by Marchu Girma
I recently visited Lesvos to provide training for refugee women with Women Refugee Route. Although most of the women who attended the training were Syrian and Afghan, I was surprised to see how many African women and children are living in the notorious camp at Moria. I couldn’t help wondering why it is that we so rarely see their faces in the media and so seldom hear their voices.
For instance, I met Genet at One Happy Family, a community centre for refugees. She was trafficked from Ethiopia as an orphaned teenager after her parents, uncles and brothers were killed by government forces clearing land to sell to businesses. She worked for nine years in Beirut as a domestic servant where she was physically and emotionally abused. Genet told me she chose to start her journey to Europe because ‘After nine long years, I could not go on anymore, I needed to get out of the situation, it nearly drove me to madness.’
Genet started her journey to the unknown by giving herself to traffickers who promised to help her cross borders to safety. ‘There were four of us who started the journey together. We travelled through Lebanon, to the Syrian border. At one point we hiked a tall mountain, it took us six days. We had no cover from the elements; we were soaked in rain, and freezing cold. One of the Ethiopian women could not stop shivering and her teeth kept chattering. The man [trafficker] kept telling her to shut up. We were afraid for her so we tried to get her to stop, but she couldn’t control the chattering, and making the noise. At the end when we stopped off somewhere, the man took her with him. We never saw her again, we didn’t know what happened to her.’
Genet told me that she walked most of the way to Turkey. She faced starvation, sexual violence and brutal conditions throughout her journey. ‘When you start this journey, you have to know that you may lose your life and your honour on the journey- but you do it anyway because you can’t stay where you are. You have to have decided you are ok with death.’
African women seem to be easy prey for traffickers, because of the lack of protection afforded to them throughout this journey. Many Syrian and Afghan women make these journeys in family groups, accompanied by male family members and other protectors, while single African women like Genet do not have male relatives to protect them. Genet told me that at times ‘we covered our hair, put sun glasses and whitened our skin with powder so that we don’t stand out.’
Once Genet reached Turkey, she managed to get on a boat to cross the Aegean Sea and arrive at Lesvos where she has been living in Moria refugee camp for the past three months. She told me that the camp is a hopeless place and that she felt stuck, ‘There is no way forward and no way backwards.’
The two day refugee women’s training that I was working on was attended by 25-30 women. All of them, Afghan, Syrian and African, told us that they were fearful of living in the camps because there was no safety. Refugee Rights Data Project (RRDP) published a report earlier this year which found that women refugees in Greece were exposed to dangers including gender-based violence, abuse by authorities, and sexual harassment. They found incidences of rape, forced prostitution, forced marriage, and trafficking, with younger refugees particularly affected.
Like the other women I met, Genet felt that she isn’t getting the help she needs in Moria camp to deal with her asylum application or to help her cope with with everyday living. But I was struck that Genet feels that the situation is even harsher for African refugee women. Other observers agree. Marcy Hersh, senior advocacy officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission said in her recent interview for News Deeply: ‘There is a hierarchy in the review of asylum cases [in Greece], where Syrians are a priority, then Afghans and then everyone else…Everyone we interviewed at the camp explained that they have to wait in line for food. I spoke to a few Africans, including this woman from Congo, and she told me that because she is African, she’s just immediately kicked to the back of the line when they look at her skin color.’
While the world’s media often seems to be more sympathetic to Syrians who are fleeing civil war, women like Genet who are fleeing violence at the hands of traffickers and individuals are often forgotten. She told me, ‘I cannot go back to my country because I don’t feel safe, I cannot go back to an Arab country because I don’t feel safe. The only option I have is to go forward. All I want more than anything is peace, and to be able to live in a peaceful country.’
I heard many stories like Genet’s in the camps. These women are easy prey for all the forms of violence that take place on the dangerous trafficking routes and in refugee camps. Although they are invisible to the Western world they are very much exposed to predators and traffickers. We must do more to understand all refugees as individuals, to hear their stories and not let their visibility to us be determined by their country of origin. Genet’s story, and the stories of other African women, must be told in order to understand the complete picture of Europe’s refugee camps. The least we can do is to ensure that women like her are heard.
Marchu Girma is Grassroots Co-ordinator of Women for Refugee Women and was working in Greece with Women Refugee Route.