Immigration

Women Refugees in Europe Wallow in Filth and Starvation

The European Union cuts a shady new deal with Turkey.

A woman carries her baby near the gate of a Greek-Macedonian border crossing near the Greek village of Idomeni, on March 6, 2016.
Photo Credit: AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff

In the muddy, freezing border regions between Greece and Macedonia, in small villages like Idomeni, Greece, women refugees and their children are crying out for help on a daily basis. But most European leaders are unable or unwilling to see the torment in these women’s eyes.

In Idomeni, about 14,000 immigrants are stranded without adequate food supplies, clothes, blankets or tents. Most of them are women and children who have not been able to bathe for weeks on end, many sharing tales of rape and sexual assault at the hands of smugglers. Some of the children have arrived alone, putting them at the greatest risk of abuse. More than 42,000 immigrants are now stranded in Greece, amounting to a new and horrible facet of an international humanitarian crisis.

The suffering is on a level that should be impossible to ignore. For European media willing to print the images, the pictures are easy to come by: mothers and their newborn infants wrapped in filthy blankets, trying to ward off disease, hunger and desperation. Women and children are covered in lice, their blankets in bedbugs. Flu and other contagious diseases are running rampant.

An emergency summit to tackle the refugee crisis concluded early this March in Brussels between Turkish and EU leaders. The result was devastating to many asylum seekers, essentially closing EU doors even more. Turkey holds all the cards, and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made a list of demands knowing full well that the EU is running out of options to try to shift the immigrant problem elsewhere. The EU seems to feel it has no option but to agree or at least pretend to agree for the time being. Among other outrageous demands, Turkey has been pushing relentlessly for EU membership despite its abysmal human rights record in press censorship and the treatment of undocumented immigrants, to say nothing of slaughtering, torturing and imprisoning Kurds and human rights activists.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has strongly criticized the deal based on existing international human rights law and laws protecting the rights of immigrants to seek asylum and to have their cases heard. Amnesty International has called the deal a “death blow to the right to seek asylum.”

But let's take a step back and look at exactly what has happened to bring Europe to the place where it is now, seemingly cold and callous to the images of women and children who may not even make it out of Greece alive.

The majority of the asylum seekers who fled to Europe in the beginning of the crisis last year were men, many of them in their 20s, escaping Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Women and children were hardly invisible, but they were not in the majority, amounting to roughly 30-40 percent of the arriving immigrants, depending on which European country was in question.

The reasons most of the early asylum seekers were men are twofold; forced military conscription or forced recruitment into radical Islamic groups made these men a daily target. Refusal meant the loss of a limb, torture and/or death. The other most compelling reason was because the families trying to figure out how to flee the ravages of war made group decisions to try to send the strongest members of the family first to make the treacherous journey. If they could secure a safe haven, they might be able to bring the rest of the family to safety at some later time.

But these immigrants, purposely misinformed by human smugglers, did not grasp the fact that the process of receiving asylum can take months or even years. Family reunification is an even bigger hurdle, with many EU countries (such as Finland, where I live) now clamping down to the point that an immigrant would have to make roughly 2,600 euros per month in order to bring his wife and two children to live with him. Achieving this figure is a tall order, even before considering the obstacle of potential for racism in hiring or compensation decisions. The average monthly salary in the EU comes in well below that. 

The European Union's most northern country of Finland, which had, for years on end, set its refugee quota at 750 persons per year, was suddenly faced with an influx of more than 32,000 people applying for asylum. While many who have stepped up to show goodwill and create supportive organizations and communities, many others have embarrassed their countries with terrible (and often unprovoked) hostility toward the people flooding their countries.

The European media was filled with daily news about the fact that these asylum seekers were predominantly men, and hysterical reports warning of widespread sexual assaults were daily fodder for sensational news outlets. Such reports were widely exaggerated, although isolated cases of sexual assaults and rapes did occur. And so the men have struggled to succeed in their new environments, paving an even more uncertain future for the women and children they left behind.

But what of the Cologne New Year's assaults that instilled fear of the incoming immigrants? As it turns out, most were committed not by recent immigrants from Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, but primarily by men from Northern Africa who had already been in Germany for some time. Nonetheless, the shift in European sympathy for refugees was palpable. Indeed, the outrage was entirely understandable given the sheer scale of the attacks, although the news about the real identities of the suspected perpetrators did not seem to register after the fact. 

But the war in Syria and the bloodbath in Iraq and Afghanistan continue unabated. The Assad-led government and its strongest ally, Russia, as well as myriad opposition militia groups aided by the United States continue to bomb Syria on a daily basis, often hitting civilian targets, hospitals and the homes of innocent families. ISIL is in the mix as well, amounting to a sickening stew of extremism and callous indifference to civilian life.

Those women and children left behind have, increasingly, no choice but to begin to flee on their own. Since the beginning of 2016, women and children, as well as unaccompanied minors, account for nearly 60 percent of asylum seekers, according to UNHCR. From January through February, more than 130,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean, which was the number that crossed over during the course of six months in 2015. More than 400 drowning or other sea crossing-related deaths have been recorded in the past two months.

This new surge of impoverished, traumatized and ailing women and children comes at a terrible time in European history, as most European nations are slamming their doors shut, and closing entry points every which way they can. As a result, 42,000 refugees are being held hostage, so to speak, in poverty-strapped Greece, because no other European country will let them in. Estimates are that this number could rise to 70,000 in the next 30 days.

This refugee crisis has morphed into a bonafide women's human rights crisis, but European leaders and citizens are not willing to see it for what it is.

While mothers and their children sleep on muddy fields and battle over scraps of bread for breakfast, EU politicians are patting each other on the back and talking about the exchange of immigrants as though they were pawns on a blood-soaked chessboard. Their very humanity is no longer an issue; these people are little more than an inconvenient nuisance Europe is now happy to throw into Turkey's dirtied backyard in exchange for large swaths of cash and a good chance at eventual membership in the European Union.

Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist, essayist and author of several books and book anthology contributions. Talvi received 18 national and regional journalism awards in the U.S., including a national PASS literary award for "Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press/Perseus 2007). Talvi was forced to flee her home in Jan. 2010 after repeated civil rights violations and police abuse while researching a book on supermaximum prisons, torture in American detention facilities, as well as the existence of secretive prison units in the U.S. She now lives in Finland.

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