Harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks are all creating “dire conditions” for women refugees who live precariously in makeshift camps in Greece.

Greek authorities are failing to provide adequate protection for women and girls living in government-run, European Union-sponsored facilities for asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos, Human Rights Watch said today.

In November, 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 asylum-seeking women and girls as young as 13, living in the Moria “hotspot” on Lesbos and found that the conditions resulted from insufficient security, poor hygiene and sanitation facilities, and failures in the system to identify and address the needs of vulnerable people.

“There is no excuse for failing to meet even the most basic standards for protection of women and girls almost two years after the EU-Turkey deal entered into force,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The risks to women’s health and safety in Moria are dire, and as winter arrives, they will only get worse.”

Thousands of women and girls are trapped on Greek islands, often in horrendous conditions, due to a “containment” policy for asylum seekers, to facilitate speedy processing and return to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal. “Hotspots” were established on several Greek islands to receive, identify, and process asylum seekers and migrants. Human Rights Watch has previously documented violence, insecurity, and unhygienic and unsanitary conditions in the hotspots. As of December 13, the population in Moria, which has a capacity of 2,330, was 6,238.

The women and girls interviewed described pervasive sexual harassment and a persistent sense of insecurity in Moria, and said authorities are unresponsive to their complaints and do not take adequate action to ensure their safety. One woman said she had been approached by a fellow asylum seeker asking for sex in exchange for money. Many said they do not feel safe moving around Moria alone and leave their shelters only in groups or accompanied by male relatives. A 17-year-old girl from Syria said: “Out of fear, I stay in the tent. I don’t go out.”

A 13-year-old girl from Syria who lives in a section of Moria reserved for women and girls travelling alone, said that male asylum-seekers call to women and girls using insulting and sexual terms. “The guys [living here], it’s like they’ve never seen a girl before,” she said.

She said another girl asylum seeker approached her about marrying the girl’s brother. “I was really scared,” she said. “I told her to go away. She left, but she looked at me with a lot of anger. I’ve seen her brother standing at the door [to the section], looking at us. I’m really afraid to go out.”

Frequent fights among asylum seekers – often among intoxicated men – leave women and girls feeling unsafe, and they said that authorities do nothing in response. “Even if there is fighting, the police just stand there watching while the men are bleeding,” said a 31-year-old Syrian woman. “It is impossible to go out by yourself because of the drinking [and] the fighting.”

These findings echo what dozens of other female asylum seekers and representatives of agencies that provide aid to migrants told Human Rights Watch about conditions in the Greek hotspots, citing harassment, the threat of gender-based violence, and health risks, during earlier visits in 2016 and 2017.

Concerns about safety and inadequate facilities hinder women and girls’ access to toilets and showers. Female asylum seekers said that toilets and showers in Moria are not secure or private, and that they fear going alone. “We tell someone to come with us or we don’t wash ourselves,” said a 15-year-old girl from Syria.

Women and girls also said the toilets are unsanitary and unhygienic, with feces in some showers and toilets, and a lack of running water, forcing them to venture further from their tents to use alternate bathrooms. Human Rights Watch researchers have visited a number of toilets and showers in Moria and have confirmed these conditions. Some who live in tents in the section designated for unaccompanied women and girls said that other asylum seekers living in the containers, which house the section’s toilets, refuse them access.

Those interviewed also said that sanitation and hygiene are especially difficult during their periods, and that camp authorities provide few supplies such as sanitary pads.

In some cases, officials had failed to identify vulnerable women and girls, as Greek laws require, and to refer them to appropriate support services and accommodation. They include pregnant women and women who have recently given birth, survivors of sexual and other serious physical or psychological violence, trafficking victims, and people with disabilities.

Such vulnerable people are also entitled to exemption from the accelerated asylum border procedures and returns to Turkey under the EU-Turkey deal, and to be given priority for transfer to the mainland, where more services are available. Human Rights Watch has previously documented indirect pressure from the EU on aid agencies and Greek authorities to minimize the number of people categorized as vulnerable and eligible for priority treatment.

Human Rights Watch interviewed women who clearly meet the vulnerability criteria but had not been given that status, including two who were nine months pregnant and sleeping on the ground in tents, and four who had informed authorities that they are survivors of rape, trafficking, or other gender-based violence.

Greek authorities, with EU support, should promptly investigate reports of harassment and violence in Moria and take urgent action to ensure that asylum-seeking women and girls can move freely around the hotspot and safely and securely access all of its facilities. There should be separate, secure shelter for women and girls traveling alone, and separate, secure, accessible, and hygienic toilets and bathing facilities that ensure privacy for men and women. Authorities should provide adequate lighting and identify and monitor high-risk areas. The EU and the Greek government should work together to identify asylum seekers in hotspots who meet “vulnerability” critera and facilitate their access to appropriate shelter, services, and asylum processes.

The recent announcement by Greece that 5,000 asylum seekers will be moved from the islands to the mainland by December 15 as an emergency decongestion measure is a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. A total of 2,000 people had been transferred from early December through December 13. But this measure is not sufficient to alleviate the overcrowding or address the systemic issues linked to the containment policy that have created this emergency situation.The Greek government should end the containment policy on the islands, including for women and girls, and, with the support of the EU and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, transfer asylum seekers to the mainland, and provide adequate accommodation.

Greek authorities are aware of overcrowding, poor hygiene and sanitation, and protection risks in Moria but have not acted to rectify the problems, both officials and aid workers interviewed at Moria told Human Rights Watch.

Greece should also ratify the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe treaty on prevention of and response to violence against women, which guarantees protections and services for all women and girls regardless of residency status. Greece signed the Convention in May 2011 but has yet to ratify it.