Governments and aid agencies are failing to provide even basic protections to women refugees traveling from Syria and Iraq. New research conducted by Amnesty International shows that women and girl refugees face violence, assault, exploitation and sexual harassment at every stage of their journey, including on European soil.
The organization interviewed 40 refugee women and girls in Germany and Norway last month who travelled from Turkey to Greece and then across the Balkans. All the women described feeling threatened and unsafe during the journey. Many reported that in almost all of the countries they passed through they experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees.
“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response director.
Women and girls travelling alone and those accompanied only by their children felt particularly under threat in transit areas and camps in Hungary, Croatia and Greece, where they were forced to sleep alongside hundreds of refugee men. In some instances women left the designated areas to sleep in the open on the beach because they felt safer there.
Women also reported having to use the same bathroom and shower facilities as men. One woman told Amnesty International that in a reception center in Germany some refugee men would watch women as they went to the bathroom. Some women took extreme measures such as not eating or drinking to avoid having to go to the toilet where they felt unsafe.
“If this humanitarian crisis was unfolding anywhere else in the world we would expect immediate practical steps to be taken to protect groups most at risk of abuse, such as women travelling alone and female-headed families. At a minimum, this would include setting up single sex, well-lit toilet facilities and separate safe sleeping areas. These women and their children have fled some of the world’s most dangerous areas and it is shameful that they are still at risk on European soil,” said Tirana Hassan.
“While governments and those who provide services to refugees have started to put measures in place to help refugees, they must up their game. More steps need to be taken to ensure that refugee women, especially those most at risk, are identified and special processes and services are put in place to ensure that their basic rights, safety and security are protected.”
Amnesty International researchers spoke to seven pregnant women who described a lack of food and basic healthcare as well as being crushed at border and transit points during the journey.
One Syrian woman whom Amnesty International interviewed in Lillestrøm, Norway, who was pregnant and breastfeeding her young daughter when she made the journey with her husband, said she was too scared to sleep in camps in Greece knowing she was surrounded by men. She also described how she went for several days without eating.
A dozen of the women interviewed said that they had been touched, stroked or leered at in European transit camps. One 22-year-old Iraqi woman told Amnesty International that when she was in Germany an uniformed security guard offered to give her some clothes in exchange for “spending time alone” with him.
“Nobody should have to take these dangerous routes in the first place. The best way to avoid abuses and exploitation by smugglers is for European governments to allow safe and legal routes from the outset. For those who have no other choice, it is completely unacceptable that their passage across Europe exposes them to further humiliation, uncertainty and insecurity,” said Hassan.
Sexual exploitation by smugglers
Smugglers target women who are travelling alone knowing they are more vulnerable. When they lacked the financial resources to pay for their journey smugglers would often try to coerce them into having sex.
At least three women said that smugglers and those working with the smugglers’ network harassed them or others, and offered them a discounted trip or a shorter wait to get on the boat across the Mediterranean, in exchange for sex.
Hala, a 23-year-old woman from Aleppo told Amnesty International, “At the hotel in Turkey, one of the men working with the smuggler, a Syrian man, said if I sleep with him, I will not pay or pay less. Of course I said no, it was disgusting. The same happened in Jordan to all of us.”
“My friend who came with me from Syria ran out of money in Turkey, so the smuggler’s assistant offered her to have sex with him [in exchange for a place on a boat]; she of course said no, and couldn’t leave Turkey, so she’s staying there.”
Nahla, a 20-year old from Syria told Amnesty International, “The smuggler was harassing me. He tried to touch me a couple of times. Only when my male cousin was around he did not come close. I was very afraid, especially that we hear stories along the way of women who can’t afford the smugglers who would be given the option to sleep with the smugglers for a discount.”
Harassment and living in constant fear
All of the women told Amnesty International that they were constantly scared during the journey across Europe. Women travelling alone were not only targeted by smugglers but felt physically threatened when forced to sleep in facilities with hundreds of single men. Several women also reported being beaten or verbally abused by security officers in Greece, Hungary and Slovenia.
Reem, a 20-year-old from Syria who was travelling with her 15-year-old cousin: “I never got the chance to sleep in settlements. I was too scared that anyone would touch me. The tents were all mixed and I witnessed violence... I felt safer in movements, especially on the bus, the only place I could shut my eyes and sleep. In the camps we are so prone to being touched, and women can’t really complain and they don’t want to cause issues to disrupt their trip.”
Violence by police and conditions in the transit camps
Women and girls reported filthy conditions in a number of transit camps, where food was limited and pregnant women in particular found little or no support. Women also reported that toilet facilities were often squalid and women felt unsafe as some sanitary facilities were not segregated by sex. For example, in at least two instances women were watched by men at the facility when they accessed the bathrooms. Some women also experienced direct violence from other refugees, as well as by police, particularly when tensions rose in cramped conditions and security forces intervened.
Rania, a 19-year-old pregnant woman from Syria, told Amnesty International about her experience in Hungary: “The police then moved us to another place, which was even worse. It was full of cages and there wasn’t any air coming in. We were locked up. We stayed there for two days. We received two meals a day. The toilets were worse than in the other camps, I feel like they mean to keep the toilets like that to make us suffer.
“On our second day there, the police hit a Syrian woman from Aleppo because she begged the police to let her go… Her sister tried to defend her, she spoke English, was told that if she doesn’t shut up they will hit her like her sister. A similar situation happened to an Iranian woman the next day because she asked for extra food for her kids.”
Maryam, a 16-year-old from Syria: (In Greece) “People started screaming and shouting, so the police attacked us and was hitting everyone with sticks. They hit me on my arm with a stick. They even hit younger kids. They hit everyone even on the head. I got dizzy and I fell, people were stepping on me. I was crying and was separated from my mother. They called my name and I was with my mother. I showed them my arm and a police officer saw my arm and laughed, I asked for a doctor, they asked me and my mother to leave.”