Women Fleeing War Say European Refugee Camps Are No Safe Haven

A new report from Amnesty International suggests sexual harassment is prevalent.
A woman from Syria holds her child as she arrives at the registration center on the Greek island of Samos. (Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty Images)
Jan 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Thousands of refugees have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea, but for many women and girls making the voyage alone or with children, the dangers don’t end once they reach land. Female refugees who made the trek from Turkey to Greece and then across the Balkans last month reported facing physical abuse, sexual harassment, and financial exploitation during every leg of their journey, including in refugee camps, according to a report released Monday by Amnesty International.

The human rights group interviewed 40 women who had recently arrived in Northern Europe from Syria and Iraq and found that they lived in constant fear for their safety. About a dozen women said they’d been touched, groped, or leered at while held in European transit camps, where they reported being forced to sleep alongside hundreds of single men. For that reason, some women opted to sleep alone on the beach or on buses because they felt it was safer.

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Reem, a 20-year-old Syrian who was traveling with her teenage cousin, told Amnesty International she never slept in settlements because she was too scared that she would be harassed. “In the camps, we are so prone to being touched, and women can’t really complain, and they don’t want to cause issues to disrupt their trip,” she said. “The tents were all mixed [gender], and I witnessed violence.”

The sleeping arrangements weren’t the only aspect of the camps that women said made them feel unsafe. At least two women reported being watched by men when they used the bathrooms. Others admitted nearly starving themselves to avoid frequently using the bathroom they shared with men. Showers in the camps are not segregated by gender either.

It wasn’t just male refugees whom women said they felt threatened by—camp security guards, local law enforcement, and smugglers also posed problems, according to the report. A 22-year-old woman from Iraq, for example, said a uniformed security guard in Germany offered her clothing if she’d agree to “spending time alone” with him. Hala, a 23-year-old also from Syria, said she was propositioned by a hotel worker in Turkey, who suggested that she could stay for free if she slept with him. She declined. Meanwhile, a pregnant 19-year-old Syrian named Rania said she saw police in Hungary attack a refugee woman when she asked to be let go.

“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria, these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s crisis response director, said in a statement.

More than 4.6 million Syrians have fled their homes and registered as refugees since the outbreak of civil war nearly five years ago, according to figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. About half of all refugees from that country are female, and slightly more than half are under the age of 18.

“More steps need to be taken to ensure that refugee women, especially those most at risk, are identified and special processes and services are put in place to ensure their basic rights, safety, and security are protected,” Hassan said. She urged European governments to “step up their game” in offering safe and legal routes for refugees and providing, at the very least, safe toilet facilites and separate sleeping areas in transit camps.