An Amnesty International report has confirmed that female refugees are facing "assault, exploitation and sexual harassment" as they brave the precarious journey through Europe.
The report, published today by the human rights organisation, also claims that "governments and aid agencies are failing to provide even basic protections to women refugees traveling from Syria and Iraq" in order to keep them safe. Their findings come only a few weeks after Broadly reported on the women, girls, and children traveling alone along the Balkans refugee route.
Amnesty interviewed 40 "highly vulnerable" women and girls in Germany and Norway last month, all of whom had traveled from Syria and Iraq, through Turkey and Greece and onwards across the Balkans to the assumed sanctuary of western Europe. All 40 women revealed they had felt "threatened and unsafe" at some point during their journey, often taking desperate self-protection measures as a result.
"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," said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's Crisis Response director. "But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection."
Amnesty's research suggests that women refugees are being failed at every stage on their journey: from smugglers offering transit discounts in return for sex, to women reporting physical and verbal abuse from security officers in Greece, Hungary and Slovenia and violent police tactics in Hungary.
At least three women interviewed said that they were harassed by the smugglers' network who offered them a discounted boat trip across the Mediterranean in exchange for sex. All of their names were changed in the report to protect their identity.
Hala, a 23-year-old woman from Aleppo told Amnesty: "At the hotel in Turkey, one of the men working with the smuggler, a Syrian man, said if I sleep with him, I will not pay or pay less. Of course I said no, it was disgusting."
Off the boat, the reports of harassment continue. 12 women interviewed by Amnesty said they had been "touched, stroked or leered at." One 22-year-old Iraqi woman said that when she was in a transit camp in Germany, a uniformed security guard offered to give her clothes in exchange for "spending time alone" with him.
According to the report, women and girls traveling alone and those accompanied by children said they felt particularly scared in transit areas and camps in Hungary, Croatia and Greece, "forced to sleep alongside hundreds of refugee men." Women have reported having to use unisex facilities, with little-to-no safeguarding in place. One woman confided to Amnesty about her traumatic experience at a German reception centre, where some male refugees would watch women as they used the bathroom. As a consequence, some women avoided drinking or eating to save themselves the humiliation.
For many pregnant women on the refugee trail, the conditions are no better. Amnesty say they spoke to seven pregnant women who "described a lack of food and basic healthcare as well as being crushed at border and transit points during the journey."
When we asked Hassan about the lack of pre-natal care, she said: "One of the most shocking and basic issues for pregnant women is not only the lack of basic healthcare after they've been through a stressful and dangerous journey... They also aren't getting access to proper nutrition."
She then told us about a case study involving one woman who had such little access to proper nutrition that she was unable to breastfeed her baby.
As a consequence of this report, Amnesty have called on governments and service providers to "up their game." What more needs to be done? According to Hassan, service providers—including governments and NGOs—have been "very late to the party" in providing "any kind of meaningful response."
"There are a lot of ad hoc facilities set up by well-meaning volunteers that have very little oversight, and then there are ad hoc responses from the traditional humanitarian agencies and the UN, and then there are facilities run by the government...We need to see a more co-ordinated response which ensures that the most vulnerable populations within this group have their needs properly met," she said.
According to Hassan, the majority of women Amnesty spoke to for the purposes of this research all indicated feeling scared and alone.
"They're feeling this fear constantly. Many of them are sleeping out in the open, grouping together with complete strangers—not knowing if they'll be robbed or what might happen if they're sleeping with strange men. It's all incredibly confronting for their physical safety and security but also just their general feeling of wellbeing. It undermines all of that."
Amnesty now hope that their report will push this issue to the top of the agenda. "We're talking about basic safety and security as well as basic access to services," Hassan told us.
"This isn't new. This has been a vulnerability faced by refugee women throughout the movement to Europe over the last year. It's not a new problem, it's a neglected issue. And now's the time to act."