Human Rights Watch Says Greece Failing Female Asylum Seekers

FILE - In this Monday, May 29, 2017 photo Syrian women queue for food distribution at the refugee camp of Ritsona about 86 kilometers (53 miles) north of Athens. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – While Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said he’s “proud” of conditions for refugees and migrants living in detention centers and camps in Greece, including on islands housing more than 15,000 of them, his government hasn’t given enough protection to women and girls living on Lesbos, a report from Human Rights Watch said.

In a more than 3800-word release, the group joined chorus of other activists who said the ruling Radical Left SYRIZA-led coalition and Migration Minister Yiannis Mouzalas have failed the refugees and migrants at the same time the government said it hadn’t.

The report was based on interviews with 25-asylum seeking women, and girls as young as 13, living in the Moria detention center on Lesbos, which, along with Chios and Samos, have been flooded with refugees and migrants sent by human traffickers from nearby Turkey.

Greece is overwhelmed with asylum applications with the suspension of a European Union swap deal with Turkey that has seen only a handful returned at the same time Tsipras and Mouzalas said they have to abide by the deal which bars transfers to the mainland.

The group said the women described harassment, violence and health risks with abysmal conditions including 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.”

Tsipras and Mouzalas have mostly ignored complaints from human rights groups although the minister said he couldn’t guarantee no refugees or migrants wouldn’t die this winter as many are still in summer-weight tents. He’s been blistered by a number of lawmakers within SYRIZA for what they said was his failure to help them adequately.

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. 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.

Frequent fights among asylum seekers – often among intoxicated men – leave women and girls feeling unsafe, and they said that authorities do nothing in response, according to the report.

“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.”

While there are police and some government presence in the camps, there’s also non-governmental organizations and volunteers. Island officials and residents have also been protesting and demanding mainland transfers but they’ve generally been ignored too until promises were made to move 5,000 people.

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 said they confirmed the complaints with inspections themselves.

In some cases, officials 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, categories that were supposed to be exempt from being returned to Turkey.

“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.”

Instead, the report claimed, Greek police do nothing or look the other way even when the are fights, violence and sexual harassment.

One humanitarian aid worker quit because she couldn’t put up with inhumane conditions and refusal of authorities to help.

“I tried my best to report it,” she said, referring to efforts to tell police about abuse occurring inside Moria. “Nothing has changed.”