According to the UN, women and girls make up 50 per cent of the total number of displaced persons in the world today. Those who reside in Greek refugee camps have for various reasons embarked on a dangerous journey in the hope that Europe will be a place of safety and security, with opportunities to create a new life for themselves and their families. In anticipation of a decision and while living in dangerous conditions, it is important that their voices are heard, and their rights safeguarded.
When we hear about women forced to flee, as asylum seekers or migrants, they are often portrayed in a stereotypical manner about who they are and why they have left their homes, instead of emphasising that most people who flee are individuals with hopes for a better future like the rest of us. Displaced women are wives, girlfriends, daughters, but more importantly they are women who speak a particular language or share a culture, who are teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, artists, students, shop assistants, chefs, midwives or mothers. As asylum seekers and migrants their experiences vary, but the descriptions of their situations are often reduced to women as victims or someone in need of protection.
Women on the run are particularly vulnerable to various forms of gender-based violence, whether in their home country, during their journey to Europe or upon arrival. We know that in the refugee camps, women and girls are exposed to a number of dangers, including rape and sexual violence, so-called “honour crimes”, violence in close relationships, exploitation and prostitution, and harassment from individuals and society in general.
Greece has a legal obligation
More than 20 years ago, women’s experiences during and after war and conflict were highlighted as an area that should be given special attention through UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000), and its ten subsequent resolutions. A few years later, the Council of Europe adapted the Istanbul Convention (2011) on the Prevention of Combating Violence against Women and Violence in Close Relationships. The convention is a comprehensive framework that will protect women from persecution to rape and forced marriage, where displaced women are no exception. Unlike the UN resolutions, the convention is legally binding, and requires criminal prosecution of perpetrators, safe “homes” for abused women and active policies from the signature countries. In this sense, Greece has a legal obligation to provide women and girls living in the country with protection, dignified and safe reception conditions, fair access to asylum and integration opportunities for those who are granted residence.
In June 2017, the Greek authorities signed a protocol to coordinate the protection of refugees and asylum seekers who have been subjected to gender based violence. The measure includes the coordination of referrals to 40 counselling centres and 21 state crisis centres for women exposed to violence across the country, including Greek citizens. This is a step in the right direction, but the impact of the protocol is still very limited. The crisis centres are an important service for women who are exposed to physical and psychological violence, but they are not always equipped with interpreters and the necessary services to support women or ensure that they receive the information or protection they are entitled to. The same goes for the refugee camps.
Not Greece’s responsibility alone
However, the responsibility for displaced women lies not only with the Greek authorities, but also with the rest of Europe. The agreement between the EU and Turkey, adopted by European leaders in March 2016, and European asylum rules are the two most important factors in many of the problems that women and girls forced to flee experience. Firstly, because the agreement forces many women and girls to remain on the Greek islands in camps filled with dangers. Secondly, because the European asylum rules oblige Greece, as the country where the refugees first arrive, to be responsible for their assistance and protection.
Protecting the rights of displaced women is a new strategic goal for the Council of Europe’s work to promote gender equality and women’s rights under the Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023. The strategy emphasises that measures must be taken to ensure that refugee and asylum-seeking women have access to their human and social rights in relation to individual freedom, employment, housing, health, education, social protection and welfare where appropriate, and access to information about their rights and the services available.
Women must be heard!
Looking at these international instruments, one would think that displaced women are given opportunities as independent individuals. Yet it is more about how these instruments are implemented and followed up on, and whether women forced to flee are actually given a voice to express their own needs. In 2018, Amnesty International (AI) came up with ten overarching demands directed at European and Greek authorities based on conversations with over 100 women living in Greek refugee camps. The requirements emphasise, among other things, that women who are particularly vulnerable should be offered an alternative to overcrowded camps the moment they arrive, that women exposed to violence are offered safe accommodation, including counselling, medical and legal assistance. The number of female interpreters must be increased, and they must be given information about access to services and the asylum process itself in several languages. Women must be ensured full access to sexual and reproductive health services and offered opportunities for employment as part of the integration strategy. Women on the run must be welcomed by European leaders by opening safe and legal routes to Europe, including faster and expanded opportunities for family reunification and agreements on a fairer system for receiving refugees reaching Europe’s shores. No one should be sent back to countries where they are at risk of human rights violations, including gender-
There is still a lot that needs to be done to meet these demands, but what we experience every day through our activities in the Greek refugee camps are women who, despite the situation they are in and the experiences they have been through, take active responsibility for themselves and their families. We meet women who want to develop their skills, or in different ways share their previous experiences as active professionals, in our sewing workshop, art classes or informal educational activities for children and adults. Many of them are also among our volunteer field workers who make an invaluable contribution to others in the camp and in that way help to strengthen the communities they live in, and help to make the long waiting period a little better for both children and adults, women and men.
To give women on the run an opportunity to start a new life for themselves and their loved ones, it is time for their voices to be heard.
Listen to the women!