Refugee women live in fear, avoiding washrooms because of sexual harassment

Refugee women live in fear, avoiding washrooms because of sexual harassment

LESBOS, Greece — The washrooms at the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos sit on a slope next to rows of tents and makeshift containers.

They should be a space of privacy and safety.

But often they're a place of terror.

The camp sits on a hill covered in olive trees just a few kilometres from the island's capital, Mytilene. Women living there and in the informal settlement beside it say they are in constant fear of harassment, with most avoiding the washroom at night and limiting the number of times they leave their tents.

Men dominate the public space, taking up work in makeshift coffee stands and barber shops, their voices filling the air. Women, meanwhile, huddle together in their tents or metal containers, some rarely venturing into the main square and staying away completely at night.

"We don't feel safe. They are drunk left and right," said one woman who fled Syria with her aunt and five other relatives, from the entrance of her container.

Moria is Greece's largest refugee camp on Lesbos. Because of the island's close proximity to Turkey, it saw hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war arrive on its shores at the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, with migrants showing up in dinghies in fishing villages, and locals pulling people from the water, saving many lives and seeing countless others die in their arms.

The Greek government established Moria, which was meant to be temporary, but fast became the primary camp on the island.

About 8,500 refugees and migrants are currently living on Lesbos, with the overwhelming majority in overcrowded tents in Moria, despite the fact the camp is meant to accommodate 3,100 people. Most are from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and made the dangerous journey by boat from Turkey.

Women make up 21 per cent of refugee camps on Lesbos, while girls make up 12 per cent of the population.

A woman who fled Afghanistan and who lived in Moria for three months before being transferred to a smaller camp for vulnerable families, said she was careful and feels lucky nothing happened to her or her daughter when she lived there.

"But we heard that in the night single men are drinking a lot and they go directly to the washroom and no one can limit them."

She said her family came to Greece with "many hopes" but soon after arriving "the only thing we understood is maybe we will die here," she said through tears.

Some women wear diapers at night to avoid having to make the trek to communal washrooms, said Marion Bouchetel, a policy adviser with Oxfam Greece.

The woman from Afghanistan, who asked not to be identified by name, said when she lived in Moria, she avoided the washrooms at night. Eventually, because she's pregnant, police agreed to escort her to a private washroom.

While the majority of refugees and migrants arrived during the height of the refugee crisis, people fleeing war-torn countries continue to make the short but dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

Some have been there for years and feel trapped because of the European Union's controversial deal with Turkey aimed at eliminating the flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece.

The deal was signed in 2016 and is meant to prevent refugees and migrants from reaching Europe. But it has resulted in thousands of newcomers being contained on a few of Greece's islands until their asylum claims can be evaluated. If their claims are not approved, they could be deported back to Turkey.

Greek authorities have started moving hundreds of refugees out of Moria to the mainland so their claims can be considered and to alleviate some of the pressure the island is facing. But people continue to arrive. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 235 people arrived on Lesbos in the first week of October and over 1,000 people arrived in September.

Because the camp is overcrowded, conditions have deteriorated. Ask anyone what it's like living in the camp and they will say it's "hell" or call it "prison."

A stream of sewage water runs through the grounds, garbage is everywhere, and a stench fills the air. Inhabitants say they spend their days waiting — for food, to use the washroom, or to talk to a lawyer about their asylum case, which can take months. According to Oxfam, in June there was one functioning toilet for about 70 people and one shower for about 80.

Medecins Sans Frontieres reported recently that its specialists are witnessing an unprecedented mental health crisis, especially among children in Moria. They see multiple cases every week of teens who have tried to kill themselves or hurt themselves. And one-quarter of children have self-harmed, attempted suicide or have had suicidal thoughts.

Because Moria is overcrowded, refugees who now arrive in Lesbos have started living in an overflow site just outside the camp's barbed wired gates.

The area is known as "the Olive Grove" but most people who live there call it "the jungle." One section is dedicated entirely to single men, with another section occupied primarily by Afghan families.

The upper part of the Olive Grove is undeveloped and chaotic, with families constructing their own tents, using limited supplies given to them by non-governmental organizations, but also using branches and whatever they can find to build shelter. Children run wildly between the tents, playing with each other, and with garbage.

One refugee woman from Iran said she's scared at night and so are her children. Holding a baby in her arms, she said men fight, drink and yell.

She hopes, one day, to move to Canada. But for now she is worried about keeping her children warm as winter approaches. It's already started to cool down at night and the plastic sheets that make up the four walls of her tent offer little protection and no security.

"Winter's coming … and little children don't have coats."

— Follow @janicedickson on Twitter. Dickson has just spent a week covering refugees and migrants living in Moria refugee camp because she was awarded a Migration Media Award for a story she co-authored last year about migrant and refugee women in Athens. The award included a bursary that allowed Dickson to continue her reporting on this issue.

Janice Dickson, The Canadian Press