Watching the clothes dry: How life in Greece’s refugee camps is changing family roles and expectations
On the Greek Islands where refugees face long waiting times and a lack of adequate facilities, women are being pushed to the margins of camp society as children are deprived of education and safe places to play. While governments and the EU fail to provide satisfactory support, and NGOs fight to fill the gaps, how can we stop a generation of women and girls with high hopes of independence and careers from being forced back into domestic roles?
“The days here are as long as a year.
“In the camp I have to wash my clothes and dishes with cold water in the cold winter, and I have to watch my clothes dry because I lost almost all of my dresses and clothes after hanging them up.
“As a woman I have to do these jobs – I mean because I am supposed to do them.”
The boredom and hopelessness that Mariam* describes are, by now, common threads running through the messy, tragic tapestry of stories from the so called “migrant crisis” in Greece.
Mariam is from Afghanistan, and had been studying business at university in Kabul, before increasing violence and threats from the Taliban meant that she was forced to flee the country with her husband. Soon after I met her, I began to notice that life in camp was throwing two distinct concepts of herself into conflict: one, as a young woman, ambitious to study and start a career, and the other, as a female asylum seeker in a camp with appallingly few facilities, and little freedom.
While Mariam felt driven to continue her studies and love of reading, she could not escape the daily domestic chores in camp, a burden placed particularly on her because of her gender. I was familiar with Mariam the student: while managing the Alpha Centre, an activity centre run by Samos Volunteers, I would often come across Mariam sitting in a quiet spot, her head bent over a book for hours, or sitting diligently in language classes.
The other side of her was one I rarely saw, but it was a life which dominated Mariam’s camp existence: hours and hours of her days spent cooking, cleaning, mending clothes, queuing for food, washing dishes, washing clothes, watching them dry.
Women as caregivers
Mariam’s experience of boredom and hardship in the camp on Samos is, unfortunately, not uncommon for any person living in the overcrowded and squalid facilities on the Greek islands.
Many, many reports have been made, by newspapers, by Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International, and NGOs such as Medécins Sans Frontières (MSF). All of them speak, to varying degrees, of the crushing boredom and despair faced by asylum-seekers in Greece, the dreadful conditions and lack of resources, and the mental health implications of living in such a situation. MSF describes the suffering on the Aegean islands as being on an “overwhelming scale.”
While these issues apply indiscriminately to anyone enduring life in the island camps – and this undoubtedly includes men – there have been reports highlighting the particular hardships that women such as Mariam have to face while seeking asylum in Greece. In a 2018 report, “Uprooted women in Greece speak out,” Amnesty International comments on the additional pressures many women face in camp:
The lack of facilities and the poor conditions in camps place a particularly heavy burden on women who often shoulder the majority of care responsibilities for children and other relatives. The psychological impact of prolonged stays in camps is profound. Women spoke of their anxiety, nightmares, lack of sleep and depression.
The article recognises how much more likely women are than men to take on a caregiving role, an issue that is not unique to asylum-seeking populations. According to a report titled ‘Women’s Work’ released in 2016 by the Overseas Development Institute, women globally do on average over three times more unpaid work than men – work including childcare and domestic chores. This is across both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, and demonstrates inequality on a scale far beyond refugee and migrant populations.
However, as Amnesty points out, it is not the perceived roles themselves which are the issue, but rather the glaring lack of facilities in camps – such as lack of food, ‘horrific’ sanitary conditions, and poor or non-existent washing facilities, as well as significant lack of access to education for children, and waiting times of up to two years. All of these factors exacerbate the gender divides which may or may not have been prevalent in the first place.
The expectation for women to be primary caregivers was something I particularly noticed when running women’s activities on Samos. There was a stark difference between the daily classes – which would fill up with men attending alone, as agents distinct from their families in camp – and the women-only sessions, where accompanying children were almost always expected, and had to be considered in every session plan.
The particular burden that I noticed so starkly in Mariam and many other women, was a constant battle to not be pushed to the margins of a society, which she desperately wanted to participate in, but had no opportunity to do so.
Beyond lack of opportunities, many women speak of their great fear for themselves and their children in camp. Not only does a lack of facilities make life harder for people on the move, it also makes it incredibly dangerous in many ways, putting the most vulnerable at a severe disadvantage. This issue is particularly grave on Samos, where the camp only has one official doctor, one toilet per 70 people, and a gross lack of women-only bathrooms. This, alongside a volatile and violent environment – which is particularly dangerous at night – culminates in a widespread, and well-founded fear of violence.
In an interview with Humans of Samos, Sawsan, a young woman from Syria, tells of the agonising kidney stones she experienced but was unable to treat, for fear of going to the toilet at night. “The doctor told me you need to drink a lot of water, but I can’t drink a lot of water, I am afraid to go outside in the night, is very dangerous,” she explained to my colleague.
As Amnesty International reported last year, “women’s rights are being violated on a daily basis” in the Greek island hotspots. Their report features a list of ten demands from refugee women in Greece, including “full access to services,” “safe female only spaces,” and “livelihood opportunities.” All of these demands not only demonstrate a clear lack of such services currently, but also a real need and desire for the means to change their lives, as expressed by the women themselves.
I remember the effect of this environment on Mariam, and the intense frustration she expressed at being forced to live an existence that she had not chosen. I have a vivid memory of sitting with her on a quiet afternoon in the centre: she was showing me photos on her phone of her and her friends at university in in Kabul. The photos were relatively recent but seemed another world away. I remember her looking up from the phone and telling me wearily, “life is so unexpected.”
I remember her showing me the calluses on her hands, earned by washing her and her husband’s clothes in cold water; her gesturing in exasperation towards the camp beyond the walls of the centre. She never thought she’d be in this position, she told me, performing never ending domestic chores, while waiting out her days for an unknown life.
Beyond speaking of their own difficulties, many people I approached told me of their intense concern for the children living in camps across Greece. As Mariam put it, “this situation snatches their childhoods by taking away their actual right to be children” – in many inhumane and degrading ways. And, as highlighted above, when children are affected, women are then far more likely to be impacted as a result, creating a calamitous domino effect among the most vulnerable.
I also spoke to Abdul* from Iraq who said:
The camp is a terrible place for children because they are used to going out playing, visiting their friends and relatives in the neighbourhood, and going to school but in the camp there is nothing. They can’t even play, and the environment is horrible.”
Many asylum-seeking children do not have access to education in Greece. This is despite the government recognising the right of all children to access education, regardless of their status in a country, and even if they lack paperwork.
UNHCR recently described educational opportunities for the 3,050 5-17 year olds living on Greece’s islands, as “slim.” They estimate that “most have missed between one and four years of school as a result of war and forced displacement” – and they continue to miss out as a result of life on the islands.
There are several reasons why so many children are out of school, but Greek and EU policies are largely to blame. Based mistakenly on the grounds that people will only reside on the islands for brief periods before either being returned to Turkey or transferred to the mainland, the policies do not prioritise education. The reality of the situation is that many children end up waiting for months in the island camps before being moved, and during this time, have no access to formal education, subsequently losing their rights to play, learn, develop and integrate in a new society.
In place of formal schooling, many children in camps rely on informal education and psychosocial activities provided by NGOs and grassroots organisations. While generally doing a commendable job in filling the numerous gaps, these provisions can sometimes be sporadic, and can depend on funding as well as groups being given access to camps and shelters.
And while small organisations try their best to plug gaps in a faulty system, there will always, unfortunately, be children left behind. The ultimate result of Greek and EU policy is that the majority of children are spending months in limbo without education, waiting out their days in an unsafe and unstable environment.
This not only deprives children of formative months, and sometimes years, of education and development, it can also put them at risk of exploitation and abuse. Reports by the RSA and Save the Children state that refugee children are at much higher risk of exploitation when they are out of school. Save the Children highlight that, particularly for Syrian refugee girls, “a lack of access to education is contributing to sexual exploitation, harassment, domestic violence and a significant rise in forced marriages”.
There have also been numerous cases of children – often unaccompanied teenage boys – being forced into “survival sex,” selling sex to older, predatory men, for as little as €15 or even less, just in order to get by. The issue has been particularly prevalent in Greece’s major cities, Athens and Thessaloniki.
While all children suffer in this situation, unaccompanied minors are especially at risk. The state has particular responsibilities to provide for unaccompanied and separated children under international guidelines, yet children in Greece, especially on Samos, are being failed. The failings are across the board, through lack of education, lack of psychological support, lack of appropriate guardians, and lack of adequate housing – many children are often placed in camps rather than in external shelters.
This is a particular issue on Samos, as the designated area for unaccompanied minors in the reception centre, was not guarded at all until recently, and is regularly subject to chaos and violence from other camp residents, visitors or even police.
Many refugee children in Greece are also at risk of violence not only as a result of state inactions, but at the hands of the state itself. Children are often subject to violent – and illegal – pushbacks at Greece’s border with Turkey.
There have been multiple accounts of police beating migrants and confiscating belongings at the Evros river border, with one woman reporting that Greek authorities “took away her two young children’s shoes” in order to deter them from continuing their journey.
The Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) spoke out earlier this year, criticising treatment in Greek camps and detention facilities, stating that conditions were “inhuman and degrading.” They have called for an end to the detention of children with adults in police facilities, as well as the housing of unaccompanied minors in reception and identification centres, such as the hotspot on Samos.
Smaller organisations are also making their voices heard: Still I Rise, a young NGO on Samos providing education for refugee children, has just filed a lawsuit against the camp management at the refugee hotspot, for their ill treatment of unaccompanied minors. The organisation states:
We are in a unique position to witness the inhumane living conditions and experiences of our students in the refugee hotspot. With the support of Help Refugees, we gathered evidence, wrote affidavits, and build a class action on behalf of all the unaccompanied minors past and present who suffered abuse in the camp.
After witnessing the many failings of the camp management to protect the unaccompanied minors, the NGO decided to take matters into their own hands, raising up the voices of their students, students whose childhoods have been stolen from them as they flee war and persecution.
“Without love I would give up”
Every day on Samos, I worked with people who were battling the ever-consuming crush of hardship and boredom. People came to the activity centre to overcome it, through learning languages, reading, socialising, exercising, teaching and volunteering. They demonstrated amazing commitment and perseverance, and this should not be forgotten in the face of everything discussed so far.
Nadine*, a young woman from Cameroon whose help at the centre became invaluable, told me that she ‘always’ feels bored, and that “the worst is a closed camp,” but that she has managed to survive by teaching:
I teach the alphabet and sounds, letters for them to be able to read. I teach adult beginners, it’s not easy because some of them didn’t go to school and they are not able to write in their own language. So it’s hard work, patience and love because without love I would give up.”
The perseverance demonstrated by Nadine, Mariam, and other women like them, is extraordinary. This is not only considering the challenges they had to confront before even reaching Greece, but in the face of such adversity once reaching the EU.
Those refugees who are most vulnerable – particularly women and children, but also the silent voices of this article, those who are disabled, LGBTQ+ or otherwise a minority – are being pushed to the margins of society by the despicable policies and practices being inflicted on migrants in Greece. Refugees and migrants are being forced to endure immense suffering simply for asking for a place of safety.
Yet despite everything, even those at the most disadvantage are continuing to fight for their right to a future. And while I know that, especially in this climate, we need more than love alone, I hang onto Nadine’s words all the same: “without love I would give up.”
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