meeting with Human Rights Watch in late September, 2017, an official responsible for managing Moria acknowledged that the hotspot is well over capacity and said he had asked the central authorities repeatedly to transfer asylum seekers to the mainland before the onset of winter, but in vain.
Also in early October, Human Rights Watch researchers testified before Greek parliament about the conditions in Moria, including problems for people with disabilities. In response, the parliamentary committee on October 4 adopted a resolution to make an official visit and investigate the situation. As of December 15, the visit had not taken place, nor had a date been announced.
International aid organizations, including UNHCR, have repeatedly denounced the unsanitary, unhygienic, and unsafe conditions in Moria.
One humanitarian aid worker who had worked with two different organizations inside Moria said that she left her job in September due to the inhumane conditions she witnessed and the lack of response when authorities were informed of instances of attempted suicide, self-harm, sexual exploitation, and physical assault inside the hotspot. “I tried my best to report it,” she said, referring to efforts to tell police about abuse occurring inside Moria. “Nothing has changed.”