How being an immigrant and a refugee becomes even more difficult a case, when you are a woman or an LGBTQI+ person in Greece, where xenophobia and racism still endure.
Human rights, equality, inclusion. What are words when they don’t reflect reality and they remain in the realm of the unreal? Do they live on as a social demand or they become instrumentalized in the art of communication and impressions, leaving people and communities in need in the margins?
According to the special Eurobarometer of 2018, on “Integration of immigrants in the European Union”, 38% of Greek citizens do not feel comfortable having an immigrant as a friend, while 55% to 56% of Europeans think that immigrants are a problem for the social welfare of their countries and that following their arrival, the crime rates go up. Behind those numbers, there are people and families who try to survive in another country. What is the reality?
A typical example is the case of 25 year-old R.B., who was born and raised in Athens, but has her roots in Morroco. For 22 whole years, almost her entire life, she was in a queue, waiting for the acquisition of Greek citizenship, while obliged to pay annualy quite a respectable amount of money for the renewal of her residence permit and other releases. The serious and needless time-consuming task of acquiring Greek citizenship is partly due to bureaucratic malfunctions and legislative gaps, but mainly due to the lack of political will, which creates a great deal of insecurity in people who want to work and pay their taxes to the Greek state. “I feel like the ground beneath me is more stable now”, R. notes. “I believe that school helps you to learn how to speak and communicate, so that you can defend yourself against people who harass you in the bus, for example. Language and education are important assets of inclusion for me.”
Anti-discrimination and inclusion policies, education, employment and language courses, as well as engagement in the political life are factors which often affect how much someone can be successfully integrated in a society. Failing to do so cultivates fertile ground for hate speech and xenophobic outbursts. In the education sector, Greece along with Slovenia have the lowest rates, as the participation rates of non-Europeans in higher education are 12.7% and 12.0%, respectively.
Sara El-Khalili, journalist and trainer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, came from Egypt to Greece in 2016. “Integration involves more than one party, the immigrants themselves, the government, civil society institutions, and the local communities. I believe there are serious state shortcomings and violations against refugees. Most recently the government evicted squats which were housing refugees and arrested many people. These buildings offered refugees a place to sleep in the center of the city and a better opportunity to be integrated, compared with the camps which are mostly in dire straits at the outskirts of inhabited areas and described by many as concentration camps. The new government also revoked the asylum seekers’ social security numbers, which is going to deprive thousands from access to public health and social security services. Dissolving the ministry of migration is another major setback against integration and inclusion. So much for inclusion!”, the journalist commented.
“It’s really disturbing to see how many countries including Greece are breaching the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with right-wing propaganda, labeling refugees and immigrants as illegal. They choose to turn a blind eye to the Articles 13 and 14 of the Declaration, refusing to see migration as a right and the fact that there’s no such thing as illegal migration. Poorly performing governments usually try to find someone to blame for their shortcomings, and the Greek government seems to find the 60,000 refugees who are currently in the country as their scapegoat, unfortunately. The issue extends beyond inclusion really. Refugees in Greece can’t find reliable information. And many women and children, are subject to exploitation with the absence of protection from sexual violence and trafficking.”
Refugee and immigrant women and members from the LGBTQI+ community face double discrimination, one based on ethnicity and the other based on gender and/or sexual identity. The integration policies do not take into account the gender-based discriminations and refugee women undoubtedly face the bigger risk of social isolation, violence and poverty.
In Europe, immigrant women enjoy 25% less employment opportunities in comparison with men (Eurostat, 2015). Their only recourse to employment are professions that have to do with child care, elderly care or cleaning, perpetuating the vicious cycle of isolation and deprivation of opportunities. There is a total lack of support to enable refugee women to attend language courses or other educational programs; and the responsibility of raising children rests exclusively with them, confining them to either low waged work with poor conditions or at home.
It is no coincidence that rarely do we see a refugee woman on the streets, whereas groups of refugee men take over the squares of Athens. Those women rely solely on men for translation and communication. Moreover, many femininities and children fall victims to exploitation, sexual violence and human trafficking.
Lawrence, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee and member of the LGBTQIA + Refugees Welcome initiative, arrived in Greece in October 2016. During his first two months in the camp, he had already been beaten nine times. “Every time, I went to shower in the evening, with freezing water, so that I’d avoid attacks. Sometimes I stayed locked up there for hours until everyone left and I would be able to get out safely. Every single day, they’d tear apart my clothes, after I had put them out to dry. Once, two Syrians were holding my arms, while an Iranian was kicking me — they punched me in the eye and they broke my back. I stayed in the hospital for a week, until they finally decided I was not safe in the camp.”
The deadlock surrounding immigration and refugee policies in Greece, especially for women and LGBTQI+ people, gives our fellow citizens an extremely hard time, in every sector of their lives. Organisations and collectives move in to support them, such as the Melissa Migrant Women Network, which offers education on various issues, such as women’s rights and reproductive health or the Emantes initiative, providing psychological and social support to LGBTQI+ refugees and immigrants, providing housing and nutrition, legal support and access to health services.
The Migratory Birds is a newspaper written by refugees who take on the role of journalists, the social fashion firm Soffa employs migrant-trafficking victims, GlobalGirl Media Greece gives girls a voice and the opportunity to create their own films, like the “Lemon Tree”. Last but not least, We Need Books aims to empower immigrants and refugees through the book to find their way into life.
What our society evidently needs is more interdisciplinary and inclusive practices.
“Femininities in Another Country: The Double Face of Discrimination” won the 1st prize in the ActionAid’s “Write for Inclusion” journalistic competition, on the topic of integration of refugees and immigrants into the social, economic, cultural and political life of Greece.
The report was first published in Greek on News247.gr in November 2019.