Holding the space: Women and Girls Safe Spaces for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece
By Ignacia Ossul Vermehren, on 24 November 2021
On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Ignacia reflects on the importance of securing women´s safe spaces for female refugees and asylum seekers and shares her experience working with refugee women in Samos, Greece, one of the five EU designated ´hotspot islands’ with newly imposed restrictions on refugees.
Women and girls have less access and power in public spaces than men. The creation of safe, female-only spaces has been a key counterspace created for women to feel safe and for feminist movements to organise. In humanitarian contexts and emergencies – in which the existing social networks and institutional structures disintegrate – safeguarding women and girls’ rights is crucial. In this context, Women and Girls Safe Spaces (WGSS) have become a strategic intervention to protect female refugees. In a male dominated environment, they aim to create a place safe from violence, but also safe to connect cognitively, intellectually and emotionally, to receive psychosocial support, create solidarity amongst women from different countries, and claim rights.
Adult women represent a fifth of refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe. This smaller overall proportion (in the last 2 years, 42.6% are male, 23.1% are women and 34.3% are children), has been explained by the risks and the high cost that the journey entails, with young men opting to travel first and then reunite with their families. Although Greece has been one of the preferred points of entry to the EU, the designation of five islands – Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos – by the EU as ‘hotspots’ in the Aegean Sea means that refugees and asylum seekers that arrive on these islands cannot continue their journey into Europe, but are instead processed there, often waiting indefinitely for the outcome of their applications.
In addition to the current Covid restrictions in Greece, the controversial new EU-funded Reception Centre in Samos – a closed space, with double barbed wire, metal detectors and a strict entry and exit policy – has drastically reduced the possibility for women to access female-only safe spaces, legal advice and health care outside the camp.
What do WGSS do for female refugees and asylum seekers?
Female refugees are at high risk of gender-based violence, exploitation, and human trafficking. This is an issue that civil society organisations, alongside asylum seekers, have been campaigning for across Europe. In this context, WGSS aim to provide:
“(…) physical spaces where women and adolescent girls can be free from harm and harassment. They are also places where women and adolescent girls can gain knowledge and skills; access GBV response services or other available services, and foster opportunities for mutual support and collective action in their community.” International Rescue Committee-International Medical Corps
The ultimate aim of WGSS is to foster transformational change, serving as a counter space within a larger unequal space, such as in humanitarian settings. Specifically for GBV interventions, evidence of WGSS around the world shows that safe spaces for women and girls represent a key intervention and entry point for meaningful access to lifesaving services for GBV survivors seeking access to case management and psychosocial support services hosted in the WGSS.
Holding the space for women and adolescent girls within new Reception Centre restrictions in Samos island
There are at least two spaces dedicated exclusively to female refugees and asylum seekers in Samos, both of which are managed by NGOs: WGSS from Samos Volunteers and We Are One Centre from Glocal Roots. Both spaces have been operating for several years and have adapted to the needs of female refugees and the changing situations for refugees in the island. Until September 2021 (when refugees were transferred to the new Reception Centre), both WGSS catered for thousands of women that lived in the ‘old camp’ just outside of the city of Vathy.
In the last 2 months however, women’s access to these spaces has been drastically reduced. The new Reception Centre – one of five multipurpose reception and identification centres – was built in an isolated area 6km away from the city centre, far from services and NGO support, and has reduced the possibility for women to access WGSS. In this context, holding the space is not only creating and maintaining a physical space for women, but also advocating for these spaces to exist.
Since 7th November, Covid restrictions in Greece stipulate that a vaccination pass is required to enter any building. However, the camp only vaccinates once a week and women have said that they need to arrive at 6am as the doses available are limited, and then they need to wait 2 weeks for the certificate. Most importantly, on 17th November, further restrictions were introduced in the Reception Centre further reducing women’s possibility of leaving the camp.
The Reception Centre operates with a card reader and metal detector. The new restrictions affect new arrivals who have to wait between 1 to 2 months for vaccination and an ID card; people with a second rejection in their asylum claim, whose card is taken from them and who are waiting for legal aid to make a new case or to be sent back; and people with residency whose card has also been taken until they are allowed to leave the Reception Centre.
The Reception Centre’s drastic restrictions measures means that women – the majority from Somalia, DRC and Afghanistan – have very few places to congregate. Each container sleeps eight people (two bunk beds in each room and a kitchen). There are no communal spaces in the containers. There is a football pitch which women do not use, and a communal area, mostly occupied by men. Where do women meet in the camp? What places do they find safe? It is hard to know. Women are just getting used to this new arrangement. Some women find solidarity with women from their same country of origin, as they share the language and everyday practices.
Providing a space that can foster solidarity, empowerment or even just a basic nurturing environment which is free of violence has been severely constrained. And so, amidst the uncertainty, holding the space is fundamental.
Dr. Ignacia Ossul-Vermehren is an Associate Staff at Development Planning Unit (University College London) and is currently based on the island of Samos, Greece.