Amnesty: This is how female refugees are exploited and sexually harassed on their journey through Europe

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Governments and aid agencies are failing to provide basic protections to female refugees who face physical assault, exploitation and sexual harassment on their journey through Europe.

According to a new research conducted by Amnesty International, women and girl refugees face violence, assault, exploitation and sexual harassment at every stage of their journey from Syria and Iraq, including on European soil.

All the 40 refugee women interviewed by the organization described feeling threatened and unsafe during the journey.

Many reported that in almost all of the countries they passed through they experienced physical abuse and financial exploitation, being groped or pressured to have sex by smugglers, security staff or other refugees.

“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. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International's Crisis Response director.

Women and girls travelling alone and those accompanied only by their children felt particularly under threat in transit areas and camps in Hungary, Croatia and Greece, where they were forced to sleep alongside hundreds of refugee men. In some instances women left the designated areas to sleep in the open on the beach because they felt safer there.

Women refugees also have to use the same bathroom and shower facilities as men. One woman told Amnesty International that in a reception centre in Germany some refugee men would watch women as they went to the bathroom. Some women took extreme measures such as not eating or drinking to avoid having to go to the toilet where they felt unsafe.

“If this humanitarian crisis was unfolding anywhere else in the world we would expect immediate practical steps to be taken to protect groups most at risk of abuse, such as women travelling alone and female-headed families. At a minimum, this would include setting up single sex, well-lit toilet facilities and separate safe sleeping areas. These women and their children have fled some of the world’s most dangerous areas and it is shameful that they are still at risk on European soil,” said Hassan. “While governments and those who provide services to refugees have started to put measures in place to help refugees, they must up their game. More steps need to be taken to ensure that refugee women, especially those most at risk, are identified and special processes and services are put in place to ensure that their basic rights, safety and security are protected.”

Seven pregnant women who spoke to Amnesty International researchers described a lack of food and basic healthcare as well as being crushed at border and transit points during the journey.

One Syrian woman was pregnant and breastfeeding her young daughter when she made the journey with her husband, said she was too scared to sleep in camps in Greece knowing she was surrounded by men. She also described how she went for several days without eating.

A dozen of the women interviewed said that they had been touched, stroked or leered at in European transit camps. One 22-year-old Iraqi woman told Amnesty International that when she was in Germany a uniformed security guard offered to give her some clothes in exchange for “spending time alone” with him.  

“Nobody should have to take these dangerous routes in the first place. The best way to avoid abuses and exploitation by smugglers is for European governments to allow safe and legal routes from the outset. For those who have no other choice, it is completely unacceptable that their passage across Europe exposes them to further humiliation, uncertainty and insecurity,” said Hassan.

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