Freedom and Pregnancy: A Feminist Perspective on the EU/Greek Containment Policy for Asylum-Seekers on the Islands

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Migrant women on Greece’s islands are facing extreme injustice at the hands of the European Union (EU) and Greek policy makers. The current containment policy is seeing upwards of 19,000 people living in squalid and overcrowded camps on the five main islands of arrival: Lesvos, Samos, Chios, Kos and Leros (Hellenic Republic Ministry of Citizen Protection, 2018). Unless asylum seekers - this includes men, women and children - meet certain vulnerability criteria established within Greek Law, it can take months or even years for them to be transferred to better camp conditions and shelters on the mainland (MSF, 2017: 7).

This policy is disproportionately affecting women, who are finding themselves at risk of being coerced into pregnancies, or are turning to pregnancy as a desperate last resort in order to escape camp conditions. Under Greek law, pregnant women are exempt from border regulations for asylum seekers, such as the island containment policy; this is alongside unaccompanied children, victims of torture or rape, sufferers of PTSD or serious illness, and those with a disability (Law 4375/2016: Article 14; 60).

Map    of the Aegean Islands including Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos (2018).

Map of the Aegean Islands including Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros and Kos (2018).

Sara*, a Syrian woman whom I met while working on Samos, was, earlier this year, faced with accepting a pregnancy that she knew she could not cope with. She and her husband had three children already; she was still barely able to process the trauma of their journey, still grieving for the loss of their homeland, keeping afloat in the chaotic and violent world of a refugee camp. When she discovered she was pregnant, she told me she was terrified. Yet Sara’s pregnancy symbolised her and her family’s tickets to freedom, out of the camp bursting at seven times capacity, where they shared a tent with rats and sewage, had to queue for hours on end for meals, and were unable to use the toilets at night for fear of assault. I could see when speaking to her at the time, that the needs of her family were weighing heavily on her: her body held the potential key to their safety.

Conditions on the Greek mainland, while still variable, are largely better than on the islands: asylum seekers can expect better sanitation, access to health care and protection services, and less overcrowded facilities. This is in comparison to the islands, where, in some cases, up to 70 people share a toilet and violent assaults are a daily occurrence (UNICEF, 2018). In September 2018, UNICEF’s Country Coordinator for the Refugee and Migrant Response in Greece, Lucio Melandri, stated: “all refugees and migrants living in the [Greek island] Reception and Identification Centers, especially children, need to be transferred to the mainland without further delay to make sure they can have adequate accommodation, protection, health care and other basic services” (UNICEF, 2018). This urgent recommendation has still not been heeded.

I could see when speaking to her at the time, that the needs of her family were weighing heavily on her: her body held the potential key to their safety.

Sara ended up making the difficult decision to continue her pregnancy; because of this, the family was transferred to a shelter on the mainland within two months. When I asked her more recently about the experience, she told me, “a lot of women became pregnant just to exit from this prison,” adding, “everybody must know that.”

The nature of this topic is controversial and sensitive; there are also currently no official studies on the scale or effect of this phenomena. I am not highlighting the issue in order to stigmatise behaviour, rather to demonstrate how women are being stigmatised themselves. I am an observer, and do not attempt to speak for the women. Anecdotally, I am aware of women who have, by choice or coercion, taken the decision to become pregnant or maintain a pregnancy in order to qualify to be transferred from the islands. This suffering is at the hands of a policy that continues to contain asylum seekers on the islands, against human rights recommendations (Costa Riba, 2018), and that upholds a “system that disregards [asylum seekers’] needs, vulnerabilities and rights”, by ignoring the mental health crisis on the islands (MSF, 2017: 12). The policy is essentially forcing women into a trap, in which they must decide between either pregnancy, or an indefinite sentence for them and their families, in what is effectively an open air prison.

Tents currently fill the extended area of the camp on Samos where families live for months on end in cold and rainy conditions. By Melissa Pawson. Samos, Greece: 2018. JPG file.

Tents currently fill the extended area of the camp on Samos where families live for months on end in cold and rainy conditions. By Melissa Pawson. Samos, Greece: 2018. JPG file.

Another last resort measure for desperate asylum seekers - that some consider and even fewer can afford - is to pay over €1,000 per person to be smuggled to the mainland (Christides and Stefatou, 2017). Yet this option holds far more dangers, risking imprisonment or loss of life; it is also far less accessible for women, or those with families.

The Greek island containment policy for asylum seekers comes from the EU-Turkey statement made on 18th March 2016. The statement is an agreement for the return of all irregular migrants to Turkey from Greece, and for asylum applications to, therefore, be processed on the islands (European Council, 2016). The vulnerability criteria which exempts those persons from border controls, includes ’victims of torture, rape or other serious forms of psychological, physical or sexual violence or exploitation; persons with a post-traumatic disorder’ (Law 4375/2016: Article 14). The two policies together, mean that only the vulnerable - in short, the “sick or pregnant” - can leave the islands before their asylum cases are examined, and be accommodated on the mainland, where conditions are generally better (Christides and Stefatou, 2017).

As a result of this policy, island camps have become severely overcrowded with people who cannot go back, and yet cannot continue forward, leading to a scarcity of resources and adequate medical and psychological support. A report published last year by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), described the situation on the islands as a “mental health emergency”, with three quarters of people on Lesvos, and 97% of people on Samos, testing positive for anxiety disorder, and high proportions of patients having suffered torture or sexual violence (MSF, 2017: 7). The report describes people self-harming, attempting suicide and suffering from extreme depression as a result of camp conditions and waiting times caused by the policy (MSF, 2017: 7). International media reported earlier this year that children as young as ten are self-harming and attempting suicide because of terrible conditions (Squires, 2018).

The policy is essentially forcing women into a trap, in which they must decide between either pregnancy, or an indefinite sentence for them and their families, in what is effectively an open air prison.

I was present when a seven-year-old boy told his mother in desperation, “I want to die”. The family of six were from Algeria, and had been living in a tent for five months. I worked with this particular child most days in his time on Samos: he and his younger sister often joined their mother at the women and children’s space I was running. While working with us, the boy would frequently swing from outbursts of violent rage to quiet terror, then to desperate crying: symptoms suggestive of post traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. And yet, the family were only transferred once the mother discovered she was pregnant. The lack of mental health services on the island meant that her son received no support and no assessment: although the family may have qualified for a transfer due to his mental health, it was only the mother’s very visible pregnancy that prompted the move.

Two young women paint each others' nails during the women's only Saturday session at Alpha Centre in Samos. By Melissa Pawson. Samos, Greece: 2018. JPG file.

Two young women paint each others' nails during the women's only Saturday session at Alpha Centre in Samos. By Melissa Pawson. Samos, Greece: 2018. JPG file.

One could argue that plenty of asylum seekers on the islands qualify for the ‘vulnerability criteria’ due to their adverse experiences: 95% of people surveyed by MSF on Samos had fled from war (MSF, 2017: 3). Yet people are not being moved, and are being forced to remain in squalid camp conditions while they wait out the lengthy asylum procedure. This is then, in turn, exacerbating their psychological wellbeing, termed by MSF as a “policy-made suffering” (MSF, 2017: 9). When the policy, and the implementation of that policy, is not working effectively, and is indeed increasing human suffering, people will be inclined to take measures into their own hands.

While on Samos, I worked alongside Majida Alaskary, who arrived in Greece over two years ago as a refugee, and now works seven days a week translating for the only two doctors in the camp. She regularly supports women going through pregnancy on Samos island. When I asked her recently for her point of view, she stated that this is often an issue of misinformation. “It is not about making decisions to get pregnant so [the women] can leave,” she told me, “the subject [is] about not telling them the legal truth about their right to protection.” Appropriate legal advice is hard to come by in many camps across Greece, and rumour and uncertainty are rife. A study by BMC Med, which surveyed 1,293 refugees across Greece this year, states that only 9% to 30.1% of asylum seekers reported having had access to legal information; this greatly affected their psychosocial wellbeing and “exacerbated anxiety”, as well as potentially impacting the crucial outcome of their asylum claim (Farhat et. al, 2018). Alaskary emphasised that the pressure felt by women on Samos is immense: “life in the camp is not suitable for any person. A woman with children has to sacrifice a lot of her physical and psychological health to ensure a better life for her family and children.

As a result of this policy, island camps have become severely overcrowded with people who cannot go back, and yet cannot continue forward, leading to a scarcity of resources and adequate medical and psychological support.

Due to poor conditions and lack of legal information, many women are therefore using pregnancy as an option when there are in fact other, safer channels, such as relocation, appropriate mental health assessments or family reunification to other European countries. An Oxfam report last year stated that many people are “falling through the cracks” of the Dublin Regulation, an EU family reunification policy, and that “insufficient training”, “lack of monitoring” and “narrow definitions of ‘family’” are exacerbating the problem (Nika, 2017: 2,3). I saw the effects of these arbitrary and inefficient decisions on Samos: children and adults continuing to be traumatised when they had technically arrived in a safe country. In line with UNICEF’s statement in September this year, I strongly recommend that all refugees and migrants on Greek islands be immediately transferred to the mainland; there must also be more resettlement pledges from other EU members, including priority for children and vulnerable people, and sped-up family reunification procedures (UNICEF, 2018).

Greek and EU policy is disproportionately affecting female asylum-seekers on Greece’s islands by essentially forcing them to choose freedom through pregnancy. This extreme decision is being made by women not because they are devious, or because they want to play the system: it is because they are desperate. Because they want to save themselves and their families. This is a direct consequence of the containment policy, and its inefficient, inhumane implementation. The women I met on Samos faced injustices every single day; despite this, they demonstrated incredible, unmovable strength. They made sacrifices beyond belief. They deserve better from Europe, and I join them in hoping that this is still possible.

*Names have been changed

I would like to acknowledge all of the remarkable women I met on Samos, who taught me that love, courage and friendship are within us all, and that I will find my sisters everywhere.


Melissa Pawson is a support worker and English Literature graduate from King’s College London; she has spent most of the last two years volunteering with NGOs supporting asylum seekers in Calais, Samos and London; follow her on twitter and on her blog. Follow her on Twitter : @melissa_pawson


Bibliography:

Aegean Islands Map, Google Maps. (2018). [Accessed 02 Dec. 18].

Ben Farhat J, Blanchet K, Juul Bjertrup P, et al. Syrian refugees in Greece: experience with violence, mental health status, and access to information during the journey and while in Greece. BMC Med. 16(1):40. [Accessed 13 Nov.18]

Christides, G. and Stefatou, O. (2017). The Greek island camp where only the sick or pregnant can leave. The Guardian. [Accessed 13 Nov. 2018]

Costa Riba, M. (2018). The voices of refugee women need to be heard. Amnesty International. [Accessed 19 Nov. 2018]

European Council (2018). EU-Turkey Statement. [Accessed 15 Nov. 2018]

Hellenic Republic Ministry of Citizen Protection, (2018). NATIONAL SITUATIONAL PICTURE REGARDING THE ISLANDS AT EASTERN AEGEAN SEA (08/11/2018). [Accessed 15 Nov. 18]

Law 4375. Article 14; 60. (2013). [Accessed 18 Nov. 18]

Médecins Sans Frontières (2017). Confronting the mental health emergency on Samos and Lesvos. [Accessed 19 Nov. 18]

Nika, A. (2018). Dear Family: How European migration policies are keeping families apart. Oxfam, pp.2, 3. [Accessed 19 Nov. 2018]

UNICEF (2018). Refugee and migrant children arriving on Greek Islands up by one-third in 2018. [Accessed 12 Dec. 2018]

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