Female refugees face sexual exploitation

2015-12-28 12:12
A volunteer lifeguard shows the way to an overcrowded dinghy with migrants as they approach the Greek island of Lesbos. (Santi Palacios, AP)

A volunteer lifeguard shows the way to an overcrowded dinghy with migrants as they approach the Greek island of Lesbos. (Santi Palacios, AP)

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Lesbos - It took Samira 11 days to travel from Ahfir in Morocco to the Greek island of Lesbos.

She didn't know where it was along the Turkish shore that she boarded the dinghy. What mattered to her, as she ran in the dark to avoid the police patrols, was only that it would take her to "the island", the first stopover on the way to western Europe.

"I remember the sound of the sea, even though I could not see anything," says the 32-year-old. "I feared so much for my life that I felt like dying."

It was when her husband divorced her, leaving her unable to provide for their two children, that she resolved to undertake the perilous journey.

Once on the Greek shore, relief soon turned to angst. Her savings, all she had managed to gather from her family, were missing from the bag she had carefully kept strapped to her back.

She confronted the group of Moroccan men she thought responsible for the theft. "They told me to continue the trip with them," she says. "When I refused, they became aggressive and said I would be on my own."

Risk of exploitation

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), women travelling alone face a heightened risk of abuse as they move through Europe or stop in cramped reception centres.

The Moria camp, the island's main registration site for non-Syrians, is where Samira spent her first night in Greece, crouched on the bare ground.

In October, when the refugee crisis had reached its apex and Lesbos was registering 4 400 people a day in a facility that holds just 2 500, the UNHCR and Save the Children expressed concerns over the risk of exploitation faced by women and children in the reception centre.

"Cases of sexual violence have been reported to our staff," says Ron Redmond, a spokesperson for the UN agency in Greece.

"On one of the islands, our protection staff prevented the rape of a young woman by a large group of men." Save the Children issued a report detailing cases of attempted sexual abuse, including one involving a young girl who was grabbed by a man as she went to the toilet. Other women and children interviewed by the organisation expressed their discomfort at having to sleep in tents with unknown men.

According to Eva Cossé, a researcher on Greece with Human Rights Watch, "The situation has now improved, not because of a better organisation but because the number of arrivals has fallen."

The cold weather and the recent EU deal with Turkey have caused new arrivals to drop to 2 000 a day...a more manageable number for the Greek authorities and the humanitarian organisations on the ground.

Economic crisis

"While the conditions in the first reception centres are better, vulnerable migrants are still falling through the cracks of the protection system," says Cossé.

From the testimonies collected by the UNHCR, those who have run out of money or have been robbed on the way are more likely to engage in "survival sex" to pay smugglers to continue their journey.

Because of the economic crisis, few of those who arrive there intend to settle in Greece.

In 2014, a mere 9 435 asylum applications were filed in Greece, while Germany received as many as 202 815. For those who do not file an asylum request, assistance is limited.

"Some shelters are reserved to asylum-seekers, meaning that those who do not want to seek asylum and stay in Greece have less protection," says Anna Panou, a psychologist operating at the Moria camp with Doctors of the World, or Medecins du Monde (MdM).

Family reunion

Unaccompanied minors face even greater risks as they proceed with their journey. EU member states have reported at least 7 000 unaccompanied minors, although the actual figure is thought to be much higher.

"Many of them do not seek assistance because they are carrying an immense burden: they have been instructed to reach the country of destination to ask for family reunion or start working and send money home," says Panou. "As they perceive their families' lives to be in danger, they feel the need to move fast."

Minors who are identified as such spend an average of two weeks in the unaccompanied minors' reception facility, a barbed-wire-lined area within the Moria camp.

To avoid delaying their journey, children often lie about their age and fail to be recognised as vulnerable. Age-testing methods are in place but, as they do not guarantee accurate results, authorities often have no choice other than to accept the child's claim.

"A child is unlikely to resort to the legal system, even when he has a family member within the EU and could be eligible for family reunification, because the process might end up taking six months," says Panou. "The procedure should be reconsidered at the European level and made quicker to encourage them to seek protection."

Following their stay in the first reception centre, unaccompanied minors are moved to shelters on the Greek mainland, where their freedom of movement is not restricted.

Continue trip

Data collected by Missing Children Europe, a network of 30 European NGOs, shows that more than 50% of unaccompanied minors go missing within the first 48 hours from their arrival at the facility and the majority of them are never found.

"There is a double standard when it comes to migrant children," says Federica Toscano, a project officer at Missing Children Europe. "No proper investigation is conducted as the authorities assume the child has left the shelter of his own will in order to continue the trip."

The lack of available information on a refugee child makes it even more difficult for the authorities to track him or her down. Fingerprinting of children under the age of 14 is not usually carried out at the first reception centres to protect the minor from the possible misuse of sensitive information. This, however, makes it more difficult for the authorities to conduct investigations and identify missing children.

An analysis of the safeguard policies present in seven European countries, conducted as part of Missing Children Europe's SUMMIT project, highlighted the lack of inter-service cooperation and the scarcity of care professionals with specific training as further weak points in the protection system.

"It is fundamental, in order to prevent disappearances, to understand the child’s story and conduct a risk assessment," says Toscano. "The lack of information-sharing makes it more difficult to respond effectively to their disappearance."

Reception centres

According to Zoi Levaditou, who is responsible for the International Organisation for Migration in Lesbos, the main difficulty in protecting the most vulnerable is that "they trust smugglers more than they trust official organisations. This makes it more difficult to identify those at risk.

"What is needed to spot suspicious behaviour is trained personnel and more time," says Levaditou.

Refugees spend an average of two days in reception centres such as Moria, just enough time to register and book their ferry ticket to Athens.

Read more on:    unhcr  |  greece  |  migrants

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