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Worse for women as asylum-seekers in Greece

Marianna Karakoulaki Lesbos, Greece
October 21, 2018

Women stranded as refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos face daily violence, never-ending asylum procedures and horrible living conditions. DW's Marianna Karakoulaki spoke with some of them about their experiences.

A woman prepares a makeshift stove at a tent on Lesbos
Image: DW/M. Karakoulaki

Amal, a young woman in her 20s, and her family fled the ongoing conflict at home in Yemen as well as limited opportunities for women. After a treacherous journey across the Aegean she arrived at Lesbos. Here she thought she would finally find the freedom she was looking for. Instead she was taken to Moria, Greece's largest refugee camp, which resembles an open-air prison. She describes it as hell on earth.

Moria has been in the international spotlight repeatedly because of the dreadful circumstances. More than 7,000 people live in an area built for 3,100. High walls and a barbed-wire fence separate the main camp site from the tent city that spreads around it. The living conditions do not meet international standards and are not adequate for thousands of residents.

Read more: Children contemplating suicide in Greece's Moria camp

People have to wait in lines for hours to receive their meals; the restrooms and showers are unhygienic; sewage water runs constantly through the camp to the road in front. Violence seems to have become the new normal, and people struggle to carry out every day activities.

A recent report by Amnesty International on women and girls in Greek refugee camps describes how the severe overcrowding can be especially threatening to women.

Indeed, living in Moria is even worse for women than it is for men.

Terror at the Moria refugee camp

'Better off dead'

Amal recounts in vivid detail how she witnessed a man beating a woman until she bled. The assault took place in front of Greek police who ignored it and later blamed the woman for 'hanging out with such men.'

"The situation in Moria is unfair for women," Amal says.

Her portrayal of daily life at the camp is striking. Even simple tasks such as going to the restroom can be dangerous. Although men are not allowed near the women's restrooms, they are always there, she says. One of her friends was recently harassed by an older man at the women's restrooms. She managed to run away before anything worse happened.

"Sometimes I think it would have been better to have died in the sea rather than be in this place," Amal says. "As a feminist I learned that I should not be afraid of anything. But I am afraid of never leaving this place," she continues.

This fear is the reason why Amal would prefer to be anonymous. She has heard rumors that if refugees say something negative about the camp, their asylum cases may be affected. That fear was shared by every person living in Moria who spoke to DW.

Read more: Displaced Bosnians offer support to refugees in Balkans

"Being a feminist and a refugee at the same time is extremely hard. We have so many words to say during our asylum interview, but we have to keep quiet, because we want to leave here," Amal says.

Amal wants to follow in the footsteps of her role model, Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, who defied patriarchal norms in her country and achieved her goals thanks to her education.

Fix patriarchy and you fix everything                                                           

Somayeh, who comes from Afghanistan, struggles to find something positive to say about Moria. She's thankful that she no longer lives there but in PIKPA, a self-organized camp for vulnerable refugees that is run by volunteers. Life in Moria was extremely difficult not only because of unhygienic conditions and long food lines but also because of the continuous violence in the camp.

Somayeh stands outside her house on Lesbos
Somayeh's dream is to continue her studies, which she knows will bring her up against Afghan prejudices against womenImage: DW/M. Karakoulaki

When Somayeh speaks of her experiences as an Afghan woman her voice trembles even as she spits fire. She was a student at university before she got married, when her husband forced her to quit her studies.

"Afghanistan is the country where the power is in the hands of the man. We can't work for women's rights there. I want equality but how can I face all men? I fight a lot for women, but I struggle for my [own] life," she says.

Read more: In Afghanistan, girls break cyber walls

Somayeh was a women's rights activist at home, neither an easy or safe task in such a patriarchal society. She firmly believes that women are not given many opportunities anywhere. Refugee women have even fewer. But to her, the solution to the problems displaced women in Europe face is not very complicated.

"Europe needs to give women refugees knowledge; they need to educate them about women's rights. This will give them self-confidence. But they also need to provide them with safety," she says.

'Treat people as human beings'

Even Kumi Naidoo, surely inured to sights such as Moria as a world-renowned activist and head of Amnesty International, was shocked by what he saw at the camp during a visit earlier this month. He was astonished by the women's strength in such a horrible situation, he told DW, and underlined a specific need to focus on women refugees.

Amnesty International's Kumi Naidoo in Lesbos, Greece
Amnesty's Kumi Naidoo was stunned by what he saw at MoriaImage: DW/M. Karakoulaki

"Women suffer more vulnerabilities; just based on the reality of the amount of sexual harassment and sexual violence that, sadly, women, especially from poor communities, face. On the other side, the resilience of the women — just to be able to survive, to keep a smile on their face and look for solutions to sort things out — takes emotional and spiritual resilience on a very high level," he told DW.

Amal is one of those survivors.

"My life is in the bottom of a lake in Iran, where I lost all of my documents," she says.

But she has not let that stop her. Once she is granted asylum in Greece she plans to return to Moria to help other women refugees find the strength to fight inequality. Just as her feminist role models have done in the past.

* Some quotes have been edited for clarity. Refugees' names and details that may identify them or their families have been altered or omitted.

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