Female refugees face sexual exploitation in Greece

Children and women face the risk of sexual exploitation as they attempt to reach safety in Europe.

Do not use - Lesbos migrants
Women outside the Moria reception centre, Lesbos [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]

Lesbos, Greece – It took Samira 11 days to travel from Ahfir, in Morocco, to the Greek island of Lesbos. She didn’t know where it was along the Turkish shore that she boarded the dinghy. What mattered to her, as she ran in the dark to avoid the police patrols, was only that it would take her to “the island”, the first stopover on the way to Western Europe.

For almost three hours, as she crossed the 10km of sea, she bent forward so as not to see the waves that crashed against the boat, soaking her feet in icy-cold water.

“I remember the sound of the sea, even though I could not see anything,” says the 32-year-old. “I feared so much for my life that I felt like dying.”

It was when her husband divorced her, leaving her unable to provide for their two children, that she resolved to undertake the perilous journey.

Once on the Greek shore, relief soon turned to angst. Her savings, all she had managed to gather from her family, were missing from the bag she had carefully kept strapped to her back.

She confronted the group of Moroccan men she thought responsible for the theft. “They told me to continue the trip with them,” she says. “When I refused, they became aggressive and said I would be on my own.”

Risk of sexual abuse

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), women travelling alone face a heightened risk of abuse as they move through Europe or stop in cramped reception centres.

The Moria camp, the island’s main registration site for non-Syrians, is where Samira spent her first night in Greece, crouched on the bare ground.

In October, when the refugee crisis had reached its apex and Lesbos was registering 4,400 people a day in a facility that holds just 2,500, the UNHCR and Save the Children expressed concerns over the risk of exploitation faced by women and children within the reception centre.

“Cases of sexual violence have been reported to our staff,” says Ron Redmond, a spokesperson for the UN agency in Greece. “On one of the islands, our protection staff prevented the rape of a young woman by a large group of men.”

Save the Children issued a report detailing cases of attempted sexual abuse, including one involving a young girl who was grabbed by a man as she went to the toilet. Other women and children interviewed by the organisation expressed their discomfort at having to sleep in tents with men who were unknown to them.

According to Eva Cossé, a researcher on Greece with Human Rights Watch, “The situation has now improved, not because of a better organisation but because the number of arrivals has fallen.”

The cold weather and the recent EU deal with Turkey have caused new arrivals to drop to 2,000 a day, a more manageable number for the Greek authorities and the humanitarian organisations on the ground.

“While the conditions in the first reception centres are better, vulnerable migrants are still falling through the cracks of the protection system,” says Cossé.

Syrian refugees?

At the volunteer-run Pikpa shelter, Samira wraps herself in her navy-blue scarf and wonders where she will find the means to continue her journey.

“I just want to find a job, any job, send money to my children and then have them join me,” she says. “I want to give them proper education, a proper life.”

She does not want to give her full name for fear that it will identify her as Moroccan.

Despite knowing about the interrogations conducted by the EU border agency Frontex to establish somebody’s nationality, she plans to avoid the recent border restrictions by claiming to be Syrian.

Sex to survive

From the testimonies collected by the UNHCR, those who have run out money or have been robbed on the way are more likely to engage in “survival sex” in order to pay smugglers to continue their journey.

But even if Samira finds the financial means to reach the Macedonian border, the chances are that she will be denied entry and sent back to Athens, with even fewer options left to help to fund her journey.

Because of the economic crisis, few of those who arrive there intend to settle in Greece. In 2014, a mere 9,435 asylum applications were filed in Greece, while Germany received as many as 202,815.

For those who do not file an asylum request, assistance is limited. “Some shelters are reserved to asylum-seekers, meaning that those who do not want to seek asylum and stay in Greece have less protection,” says Anna Panou, a psychologist operating at the Moria camp with Doctors of the World, or Medecins du Monde (MdM).

Unaccompanied minors: the most vulnerable

Unaccompanied minors face even greater risks as they proceed with their journey. EU member states have reported at least 7,000 unaccompanied minors, although the actual figure is thought to be much higher.

Data collected by Missing Children Europe, a network of 30 European NGOs, shows that more than 50 percent of unaccompanied minors go missing within the first 48 hours from their arrival at the facility, and the majority of them are never found.

“Many of them do not seek assistance because they are carrying an immense burden: they have been instructed to reach the country of destination to ask for family reunion or start working and send money home,” says Panou. “As they perceive their families’ lives to be in danger, they feel the need to move fast.”

Minors who are identified as such spend an average of two weeks in the unaccompanied minors’ reception facility, a barbed-wire-lined area within the Moria camp.

To avoid delaying their journey, children often lie about their age and therefore fail to be recognised as vulnerable. Age-testing methods are in place but, as they do not guarantee accurate results, authorities often have no choice other than to accept the child’s claim.

“A child is unlikely to resort to the legal system, even when he has a family member within the EU and could be eligible for family reunification, because the process might end up taking six months,” says Panou. “The procedure should be reconsidered at the European level and made quicker to encourage them to seek protection.”

Missing children

Following their stay in the first reception centre, unaccompanied minors are then moved to shelters on the Greek mainland, where their freedom of movement is not restricted.


According to a report published by Terre des Hommes, often they perceive their placement in a shelter as the anteroom of eviction back to their country, despite being told otherwise. If the minor does not see the solution as being in their long-term interest, disappearance is almost inevitable.

Data collected by Missing Children Europe, a network of 30 European NGOs, shows that more than 50 percent of unaccompanied minors go missing within the first 48 hours from their arrival at the facility and the majority of them are never found.

“There is a double standard when it comes to migrant children,” says Federica Toscano, a project officer at Missing Children Europe. “No proper investigation is conducted as the authorities assume the child has left the shelter of his own will in order to continue the trip.”

According to Toscano, this is a generalisation that fails to take into consideration the profile of the child. “When a child goes missing, a certain amount of time has to pass before the disappearance can be notified to the police, which means we should wait even if the child has a history of trafficking or sexual abuse.”

The lack of available information on a refugee child makes it even more difficult for the authorities to track him or her down. Fingerprinting of children under the age of 14 is not usually carried out at the first reception centres in order to protect the minor from the possible misuse of sensitive information. However, this makes it more difficult for the authorities to conduct investigations and identify missing children.

An analysis of the safeguard policies present in seven European countries, conducted as part of Missing Children Europe’s SUMMIT project, highlighted the lack of inter-service cooperation and the scarcity of care professionals with specific training as further weak points in the protection system.

“It is fundamental, in order to prevent disappearances, to understand the child’s story and conduct a risk assessment,” says Toscano. “The lack of information-sharing makes it more difficult to respond effectively to their disappearance.”

Fight against human trafficking

According to Zoi Levaditou, who is responsible for the International Organisation for Migration in Lesbos, the main difficulty in protecting the most vulnerable is that “they trust smugglers more than they trust official organisations. This makes it more difficult to identify those at risk.

“What is needed to spot suspicious behaviour is trained personnel and more time,” says Levaditou.

Refugees spend an average of two days in reception centres such as Moria, just enough time to register and book their ferry ticket to Athens.

A child detained within the Moria reception centre in Lesbos [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]
A child detained within the Moria reception centre in Lesbos [Federica Marsi/Al Jazeera]

In just a short interview, authorities have the task of cross-questioning refugees in order to ensure family ties or the nature of the relationship between those travelling together.

Among those in line for registration at Moria is Najla, a 27-year-old from a part of Iraq that is under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). She refers to her travel companion first as her friend and then as her husband. Before living in a refugee camp in Turkey, she had to walk for one week through the mountains of Kurdistan, she says, with little water or food.

“Every day we lost some people on the road. They died of hunger and dehydration.”

Before leaving Iraq, she says she witnessed many of her friends being raped or married off to ISIL fighters. Having endured such hardships, she is impatient to continue her journey towards Germany.

“In such a short time it is difficult to assess a person’s psychological state,” says MdM’s Anna Panou.

But even when somebody is identified as being psychologically vulnerable, little can be done to offer them protection.

“If a woman is in distress, we advise her to apply for asylum in Greece and seek help,” says Panou. “However, she is an adult and, if she choses to leave, nothing can be done to stop her.”

The European law enforcement agency EUROPOL has identified cases of groups who smuggle for profit and then force those they smuggle into sexual exploitation and drug dealing.

Child trafficking

Among the trends recently registered by EUROPOL is the rise in children beginning their journey with their family but then getting lost or separated along the way. The Smile of the Child, a Greek non-profit voluntary organisation, has assisted families who chose to leave their children with smugglers or friends in order to move faster to the country of final destination.

READ MORE: Despair and anguish for Moroccans stuck on Greek border

“When the families later want to locate them, some find out that they have disappeared,” says Kostas Yannopulos, the president of the NGO. “These children are either abandoned by the person who was supposed to take care of them, or they have been trafficked.”

Another concern is the time that elapses between when a boat arrives and registration. “While we believe that most arrivals do proceed with the registration, it is true that their details are not taken when they get off the dinghy,” says Yannopulos. “This leaves the possibility open for anyone to walk away with a child, for instance.”

All EU member states and many NGOs have measures in place to counter organised crime groups, who exploit the desperation of those caught up in the crisis. However, many still rely on smugglers rather than the authorities to complete their journey.

READ MORE: One million ‘refugees and migrants’ reached EU in 2015

For Samira, whose nationality makes it more difficult to obtain refugee status, the authorities are the ones to be weary of.

“Why don’t they understand that the greatest fear in life is to see your children starve on the street?” she asks, confused as to why she is less likely to be resettled in the EU because she isn’t Syrian.

“I risked my life to come here. I will die before they send me back.”

Source: Al Jazeera