“We never sleep [at the same time]. One of us always stays awake. We’ve heard too many stories of women who have been robbed,” says 38-year-old Samaher from Baghdad. She has a soft voice and sad, dark eyes.
Three weeks ago she fled Iraq with her baby boy and two female friends.
Now she is at the transit camp of Vinojug on the Macedonian-Greek border, waiting for the train to Serbia.
“I am so tired,” she says. “Even when it’s my turn to sleep, I can’t. I am always afraid something might happen.”
The sun is shining but it is bitterly cold in the camp. Hundreds of refugees huddle together in large tents warmed by patio heaters. On one of the wooden benches sits 30-year-old Manal from Damascus. Her two small daughters, aged three and four, cling to her, while their 10-year-old brother plays elsewhere in the tent.
Heavily pregnant with her fourth child, Manal has been travelling for two weeks. She crossed the Mediterranean in a rubber boat and walked for kilometres.
“When you are pregnant this journey is very hard. You have to walk long stretches,” she sighs.
|The authorities do not understand the specific dangers faced by women and children and may, therefore, miss important signs, says Jelena Hrnjak of the Serbian NGO Atina [Mona van den Berg/Al Jazeera]|
She says it is much more difficult for a woman to be a refugee than a man. “We have to take care of the children. That’s a never-ending task. It’s easier for men. They only have to worry about themselves.”
In the camp’s supposedly “child-friendly” space, 25-year-old Nameen, from Homs, is nursing her tiny baby daughter. She went into labour as she was travelling through Turkey. “Fortunately they could get me to the hospital in time. The delivery went well,” she says with a faint trace of a smile.
Nameen stayed in the hospital for two days, rested for another 10 days in Turkey, and then crossed the Mediterranean in a dinghy with her baby in her arms.
“All I could think of was my girl, I was so scared she would drown or get ill. It was so cold. I am still worried for her safety, day and night.”
The other women in Vinojug agree: to be a refugee is much harder for a woman than for a man.
Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, recently presented reports on the vulnerable position of women refugees and the dangers they face.
Europe is failing to provide basic protection for them, the Amnesty report stated.
This problem is now all the more critical because the percentage of women among the refugees who travel through Europe has risen dramatically. Exact data is not available, but according to UNHCR, last summer, a quarter of the refugees were women and children – now it is 55 percent.
All the women interviewed for the Amnesty report said that they felt unsafe and threatened during the various stages of their journey. Women are at greater risk of becoming victims of violence, robbery and extortion.
Manal explains: “The women often carry the money with them, because the men think women won’t get assaulted.
“But it does happen all the same. My husband saw it with his own eyes – a refugee woman was attacked by Syrians who slit her throat for her money.”
There is also the threat of rape and sexual assault by smugglers, security guards, policemen and fellow refugees. Some smugglers try to coerce the women into having sex with them in exchange for a shorter waiting time or a lower price for the crossing.
In many transit centres, men and women sleep together in the same tents and have to use the same toilet and shower facilities. In the Amnesty report, women described the lengths that they go to to minimise the risk: many did not eat or drink so that they would not have to use the toilet; some left the camps to sleep in the open because they felt safer there.
“There’s always somebody who wants to take advantage of the vulnerable position of these women,” says Vladimir Bislimovski, who works for the NGO La Strada, which provides assistance to women and children in Vinojug. “But the women don’t talk easily about their experiences. Especially when it comes to sexual violence. They are too ashamed to speak.”
For some of these women it can even be dangerous to talk, he adds. “They run the risk that male relatives will consider that their ‘honour’ has been violated if they discover they have been raped. So they remain silent. Which means they don’t get any help, and the perpetrators go unpunished.”
“Lately we found out that two Afghan girls were raped by a gang in no man’s land between Hungary and Serbia,” says Jelena Hrnjak of the Serbian NGO Atina. “We only found out because of a scuffle that ensued during which one of the gang members was stabbed to death. Otherwise nobody would have known.”
‘Victims of human trafficking’
Hrnjak is gathering information about the specific problems facing female refugees to train aid workers to recognise the risks.
“The authorities here have absolutely no eye for the risks women refugees face. The talk is mainly about food and warm clothes, but nobody thinks about the safety of these women.”
On the road, and in the chaos of the transit camps anything can happen to women and young girls. Hrnjak knows of cases where women refugees were forced to work for smugglers and drug dealers.
“When their money is stolen, they can’t continue travelling. But they have to leave the transit countries within 72 hours. So they will do anything for money. That’s how they become victims of human trafficking.”
Bislimovski shares the story of two Syrian girls, aged 8 and 15, who were left at Vinojug by people who evidently were not their relatives. “Those people realised it would cost them a lot of money to take the girls through Europe, and didn’t want to go through with it,” he says. “It was clear that their intentions were not good. It wouldn’t be the first time refugee girls got forced into prostitution.”
The youngest of the girls drew pictures of axes and blood, he says. “We have placed them in a shelter for the time being.”
Inside one of the tents, Noura Hassan lights a cigarette. The sociable 50-year-old is Kurdish and from Iraq. “My house got bombed, most of my relatives are dead. My husband fled to Lebanon some time ago, and I am trying to travel to my children in Germany now,” she explains.
She was travelling alone, but has now joined a family she met during the crossing to Greece. “You shouldn’t travel alone as a woman,” Hassan says. “I am not afraid, but I heard many stories about women who had things happen to them.”
She describes her own frightening experience at the Turkish border, where the guards did not want to let her pass. “They were yelling and hitting people. I waited all night. Eventually I made it across the border without them noticing.”
“People say women are protected, because they travel with their families,” says Hrnjak. “But there are many single women among these refugees. For their safety they join other groups, so it looks like they travel with their families. But the men in these groups don’t always have their best interests at heart. And besides, even some of the women who are travelling with their families have to deal with domestic violence.”
“The tense situations on the road lead men to take it out on their female family members. We had a woman from Afghanistan here who was constantly beaten by her oldest son. We see men beating their wives right in front of us,” Hrnjak continues.
|It is extremely cold in the camp, but some women choose to sleep out in the open rather than in tents shared with men [Mona van den Berg/Al Jazeera]|
‘It is very dangerous for a girl’
“We see many women here,” says Aleksandar Jonuzoski, who works at the aid station. “Many women suffer from urinary tract infections. They drink too little, the toilets are not clean and they’re not used to the cold.”
He also sees lots of pregnant women, he adds. “As many as 30 a shift.”
Many of them suffer from bleeding, some have miscarriages. “They are exposed to a lot of stress, having to stand in lines for a long time, being crushed in crowds – that’s all very bad when you are pregnant. We do our best to take these women to the hospital. But sometimes they insist on continuing their journey. And some of them have to ask their husband’s permission first.”
Evening falls over the camp and behind the snowy mountains the sky turns pink. There’s a crowd of people standing before the shed, where warm clothes are distributed. Among them is 18-year-old Marwa from Aleppo, Syria. Her dark blonde hair peeps out from beneath a knitted cap that is decorated with little flowers.
She has been travelling for 10 days now with her family and boyfriend.
“During the crossing to Greece we lost all our luggage with our extra clothes. We have been very cold ever since,” she says.
“But the worst thing happened in Syria. Soldiers wanted to take my money from me and groped me everywhere. I was so scared. But they didn’t find my money. I hid it in my underwear.”
She smiles shyly. “It is very dangerous for a girl to be a refugee.
“On the road you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know who you can trust.”