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Refugee women and children face heightened risk of sexual violence amid tensions and overcrowding at reception facilities on Greek islands

Briefing notes

Refugee women and children face heightened risk of sexual violence amid tensions and overcrowding at reception facilities on Greek islands

9 February 2018
Greece. Refugee families struggling on island of Samos
Vathy reception centre on the Greek island of Samos.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is very concerned by reports from asylum seekers of sexual harassment and violence in sub-standard reception centres on the Greek islands, despite welcomed Government measures to address overcrowding and dire living conditions.

In 2017, UNHCR received reports from 622 survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) on the Greek Aegean islands, out of which at least 28 per cent experienced SGBV after arriving in Greece. Women reported inappropriate behaviour, sexual harassment and attempted sexual attacks as the most common forms of SGBV.

The situation is particularly worrying in the Reception and Identification Centres (RIC) of Moria (Lesvos) and Vathy (Samos), where thousands of refugees continue to stay in unsuitable shelter with inadequate security. Some 5,500 people are in these centres, which is double their intended capacity. Reports of sexual harassment in Moria are particularly high.

In these two centres, bathrooms and latrines are no-go zones after dark for women or children, unless they are accompanied. Even bathing during day time can be dangerous. In Moria, one woman told our teams that she had not taken a shower in two months from fear.

Identifying and helping survivors is hampered by a reluctance to report assaults out of fear, shame, helplessness, concerns about discrimination, stigma and retaliation, and insufficient trust to open up, including to UNHCR and medical and mental health experts from national services. The actual number of incidents is therefore likely to be much higher than reported.

Thanks to recent accelerated transfers to the mainland by the authorities overcrowding has slightly reduced over the past weeks. Crowded conditions hinder outreach and prevention activities. For example, in Moria, 30 government medical staff, psychologists and social workers share three rooms, conducting examinations and assessments in the absence of privacy. This affects work conditions for those staff as well as their ability to identify and help SGBV survivors.

Insecurity is another problem. Although there are police patrols, these remain insufficient, particularly at night, and don’t cover extended areas adjacent to the RICs, where people stay in tents without any security presence.

Conditions are also building frustration among people, leading to a difficult and tense security environment, further raising the risk of SGBV.  

UNHCR welcomes measures taken by the Government to reduce the risk of SGBV. However, we believe further vital steps remain to be taken to protect those accommodated in reception centres, including children, women and men. These include:

  1. appropriate allocation of shelter - gender separation should be ensured to avoid women being forced to share shelter with unknown males,
  2. ensuring gender separation, security and lighting in wash areas
  3. improved conditions and services, including medical and psychosocial support, and cultural mediation,
  4. increasing police presence and patrolling, including with additional policewomen,
  5. more lighting in public areas,
  6. increased efforts to ease overcrowding, notably through continued and increased transfers to the mainland,
  7. appointing additional staff dedicated to address SGBV,
  8. enhanced awareness-raising activities.

Risk and exposure to SGBV exacerbates the experiences that people have faced risking all, fleeing war-torn countries and human rights violations, and crossing sometimes dangerous territory to reach a safe haven.

UNHCR will continue to work with and remains ready to support the Government to strengthen its operational response and build capacity, to prevent SGBV and to identify and refer SGBV survivors to appropriate services and shelters.


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