It’s been almost a year since border closures and a controversial European Union deal with Turkey shut out refugees fleeing to Germany and Scandinavia. Today, more than 60,000 refugees remain stranded in Greece and other parts of Eastern Europe – almost half of them women. Many of them had hoped to reunify with male family members who had traveled ahead, making the harrowing journey across Europe.
Instead, women refugees in Europe often find themselves trapped in overcrowded old factories, warehouses and other sites not fit for long-term habitation, according to Marcy Hersh, senior advocacy officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission. They live in fear of violence, abuse and sexual harassment from male refugees and authorities, she says. And these makeshift shelters and camps have little, if any, medical care for pregnant women.
As Germany starts returning asylum seekers to Greece, Women & Girls speaks to Hersh about the dire living conditions of women refugees in Greek camps and what the government must do to help.
Women & Girls: What are the biggest problems facing women refugees in Greece?
Marcy Hersh: When my colleague and I visited women refugees, we were shocked by the situation in the refugee sites and detention centers in Greece. Women and girls are living in unsafe and dire conditions where they are at an increased risk of gender-based violence. They are struggling every day with fear, anxiety and uncertainty.
Women & Girls: What is the situation for pregnant women who require maternal care?
Hersh: It’s so atrocious. I spoke to a number of women who are pregnant. First of all, they all told me that they wished they weren’t pregnant and they wished family planning had been available to them.
When I asked Greek health providers and humanitarian groups if family planning methods were available to refugee women, they would laugh at me for suggesting that refugee women from the Middle East wanted birth control. They suggested that people from this part of the world want to have as many children as possible, that they’re not interested in family planning. People who said that to me obviously had not spoken to any refugee women about their experiences or their desires. I heard over and over again from refugee women that they did not want to be pregnant while living in such uncertain conditions.
In addition, food is a huge issue, since there’s not enough and it’s not very healthy. It’s basically like TV dinners, really boring food that lacks any fresh, healthy ingredients, no vegetables and fruit. Pregnant women aren’t given any food supplements or prenatal vitamins or anything like that. There was one woman with a newborn who told me she was unable to breastfeed because she was malnourished.
Women & Girls: What are your recommendations for improving the situation for women refugees stuck in Greece?
Hersh: There’s a lot we hope the Greek government will do to improve humanitarian services for the refugees. That would include everything from establishing maternal, newborn and reproductive healthcare, and just increasing overall health services in refugee sites.
In hospitals, there’s a crucial need for cultural mediators and interpreters who speak Arabic and Farsi who can communicate between doctors and refugees. There are too few translators. I heard about doctors and patients conversing through Google Translate. Just imagine that.
In addition, we found a huge gap in services for survivors of gender-based violence. Women refugees need to be able to access medical [and] psychosocial support, safe spaces, women’s shelters. Currently, none of that is easily available.
Women & Girls: Can you tell us about one refugee woman you met when you were in Greece, to help us understand the situation there?
Hersh: There’s one woman’s story that I can’t forget. She’s a journalist from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Some of the articles she wrote got her into trouble, and she was apprehended by armed men and experienced sexual violence for many, many days in abhorrent conditions. She managed to escape, which was incredible, but she knew she could no longer stay in the DRC because of her job.
She was able to get herself to Turkey but chose not to stay there because she felt a lot of racism, had difficulty finding employment and she was sexually harassed a number of times in Istanbul. She was advised to continue her journey to Greece to try and find refuge in western Europe. Unfortunately, she crossed the Aegean Sea and arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos just after the E.U.-Turkey deal had passed.
In the detention center, she was living in a tent inside a jail that sleeps 20 people. It’s a combination of men and women from all over the world, and she doesn’t feel safe in the place where she sleeps. She also feels unsafe going to the shower or the toilet because men loiter outside.
Those facilities are also kept in very poor conditions, and they smell bad. In addition, there’s just not enough food. Because of her nationality, she is the last in line for everything.
Women & Girls: Is she last because she’s Congolese? Is there a hierarchy?
Hersh: Unofficially, yes. Because there is a hierarchy in the review of asylum cases where Syrians are a priority, then Afghans and then everyone else. We saw this unofficial hierarchy throughout Greece. It made some refugees, regardless of what they were fleeing and their personal experiences, more able to access aid than others.
Everyone we interviewed at the camp explained that they have to wait in line for food. I spoke to a few Africans, including this woman from Congo, and she told me that because she is African, she’s just immediately kicked to the back of the line when they look at her skin color.
A single woman traveling by herself, who is a survivor of gender-based violence, should absolutely not have to endure conditions like that. That will be re-traumatizing for her.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.