Eight months have passed since the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey to address the flow of refugees and migrants travelling across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Under the agreement, all "irregular migrants" who arrived in Greece after March 20th would be sent back to Turkey. In exchange the EU member states committed to increase the resettlement Syrian refugees already in Turkey.
While the flow of people arriving in Greece in recent months has sharply diminished, many refugees and migrants who hoped to travel on to western Europe have found themselves stuck in Greek refugee camps. Contrary to many news reports on the refugee crisis, these camps are largely made up of women and children. In fact, the latest UN Refugee Agency data shows nearly 60 per cent of the arrivals in Greece across the Mediterranean in 2016 were women and children.
Sotiria Kyriakopoulou has spent the last nine months working with women on the island of Lesbos and in the Attica region around Athens who have become increasingly vulnerable to sexual assault and exploitation in these overcrowded camps.
Living in a camp without any real privacy or community network puts these women at real risk of gender-based violence, says Kyriakopoulou, who works with ActionAid Hellas. “Now that people are stuck in Greece for months, our work requires more in-depth intervention because people feel psychologically unwell and need more appropriate accommodation.”
The NGO holds language and geography classes and runs arts and crafts activities with the women while holding sessions about women’s rights with men in the camps.
“Everyone travelling alone has a different story. It goes back to what happened in the country they’re leaving from. When women arrive here they need further protection because they immediately become potential victims of sexual violence. Some women are survivors of sexual violence in the countries they come from.”
The key to gaining the trust of these women is communicating through their native tongue, says Kyriakopoulou. “We work daily to make people feel they can trust us and it’s always easier to approach someone in their own language. We have cultural mediators, people who are settled refugees themselves, who speak Farsi, French and Arabic. They have a personal connection and can understand where the refugees are coming from. What is important is letting them know they’re in Europe now and have access to legal rights.”
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 50 per cent of refugees in Greece are Syrian. There are also large numbers of Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani refugees. While the numbers of sea arrivals have dropped significantly since this time last year, 170,586 people have still arrived in Greece by sea so far in 2016. A total of 340,252 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year.
“The problem is we are beyond capacity,” says Kyriakopoulou. “There is a need for decongestion in these camps. We don’t have thousands arriving every day anymore but we do still have numbers coming and staying on the island.”
Kyriakopoulou and her colleagues have set up what they call “women-friendly spaces” where women are offered a protective environment where they can speak about their problems and rest. They are also offered psychological support through meetings with social workers, referrals for medical, legal and shelter assistance and are provided with “dignity kits”.
Dignity kits consist of small bags filled with sanitary towels and other basic toiletries for female refugees. “These are the items they identified as important; particularly when they were travelling they needed these products to keep them dignified.
“It’s all about dignity. People, wherever they are, whatever country they are in, whether it’s in Europe or waiting in another country to have a better life, they all need access to the basics,” she says.
“People who are refugees have been the cornerstone of our civilisation. This is how humankind keeps evolving and we shouldn’t forget that. They’re looking for a better life. There are concerns in many countries about these different voices but we need to find a way to communicate with each other and get the message across that this is about dignity and humanity.”