In order to understand the unique challenges faced by our sisters on the run, the AfS team conducts quarterly focus groups with the girls and women who attend our Athena Centre for Women on Chios. These groups give the girls a focused platform to offer their feedback and share experiences outside of our daily interactions.
Our last focus group was conducted right in the middle of a critical transition period, where many ECHO (the European Commission Humanitarian division) funded international non governmental organisations lost their funding and pulled out from Chios.
Action from Switzerland’s position to remain on Chios was not affected as we are independently funded, powered by support of YOU. We committed to remain.
And we continued to operate our Centre, welcoming women and girls to a safe space – giving them access to medical, dental, psychological and legal services, educational classes, yoga, and private showers, and relaxation.
As of August 2017, the Greek authorities became solely responsible to provide services from food, shelter, clothing distribution to protection, with the assistance of the UNHCR – to asylum seekers arriving on the shores of Europe.
700 million was made available directly to the Greek government to manage the services.
In theory, it sounds like a good step forward.
For this quarter’s report, we cast the spotlight directly on Vial as the women participating really wanted their voices heard regarding conditions and the struggles they face in living there.
There are bus services provided by the UNHCR for anyone who needed to go to the hospital or access alternative services provided by grassroots organisations. Sadly, demand for transportation outstrips the supply.
In September 2017, with the closure of Souda camp and the female population being moved to Vial, we’ve observed a worrying drop of attendance in our centre by 40%. We investigated why and the women reported constantly reported being pushed to the ground, hit, groped and sexually harrassed, which deterred them from getting the UNHCR bus.
Due to Vial’s remote location, transportation was the first topic we addressed over the past two months.
Besides advocating for their rights, we explore and brainstorm possibilities collaboratively with the girls and women in order to respond with desired and necessary services. We remain acutely (and painfully) aware of our role and limitations in an oppressive environment. While we cannot aspire to meet all needs and requests and must manage the women’s expectations, their feedback and cooperation is essential in driving our advocacy efforts.
In a remarkable act of solidarity, we did manage to raise extra operating funds in our fundraising campaign, and are able to provide a bus service for 6 months – until March 2018.
We began operating a all-female bus service from Vial camp directly to the Athena Centre for Women twice a day from 2nd October 2017.
In this month alone, the bus enabled 641 visits and we welcomed 84 new women into the Centre. With the safety of an all-women bus, 12 women and their families were able to receive legal preparation for their asylum claim, 14 had access to a female doctor and 13 appointments with our in-house psychologist.
When asked to give feedback using the current alternative bus services provided by the UNHCR, the women reported that they found it difficult and, sometimes dangerous to get tickets to take the bus.
“I can’t queue up for a long time to get a bus ticket because I’m pregnant, and then I can’t take the bus to get to my doctor’s appointments because I don’t have a ticket”
“Even though I have diabetes, I can’t get a ticket to get on the bus to go to the doctor.”
It seems challenging to get a ticket for the bus from Vial since the many inhabitants want to go to the centre of Chios for appointments and recreation. The women reported that the crowded and disorganized lines to get the tickets are especially dangerous for them.
“The last time I lined up for a bus ticket a man hit me from behind and my back was swollen.”
Based on their feedback in this focus group, we remain convinced that the AfS bus offers a safe and less stressful alternative for women who might otherwise be afraid to queue for bus tickets.
Living Conditions – Vial
Due to the recent rain in Chios, the first major topic focused on the containers and tents used for shelter. The shelters are old and the women report that they are not watertight. “When I was sleeping, my hair got soaked from the water. The mattresses got soaked so we had to wait for the sun to put them out to dry,” the women told us. They report that no one has come to fix the leaks despite complaints.
It was reported that water distributions have been reduced. They used to get two 1.5litres of water daily but they now get only one, to use for drinking and cooking.
Water points are often out of service, reducing access to showers and creates a lack of sanitation.
The daily distribution for water and breakfast takes place at 8:00 am. Due to overcapacity, the women report having to queue up for at least THREE hours ahead of the scheduled distribution time. Water bottles run out, and people at the end of the line receive no water for the day.
Women living in Vial reported that they’ve struggled to access basic clothing.
“We arrived with nothing, but they tell us we must live here for a month before we can get a clothing distribution. I arrived on September 13th and they gave us an appointment in November to get clothes!”
Women had to resort to borrow basic clothing like jackets and shoes from their neighbors, and washed clothing hung out to dry is often stolen.
Safety in Vial
Be it Souda or Vial, the overall response when asked if they feel safe, is always “No”. It has been reported that men congregate near the toilets, and sometimes even block the women from entering or exiting. “The men are not outside of their toilet door, they are outside of the women’s toilet door, why?” the women told us.
This poses serious safety concerns and prevents women from the basic ability to access the toilet.
“I am pregnant so I often have to go to the toilet, but even then I cannot go at night time. I have to wait until morning,”
“Even in the morning I wake up my brother or father to walk with me to the toilets,”
The women also report that there are no locks on the containers or tents to provide any sense of security from the aggressive men outside.
“Some locks are broken and some never existed.”
When asked if it is possible to go to the police to help, they continue to display a huge distrust of the judicial system in place to protect them.
“What will the police do?” was their response. They question the effectiveness of their presence. They have told the men to move from in front of the toilet or stop making noise, but then they will come right back. The women expressed a troubling misconception that juvenile boys cannot get in trouble with the police because they are minors. They report that so-called “minors” push themselves on women and that older men hang around with the teenagers due to this common idea in Vial that gangs of minors can get away with any bad behavior.
Another source of fear for the women is the noise at night, disrupting their ability to sleep and feel safe even inside their shelters.
“Men are coming around the containers all night and shouting and banging on the containers so no one can sleep,”
These comments corroborated what the AfS onsite team have witnessed ourselves.
Over the past month, a few women have come into our Centre and fallen asleep in class or try to snatch a couple of sleep in our Raha room. We saw the exhaustion lined on their faces and how hard they slept, oblivious to the presence of other women in the room.
When pressed for why anyone would try to prevent others from sleeping, the women cite psychological problems and stress from the living conditions.
Vial camp is now the only place on Chios, hosting all asylum-seekers who arrive on the shores of Europe.
It is way over overcapacity. Conditions are humiliating.
We’ve consistently reported that camps are particularly unsafe for women and gender-based violence and harassment is commonplace.
We’ve reported repeatedly that women on the run are particularly at risk of harm but the EU Turkey Deal by confining women to unsafe camps or sending them back to Turkey puts women at increased risk.
With small populations and local services already decimated by austerity measures, the facilities and services that asylum seekers so badly need are simply not available on the islands.
As we approach the third winter since large-scale arrivals on the islands began, and the second winter since the entry into force of the EU-Turkey Statement, it is evident that the Greek authorities cannot meet the basic needs and protect the rights of asylum seekers while they remain on the islands.
This situation in the islands is a direct result of the senseless and flawed EU-Turkey deal, and the EU asylum and migration policies of exclusion. The world has seen how Europe has dismantled long-established international human rights principles which outline countries’ responsibilities.
We must not allow such draconian measures to become the new normal. We also note the various statements by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) sounding the alarm over the current situation in the Greek islands, but without action, these statements are empty. We call on the UNHCR, whose mandate is to provide international protection and seek permanent solutions for problems faced by refugees – to take concrete action to bring to an end the indignities and human rights infringements brought about by the EU-Turkey Statement.
And we call on the Greek government to close the island hotspots and allow freedom of movement of asylum-seekers arriving on the Greek islands and provide them with adequate reception on the mainland outside of detention facilities – with access to health, psychosocial and other support services. Particular attention should be paid to the needs of women both in assuring their personal safety and providing gender-appropriate support services.
Cancel the inhuman EU-Turkey deal and all measures arising from it.
#opentheislands #noEUTurkeydeal #MakeItSafe