Refugee Women
Women's Rights

Violence, rape, and forced marriage: inside the lives of female refugees

7 June Jun 2016 1117 07 June 2016
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"I've been a refugee since the day I was born" begins Mina Jaf, female refugee rights activist and this year's Women Refugee Commission Voice of Courage 2016 award winner. Speaking to Vita International, she describes what she saw inside the closed government camps in Greece. Gender based violence, forced marriages, rape, and child kidnapping. "It's so much worse now than when I was a child." Now she is starting her own NGO called Women Refugee Route, which focuses on providing female interpreters for women on the migration route. "I saw it first with my mother, and then with the thousands of women I met in Iraq and Greece that it would be easier for them to explain themselves in their own language," she says.

Can you share your story?

I've been a refugee since the day I was born. I'm originally from Kurdistan, where I was born in 1988 during Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal campaign. Our city, Halabja, was attacked with chemical weapons, and our family were forced to leave. We moved back and forth between the border of Iran and the Sulaymaniyah region in Iraq until 1993, until we decided to leave to find a better and safer place - like all refugees do, and are doing at this time too.

My father left first, and he took the road. Then we had family reunification in Germany in 1997, so we went to Turkey and then flew from there to Germany. I was a luxury refugee, which is what every refugee should be today. It is so difficult to understand how they are fleeing today.

Now I work with refugees. I have always been involved with diversity and young people, with organisations in Denmark such as Crossing Borders.

Recently I have been working for the Salaam Film Festival in Denmark. We go out to different schools, and we show films community issues and have a dialogue with the students about the movie we are showing. Themes range from gender equality and discrimination to forced marriage.

From there I studied sport, because when you have lost a lot of years of school, you're always searching for something you're good at, and gives you self-confidence. I remembered how sport rebuilt me as a child, and that is how I became interested in sport and its role in rebuilding local society and facing social challenges. Sport gave me a lot of self-confidence growing up.

Then I went to Iraq to the Arbat refugee camp with the Civil Development Organisation under UNHCR, in 2013. When I went there, the refugee crisis got worse. Instead of working on sport, I was involved in logistics and came into contact with a lot of women that were pregnant and had faced male violence. I worked with social workers who conducted a census of the camp, and I through that saw many vulnerable cases.

When the attack from Islamic State happened in 2014, I was in the camp, and it broke my heart to not be able to help the people. I went back to Denmark briefly, but I couldn't wait a minute to go back. I always knew I wanted to work with women, but from this experience I realised how vulnerable women refugees are, especially in war. Additionally I see that in our culture things are getting worse and worse for women. Once we are out of our homes, we don't have one issue to deal with, but thousands.

From there I applied for this position with Flemish Refugee Action (FRA), which was a really useful experience. It showed me that refugees really need information to know about their rights. It was surprising to me at the end of my time here that so many people are working with these issues, but very few NGOs are giving information about the asylum procedure. I think access to information is one of the most important things for refugees: how to know how to ask for asylum, how to appeal, or what train to take even.

Also I've been training a lot of volunteers together with FRA to give information. It's sometimes still so difficult. For example, with unaccompanied minors, I tried to explain to an Afghani boy the Dublin Agreement and how to contact the lawyer. I looked into his eyes, and I could see that he didn't understand, what appeal meant, or what the Dublin agreement meant. He didn't understood what rights meant, because he came from a country where rights were not taught.

Now I am starting my own NGO called Women Refugee Route, which will focus on female interpreters on the migration route.

What is the importance of a female interpreter?

The female that faces violence and vulnerable women would find it easier for them to explain themselves in their own language. I saw it first with my mother, and then with the thousands of women I met in Iraq and Greece that it would be easier for them to explain themselves in their own language.

In the Port of Piraeus in Athens, I spoke with an Afghani woman. She couldn't communicate with the male interpreters of Médecins sans Frontières, but as soon as she met me she was able to communicate with me and tell me her story, because she felt immediately comfortable, even though we do not even speak the same language.

The issue of male translators for women is a big problem.

What is the next step once a woman has explained her story about the violence acted on her?

What should happen is that the humanitarian service agency and then the authorities should take care of it. The woman should be moved to a women's shelter for safety. Even here in Europe, when you tell a social assistant in Brussels about violence, they are still not sure that it will go through to the authorities. In Greece a problem right now is the illegal status of refugees. For example, a girl was gang raped but she couldn't go to the humanitarian agency or the authorities, because her papers had expired and she was illegal.

What social services should do right now is they should act. I think that a lot of the NGOs in the field at the moment are afraid to act, for fear of making a mistake. But it's time we take action because we are not thinking about human rights anymore. The European institutions and agencies are not thinking about human rights, but rather who else can they push the dirty work onto, and this will continue until everything collapses.

These women now who are facing the same situation as the women in my childhood faced are more vulnerable. The men now know that a woman is vulnerable, and they attack her again and again.

I'm pretty sure that everyone knows it's collapsed or close to collapse. They made another dirty deal in March, and they are hiding behind it. But winter is coming - everyone knows it. A pregnant woman living in a tent is extremely vulnerable. How will she survive?

You just came back from Greece. How is it there right now? And for women especially?

For me, a vulnerable woman is a woman travelling alone. I often hear from the government and humanitarian agencies that a woman is not vulnerable if she is travelling alone, because they are in Europe, and 'Europe is safe'.

Now they are cleaning up the port and Idomeni, and they have to search for the vulnerable cases. The women travelling alone are not considered as such, but they are staying in camps with minimal hygiene standards, and they fall into trafficking very easily.

When they were cleaning up Idomeni, there were only 4 staff from UNHCR present to give information.

Women are giving birth in the street with no one even wanting to look at them.

Have you been inside the government camps? Not many people have been allowed in.

Yes, I was in the one in Athens, Skaramagas. I was not allowed to go in, but I got in anyway.

What was it like?

It is not the European level of camp. The good thing with this camp is that they have a toilet inside the cabins, which is good for the women, because the lack of separate toilets has been a big problem in terms of male violence.

I saw a lot of vulnerable cases in the camps. There was a case with a man in his 30s who forced a 14 year old girl into marriage in the camp. The chair of the camp expelled him, but the day after he was back without anyone saying anything.

There are also no schools in the camps. The volunteers who would like to provide some education are not allowed in. They say it's for the safety of the people.

Whose decision was this?

The Greek government's. There are some NGOs there, like Drop in the Ocean, but they are only providing some basic supplies such as hygiene products, which of course are important.

I went out with some of the refugees in the camp and asked them questions. The situation is that they don't know when they will leave, or what is happening. UNHCR said they don't have enough interpreters to take action. The refugees are saying "We don't know when we will leave this place. We would be happy to have some books to read."

When I asked about teachers, there is a man who teaches French who is allowed in. Some people are allowed in, and others aren't. They always refuse official visits from NGOs.

Are there any women's organisations in the camp?

No, I haven't seen any.

Mina then shows me some photos from the Port of Piraeus and Skaramagas camp. In one of the photos (here below), she explained to me that information on the EU-Turkey deal was being communicated through a megaphone. I noticed the lack of women around the information point in the photo.

UNHCR Giving Eu Turkey Deal W:Community Transalators

UNHCR information callout on EU-Turkey deal in the Port of Piraeus

Port Of Pirraeus

Greek government officials provide information to refugees at Port Piraeus on the EU-Turkey deal and the camp clear-out

Do women attend the information call outs in the camp?

No. There are very few women outside. They are very vulnerable: they stay in their tent so as not to be seen, in case the men see what they look like and go after them in the evening.

Because they get targeted?

Yes. In the evening they have to be with a male relative to go to the bathroom.

Mina then shows me some photos of another camp: Ritsona refugee camp in Polydendri, just north of Athens.

Greek Camp Tea

Refugees making tea in Ritsona refugee camp, Greece

There are some very vulnerable cases in this camp too. There are 3 NGOs there, but they are not cooperating with each other, because they are in competition over who will be established there permanently.

I met a Syrian family there, and one of the women was disabled: she was 30 years old, and had a disease with muscle atrophication, so she couldn't move. She hadn't been in a shower for 30 days, because when she had to go to the bathroom she needs her mum and sister to help her, and the shower is too small.

Another case I saw occurred because of all this miscommunication between volunteers. There were some cases involving paedophilia and children in the camp, and the volunteers didn't want to say anything, because they didn't want to be the ones saying things.

The lack of schools is a big problem. The government has no project for education in the camps because they say they have always been a transit country, and that there are schools in Turkey.

I think the only way you can save the women and the kids is by improving long-term education for the kids, and by having a safe, separate place for the women immediately, starting from arrival in Lesbos. This is so they don't need to stay in the forest. The government should give them the basic thing, which is protection.

Ideally I don't want to go down to the basic thing - it should just be there. But the truth is that we don't have basic protection.

Do you think that the situation for women in the camps has got better or worse since the time you were there?

I cannot even explain in words how much worse it has got since when I was a kid.

Worse how?

Ok, for example, when I was a child the women that faced sexual violence in the camp didn't say anything because they did not feel protected and they had no rights. We were all just waiting for a decision about whether we could stay in the country or not. But what a woman could do was take a shower and stay in her room. These women now who are facing the same situation as the women in my childhood faced are more vulnerable. The men now know that a woman is vulnerable, and they attack her again and again. Even in the cases where they do want to speak out about what happened to them, it is impossible for a lot of them to do so, because they don't have the legal papers in Greece, and the registration system is not working.

The Skype calls...

Yes, the Skype calls.

When I was younger I never met a woman who had to give birth in their tent. My mother did, but we were in conflict and fleeing Hussein's chemical attacks.

Now in Europe this is happening all over. Here we are talking about Europe, where women are giving birth in the street with no one even wanting to look at them.

And with regards to the schools: I could go to school. I remember I went to kindergarten in Germany. I did not have a full education in Denmark either, but at least we could go to school for an hour or so, read some books, make some friends.

Now the kids have nothing. They are just playing with whatever they see on the street. And whenever a car drives on the street, the kids crowd around asking "Can I come with you?” Child kidnapping is a growing problem for this reason. For example I met a woman in Athens who had 5 children, but she lost one. He was just gone one day.

It's very sad to say, because I would love to say that I am just reading this story in book. But the sad story is the reality ,and it is what I faced, and it is very difficult.

Whenever I see a woman refugee, I see my mum's face. When I see an old person, I see my uncle. I don't want other people to face what I faced, and they are facing it even worse than I did.

So we need to do something?

We need to act. There are so many conferences going on, but it's just "bla bla conferences". What's coming out of it? Nothing.

What about the acting? What about on the ground? Even though you don't know what to do, you will find a way to do it. When you are on the ground you have this information, and you feel close to the people.

I'm really interested to see what happens with this plan that UNHCR have been doing from when I was a child to now.

We're saying we have a refugee crisis, but we don't. The capacity is there. What we have is a European crisis, and an economy crisis that we don't want to talk about. That's why we're diverting attention to the refugee crisis.

Mina Jaf 2

Mina Jaf will be speaking on gender based violence against refugee women at the Committee on Migration at the Council of European Parliamentary Assembly on 22nd June 2016 in Strasbourg.

Photo Credits: Mina Jaf