X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit

Home

Collective reflections about development practice and cities

Menu

Holding the space: Women and Girls Safe Spaces for refugees and asylum seekers in Greece

Ignacia Ossul Vermehren24 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.

Photo credit: Author

 

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.

______________

Author:

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.

Between reception and exception. Engaging with refugees dwelling practices and the politics of care in the Italian urban context

Camillo Boano10 March 2017

By Camillo Boano and Giovanna Astolfo

Statistics confirm that more than 60% of refugees worldwide live in urban areas and in the future, this figure is likely to gradually increase. Such a global phenomenon is forcing us to think not only about how integration and systems of care and assistance have to be shaped, but also about the very nature of the city and their forms.

 

andrea

 

Cities are places where both migrants and non-migrants interact, be it through working, studying, living, raising their families or simply walking in the street. While cities offer great opportunities for migrants and refugees, at the same time they are also faced with challenges in creating opportunities for care, integration and inclusion. More than ever refugees and migrants become a concern of urban design. In the Italian urban context, the presence of migrants at different stages of their migration experience has triggered a complex system of reception and housing options. It is within this context of inherent contradictions and opportunities brought along by the practice of reception, assistance and integration itself that the BUDD Camp 2017 (integral part of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development Practice Module) embarked on exploring migrant’s dwelling practices.

 

IMG_8761

 

Thanks to a long-term partnership with Associazione per l’Ambasciata della Democrazia Locale a Zavidovici Onlus (ADL), BUDD students visited Brescia (Italy) last February, to explore a variety of housing/hosting/reception typologies including centers, dormitories, and shared houses that house/host refugees, asylum seekers, and no fixed abode migrants.

 

In line with the practice of our partner, BUDD students would experience the different tensions that arise from local inclusive and integrated practices that are inherent in the multi-level governance of the so-called refugee crisis: between reception and exception; dwelling and transition; visibility and invisibility; proximity and distance; present and future; inside and outside; faith and despair.

 

jingran (13)

 

Refugees’ lives are exceptional, suspended in a sine tempore condition, trapped in a country where they might not want to be, or they might not be welcomed, and forced to perform a role. Refugees are individuals who are in need for protection and shelter but because of this need are denied the possibility to live a full life, and forced into a condition of temporariness which compromises the very meaning of home in itself.

 

The meaning of home becomes political. Boundaries of homes have been experienced in the multiple forms of socialisation, appropriation, and narratives inside and outside the physical spaces of hospitality. However, that of reception is indeed a mechanism that often becomes a dispositive of control as it ensures protection only at the expense of individual freedom. Houses and homes where refugees are hosted have strict rules and limited freedom that govern the space and its routine and nevertheless refugees are asked to keep them with the same care they would have if those where their houses.

 

Social workers and volunteers engage with passionate political sensitivity with the refugees and struggle to deal with such limitations to reconcile the legal meaning of protection with the universal right to freedom and the political imperative to host and help. But nevertheless reception and care remains an opportunity. Especially in the meaning given by ADL, where reception is not about giving a roof, but building recognition and reciprocity, through social networks, job opportunities, interactions in the urban space.

 

Venkatesh Kshitijia

 

ADL currently coordinate the SPRAR project (Sistema di Protezione Richiedenti Asilo e Rifugiati) that focuses on improving the integration of forced migrants in the city of Brescia and its surrounded municipalities. The SPRAR project aims to oppose the humanitarian approach where the refugee is seen as a ‘beneficiary’ and the person that needs help, an action which often leads to segregation from the wider urban community. ADL is currently questioning how to transform the top down governance system into something that addresses the needs of individuals, that is tailored on individuals. The project rather aims to stimulate self-awareness, autonomy and inclusion of refugees through individualised and targeted programmes.

 

ADL further recognise that integration and hospitality need to be systemic and relational; need to support each other and need to be well coordinated. Their work endeavors to emancipate the current policy that addresses refugees as alien to the society into a welfare that embrace refugees and residents as equals. Of course, there is no immediate solution but rather an incremental effort to push the boundaries of existing frameworks and transforming the systems of expulsion into an inclusive one.

 

Within levels of complexity, in a commendable effort to grasp most of what is possible in a short engagement timeframe, BUDD students have investigated individual experiences, spatial phenomena and potential alternative interventions. Strategies and interventions developed in Brescia seek to reinforce socio-spatial relations and the creation of new ones, to foster recognition and advancement on citizenship.

 

20170206_105037

 

Through life story interviews, ethnographic observation, key informant interviews and participatory maps, the short workshop aimed to reflect on the efficacy and limits of housing and immigration policies and further expands from hospitality to integration issues, looking beyond dwelling towards inhabiting the urban space, intended as lieu of encounter and conflict.

 

Witnessing, learning and discussing LDA practices, ethics and operations have given a fantastic opportunity to learn about the complexity, the tensions and the opportunity of the urban design of refugee crisis, however in a small, short and incomplete manner. ADL works at the edge of the politics of care, between the ethical and the licit dealing with vulnerability, normative frameworks, and political struggles.

 

Their work made is made more challenging by the Italian context of austerity and cuts to welfare and social services, increasing unemployment and homelessness and proportional surge of nationalism and xenophobic sentiments. The unwillingness to receive strangers, migrants, ‘the other’ in general is on the surge, and unfortunately not only in Italy.

 

IMG_8759

 

Reception has always been and remains a hot debate in the peninsula, and it reflects a wider trend in the EU context as well. The refugee identity and experience is questioning our own identity and our assumptions about space, places and design agency and it open an active interrogation of practices of recognition, emancipation and activations in any act of city making.


Camillo Boano is a senior lecturer at the DPU, and is co-director of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development programme.

Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the DPU, and works closely and contributes to the teaching of the MSc Building & Urban design in Development programme.