The United Nations refugee agency (UNHRC), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) released a joint report in January 2016 highlighting the grave risks of sexual and gender based violence of women and girls in Greece and FYR Macedonia in November 2015.
The report noted that women and girls were among those particularly at risk and required additional protection measures. I could not agree with this report more after my experience of meeting Syrian and Afghan women and girls at the Moira refugee camp in Lesvos Island. I was interested in the safety issue of women, mainly widows who were travelling on their own without male family members. There were so many of them, each with their own story of a different group had robbed them of a husband. There was Assad’s bombs, rebels who had attacked their homes and of course Isis.
I met Walaa on my second day at the camp through the aid of an Arabic interpreter, she had smiled shyly and agreed to share her story with me. Pulling her hijab over forehead, she shifted her three year old son from her right hip to the left. It had been nearly six hours since she had joined the queue for registration with the UNHCR for her new refugee identity papers. She fumbled in her coat pocket for the numbered tickets she, her three children and her fourteen year old brother had been handed when they had arrived at Moira camp, high up on a hilltop. They had been cold, wet and in need of dry clothes after waves upon waves of the Aegean sea had washed over them in the flimsy dinghy that had brought them from the Turkish coast to the Greek Island of Lesvos. The smugglers who had charged Walaa thousands of Euros for her family’s passage had promised the journey time to be one and half hours.
That had been the first lie. It had taken them four hours.
The second lie had been about their possessions. All the travellers had boarded the dingy with their paltry belongings in rucksacks and bags. A few metres into the sea and everybody’s belongings had been dumped in the sea. ‘Unnecessarily weighing the boat down’ had been the explanation.
Some of the passengers had objected but Walaa had not. What was the worth of material goods when her children’s lives were at stake? She had barely slept in the nights running up to her sea voyage. Nightmares had plagued her and she was terrified that her children would drown. As the dingy had rocked violently with the waves, she had clutched her youngest in her arms and kept her nine year old son and ten year old daughter on either side of her. Her teenage brother was also her responsibility now that her mother, sister and aunt had been granted asylum in Canada on the grounds of her sister’s disability. They had wanted to take the teenage boy, a male companion, but the Canadian authorities hadn’t allowed it on the grounds that young men could not enter Canada. Now he was her responsibility.
I asked Walaa how she had lost her husband. Drawing her small son closer in her embrace, her voice was low. ‘He was a taxi driver. He was driving five passengers in his car when a bomb dropped right on top of the vehicle.’ Tears welled up in her eyes. ‘There was nothing left of my husband. He was unrecognisable.’
What did she do after his death?
‘I had to leave Syria because I could not survive on my own. I could not feed my children.’ Her voice wavered again as she recalled this point in her life. As the Arabic was translated, I squeezed her hand and she gave me a watery smile before straightening her shoulders to carry on with her story.
‘I went to Turkey to live with my mother’s family. I got a job in a restaurant as a waitress but then six months later my female relatives were granted asylum in Canada. They had applied a long time before I went to live with them. They wanted to go so they boarded the plane. Me and my children and brother were left behind. I tried to make ends meet but rent in Turkey is so expensive. I also had no one to look after my youngest child when I was at work. That had been my mother’s job when she had been with us.’
So she made the decision to leave?
‘Yes. The Syrian neighbours were leaving and so I decided to as well.’
But what about the smugglers’ fee? How did she fund that?
‘My sister sold her gold earrings before she left for Canada and gave me the money.’
And that was enough?
Walaa lowered her eyes. ‘And donations from people who came to the restaurant.’
She kept her gaze averted. ‘Yes, donations.’
I did not push for further explanation of the donations. Perhaps the donations had been given out of the kindness of the heart to a widow with children, or perhaps she’s had to give something in return. Whatever the truth, Walaa was not willing to expand on it.
What she was willing to share however was the harassment she had faced on this journey from single men who’d spotted a beautiful young woman with no male guardian.
‘They pretend to help me on the journey; to lift my son, to hold my daughter’s hand. But then they make it clear that they want more. It is better not to take the offer of help. I can’t sleep at night. I am terrified that someone will try to hurt me or my children. A woman is not safe even when she is with other refugees fleeing war.’
"Many women and girls travelling on their own are entirely exposed, deprived of their family or community to protect them," Director of UNHCR's Bureau for Europe, Vincent Cochetel said. "And even those traveling with family are often vulnerable to abuse. Often they are not reporting crimes and thus not receiving the support they need. Some women have even told us they have married out of desperation." (report)
Aside from the widows and the women travelling alone to join their husbands who made their way to Germany earlier in the summer.
There was the experience of Suha who was harassed in the camp by ‘strange men she didn’t know’ to the degree that she was terrified to leave the children centre. Cradling her five month old baby she was close to tears as she shook her head and refused to make her way to the UN’s family compound for the night. The compound was situated in the section of the camp where she was victimised. Finally, it was agreed that she and her sister could remain in a tent next to the children’s marquee for the night.
The report noted: "Single women travelling alone or with children, pregnant and lactating women, adolescent girls, unaccompanied children, early-married children sometimes themselves with newborn babies persons with disabilities, and elderly men and women are among those who are particularly at risk and require a coordinated and effective protection response."