A migrant girl plays near the window of the pre-removal detention center in Fylakio, Greece, April 30, 2018.

© 2018 Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

(Athens) – Greek authorities are routinely confining asylum-seeking women with unrelated men in the northern Evros region, at the land-border with Turkey, putting them at grave risk of sexual violence and harassment. Authorities should immediately stop holding asylum-seeking women and girls in closed facilities with unrelated men.

Human Rights Watch research in Northern Greece in late May 2018 found women and girls housed with unrelated men in sites for reception and/or detention of asylum seekers. Twelve women and two girls interviewed said they had been locked in cells or enclosures for weeks, and in one case for nearly five months, with men and boys they did not know. Four said they were the sole females confined with dozens of men, in some cases with at least one male partner or relative.

“Women and girls should not be confined with men who are complete strangers, even for a day,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These women and girls came to Greece seeking security and protection, and instead they are living in fear.”

Five women said they had severe psychological distress as a result, including two who had suicidal thoughts. Other women and girls said they experienced sleeplessness, anxiety, and other emotional and psychological distress, in part due to fear of confinement with unrelated men.

The Greek government has not provided authorities in northern Greece with sufficient resources to respond to a surge in arrivals over the land border with Turkey in April. Officials who met with Human Rights Watch acknowledged that the increase led to a slowdown in reception and identification procedures, including registration of asylum claims, as well as overcrowding of and lengthier stays in reception and immigration detention facilities.

Pending completion of reception and identification procedures, newly-arrived irregular migrants and those seeking international protection are held in border police stations in the Evros region, in the Fylakio pre-removal detention center, run by the Hellenic Police, and/or in the Fylakio reception and identification center (RIC), run by the Ministry for Migration Policy. The Ministry and the Hellenic police granted Human Rights Watch access to these sites, and authorities at the pre-removal detention center and RIC helped identify female migrants in the facilities so that Human Rights Watch could approach them for interviews.

Eight women and one of the girls said they had been held in cells with unrelated men in Fylakio pre-removal detention center, including six women who were held with unrelated men at the time of the interviews. Five women and the two girls were housed with unrelated men in pre-fabricated containers and locked, fenced-off “sections” in the Fylakio RIC at the time of the interviews. Some said they were held with unrelated men in multiple facilities.

Two of the women said they had been at the pre-removal center in cells with their male partners and many unknown men for at least two weeks. “Maha,” a 38-year-old woman from Iraq, was visibly shaking as she described being the sole woman in a cell with about 60 men for over two weeks. Maha said she avoided drinking water due to fear of using the shared toilet inside the cell. She said that she was living almost exclusively inside an enclosure she and her partner created by hanging blankets around their bunkbed.

“I haven’t moved my legs for 23 days,” she said in tears, demonstrating how she cowered with her knees hugged to her chest all day. “If I had a way to kill myself, I would have.”

According to a police registry given to Human Rights Watch researchers, at the time of the interview she and her partner were held in a cell with 32 unrelated men. Maha was released days after her interview, but her partner remained in detention.

Some women and girls said they were housed with unrelated men at the RIC for weeks or months. “Suraya,” a woman in her twenties (nationality withheld) in the RIC with her four-year-old nephew while awaiting confirmation of their family links, spent nearly five months in a section she said housed only men and unaccompanied boys. She said a fellow asylum seeker sexually assaulted her. “He started touching me while I was sleeping,” Suraya said, adding that he left when she screamed, and she reported it to authorities. “I have asked [them] to take me to a safer place here, or to another camp, but nothing has happened,” she said.

Authorities at the pre-removal detention center said there is a separate designated cell for women traveling alone, but they also put families in that cell “if necessary,” such as during periods of overcrowding. The facility was under capacity when Human Rights Watch visited, but two single women said they were in a cell with unrelated families. Authorities in both the pre-removal detention center and the RIC acknowledged gaps in response at the facilities, which they attribute largely to a dearth of resources.

National and European law as well as international standards require that men and women be held separately in detention, including reception and immigration detention facilities, unless they are members of the same family and consent to being held together. They also call for separating unaccompanied children from adults, and separate accommodation for families. A 2016 order issued by the Headquarters of the Hellenic Police instructs police to separate women and children from unrelated men in closed facilities.

Greek authorities should ensure the safety and security of all asylum seekers, including by providing single women, single men, families, and unaccompanied children with separate accommodation, toilets and bathing facilities in all immigration detention sites and other closed facilities. Authorities should urgently fit all rooms, bathrooms, and containers in RICs with locking doors to facilitate security and privacy.

When necessary, authorities should urgently transfer single women, unaccompanied and separated children, and families including couples in immigration detention to accommodation or facilities that meet these standards. Authorities should also ensure that asylum seekers have a safe and confidential means to report sexual harassment or assault, and that such reports are promptly investigated, those responsible are appropriately punished, and immediate measures are taken to ensure victims’ safety and well-being.

“Women and girls in these sites are overcome by fear from being locked up with men who are complete strangers,” Margolis said. “Greek authorities need to put an urgent stop to this, and grant them the security, privacy and dignity they deserve.”

Accounts from asylum seekers in Fylakio pre-removal detention center and the reception and identification center (RIC) in Fylakio, Greece:

Fatima (all names have been changed), 24, from Algeria, who had been at the pre-removal center with her husband for 20 days: “For 20 days I have been the only woman [in our cell]. The others are all single men. I had difficulty at the beginning. I sleep at night covered in a blanket. One night a man [in the cell] came and lifted the blanket and was looking at me. When I go to take a bath, the men come and try to look over the wall…. I am very stressed…. I feel like I have reached the bottom. I feel like I am broken.”

Suha, 20, from Morocco, who had been in the Fylakio pre-removal detention center with her husband for two weeks. At the time of the interview, they were in a cell alone, but they had previously been in the same center for two weeks in a cell with mostly men: “There were two other girls and 60 to 70 men [in the cell] … I was fighting for myself every day … The worst time was when I would go to the toilet. All of them would follow me with their eyes, say things. Some men, when they see a woman they act like animals. They would call out to me, ‘Stand up, stop here, let us look at you, you’re beautiful.’ The toilets are mixed [for men and women.] The bath is the same. There is no lock on the door. If you sit, they can’t see you [over the wall]. But if you stand they can see you from the chest up. Imagine being a woman in those conditions.”

Samira, 18, from Syria, who had been in the RIC with her 15-year-old sister for three weeks: “Since I’ve been here I’m unable to eat. I’m very stressed. I can’t leave my sister, I have to take care of her…. I’m constantly afraid that someone will enter our container. I don’t sleep at night – I stay awake during the day and sleep in the morning… I only shower once every two weeks because I feel like people are watching me [in the bathroom] … I wake up every morning at 3 a.m. feeling scared and nervous.”

Nada, 16, from Syria, who had been in the RIC with her older brother and sister for nearly two months: “We’re the only family in our section, it’s all single men. The only women are me and my sister. Everyone is afraid here. There are more than 20 men [or unaccompanied boys] living in our section…. At first, we were 20 people in the [same] container, but they have all left. It was mixed men and women. We didn’t feel safe and couldn’t sleep. We stayed up all night…. We shared the toilet with strangers. I used to take my sister with me and ask her to wait at the door.”

Nadir, 21, from Syria, who had been in the RIC for 20 days with his 6-year-old niece, Abra, whose mother became separated from them during the crossing from Turkey to Greece: “We are in the same container with two families…. The doors don’t lock…. The families staying with us are Iraqi Kurds. We can’t communicate with them – how can we feel safe? It is not a question of nationality, it is just that they are strangers. I can’t leave [Abra] alone. If she wants to go outside, I go outside; if she wants to go to the toilet, I go with her. There are single men [or unaccompanied boys]. If you come at night around 10 p.m. you will hear the noises they make [yelling] and understand why we don’t feel safe.”

Abbas, 35, from Iran, who had arrived at the Fylakio pre-removal detention center with his wife, 36 the previous day: “When we reached here, [the police] said, ‘You have to be separated [from your wife].’ I said, ‘No, we can’t be separated, we are a couple.’ Then the police said, ‘If you don’t separate, you’ll both have to go to the room with all the men.’ My wife was shocked and started crying. She was really scared. I said, ‘Okay, let’s separate.’ I kissed her, said goodbye, and they put her in another room and me in the room with all the men.” Eventually, he said, the police brought his wife to a cell opposite his and then put them together in that cell, along with unrelated families.

Additional Information on Combined Detention of Women and Men

In interviews with twelve women and two girls from May 19 to 24, eight women and one girl said they had been held in cells with unrelated men in Fylakio pre-removal detention center, including six women who were held with unrelated men at the time of the interviews.

Women at the pre-removal center said that combined toilet and bathing stalls in cells they shared with men did not have floor-to-ceiling walls, and they were harassed by male cellmates while using them. One 24-year-old woman, in a cell with her husband and 20 single men, said men attempted to watch her over the wall while she used the toilet.

Six women and two girls told Human Rights Watch they were also housed with unrelated men at the RIC, sometimes for weeks or months, in pre-fabricated containers and “sections,” which are fenced-in, locked enclosures containing a courtyard and multiple containers housing migrants and asylum seekers. Five women and two girls were being held with unrelated men and/or boys at the time of their interviews at the Fylakio RIC.

Assignment to sections is based primarily on nationality. Awaiting confirmation of age, placement in designated accommodation, or establishment of family links to other asylum seekers can result in lengthy stays for unaccompanied or separated children and their non-immediate family members.

Two unrelated girls, ages 15 and 16, each said they had been in these sections in the RIC with unrelated adult men and/or boys for over three weeks; one said she and her 30-year-old sister had been the only females in a section with 20 men and/or boys for about 45 days. One 19-year-old pregnant woman who was there with her husband and in-laws said her container housed multiple unrelated families in one shared room.

Some women and girls, as well as a man with his 6-year-old niece, said they and their family members live in rooms inside containers shared with unrelated families including men or boys. In all cases, they said they share toilets and bathing facilities with men and/or boys, and that no containers or bedrooms have locking doors.

Detention of Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Greece

Under Greek law, authorities may restrict the movement of new arrivals for up to 25 days at a reception and identification center (RIC) and up to a total of six months in immigration detention, including at pre-removal centers. Unaccompanied and separated children may be held longer pending resolution of their cases and reunification with family members, particularly when age or family links are in question, or pending available space in designated sites with protected areas or shelters.

Upon arrival in the Evros region in northern Greece, where the land-border with Turkey is located, irregular migrants and those seeking international protection are held in border police stations, a pre-removal detention center, and/or a RIC, pending completion of reception and identification procedures. Following these procedures, new arrivals may be detained for processing or assessment of their asylum claim, or for deportation.

While the increase in arrivals in April temporarily strained asylum identification, registration, and accommodation services in Northern Greece and the Evros region, authorities are responsible for ensuring the safety and security of asylum seekers throughout registration and identification processes. Increased arrivals do not justify the Greek government’s failure to protect women and girls, or to allow dangerous conditions to persist even after arrivals have decreased.

During Human Rights Watch visits to sites in the Thessaloniki area and in Evros, authorities said that arrivals had returned to a normal range over the previous two weeks. On May 19, authorities at Fylakio pre-removal detention center said the site has a capacity of 374 and was housing only 172 people. On May 21, authorities at the RIC, which has a capacity of 240, said it was housing 196. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch found women and girls being held with unrelated men and boys.

On June 1, following an April ad hoc visit to Greece, the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment reported the detention of men, women, and children together in a single cell at the Fylakio pre-removal center, consistent with the Human Rights Watch findings in May.

Authorities said they give priority to members of “vulnerable” groups for registration, processing, and transfer to appropriate accommodation. Under Greek law this includes unaccompanied or separated children, people with disabilities, pregnant women and new mothers, single parents with minor children, and victims of sexual violence, torture or other severe psychological or physical trauma. The authorities acknowledged that unaccompanied or separated children – and sometimes their family members – may be accommodated for lengthy periods in the RIC due to limited spaces in designated “safe” facilities and lengthy processes for verifying family links.

The Greek government’s failure to accommodate men, women, and children separately in immigration detention is a longstanding problem, including in Evros. The European Court of Human Rights and multiple other international human rights bodies have criticized inhumane and degrading conditions in Greek immigration detention facilities, including failure to separate women and children from unrelated men. Human Rights Watch has previously documented violence, insecurity, sexual harassment, and unhygienic and unsanitary conditions in facilities for registration, identification, and processing of asylum seekers on the Greek islands, or “hotspots.” Human Rights Watch has also found women traveling alone housed with unrelated men in island hotspots.