Over the past year, the escalating conflict in Syria and the European refugee crisis has brought the plight of refugees to the world’s attention. As thousands of refugees continue to flee war zones and persecution in search of safety in Europe, and the EU debates how to deal with the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, it's the voices of refugees themselves that have been absent. So for World Refugee Day we want their voices to be heard.
More than 250 people in the Greek refugee camps in Lesvos, Athens and Epirus told us about their experiences. Warning: many of their stories are harrowing and upsetting. But we think it’s important that the world hears them. Here’s what they have to say.
"We can’t go back"
“If we sent the girls to school the Taliban would beat them and carve in their leg with a knife. This is what they will do if you send your daughter to school.”
Golpari, 23, Afghan woman, Katsikas Camp, Epirus.
I want to tell Europe that if Turkey was a safe country, I wouldn’t have risked the lives of my wife and children and put them in the boat to cross the sea.
“During the journey... the ISIS men tried to rape me. When we got to Turkey, the Turks sent us back to the borders with Syria twice. They were shooting at us with their weapons. However, if you pay, you can get to Turkey again.”
Maria, 27, Syrian, Moria closed facility, Lesvos.
If we sent the girls to school the Taliban would beat them and carve in their leg with a knife.
“I never thought to come to Europe, but my daughter would have had to suffer circumcision [female genital mutilation] when she turned six years old. I couldn’t let this happen, so I took my children and left for Europe.”
Cecile, 42, Cameroonian fleeing from Mali, Kara Tepe Camp, Lesvos.
“I want to tell Europe that if Turkey was a safe country, I wouldn’t have risked the lives of my wife and children and put them in the boat to cross the sea.”
Mohammad, 43, Syrian man, Moria closed facility, Lesvos.
"Greece can’t cope and we have been forgotten"
“Life in the camp is very hard. One day is like a lifetime. We want to feel our humanity and to have our respect. We feel forgotten. We want the world to know what’s happening to people like us.”
Fatima, 47, Syrian, Kara Tepe Camp, Lesvos.
Does the rest of Europe even know that we are here? Do they know that we are more than 500 people in this camp living like this?
“We don’t know about the details of the EU-Turkey deal. The only thing we do know is that Europe sold us to Turkey. Turkey is making money off of us. Before coming here we thought that Europe would take care of us, but now we know that nobody cares.”
Jalal, 20, Afghan man, Kara Tepe Camp, Lesvos.
“We feel we have overstayed our welcome in a country that is struggling to support itself and its own people. The Greek people have their own problems."
Wahid, 37, Afghan male, Katsikas Camp, Epirus.
"Please help families get back together"
“[My husband] entered Leros island on 23 March and is not allowed to leave. No one has explained why to me. The Athens police said that I could go to my husband on Leros, but that then I wouldn’t be able to return to the mainland where my four children and mother-in-law are.”
Gazal, Sinjar province, Iraq, Katsikas Camp, Epirus.
I don’t know where my husband is, if he is in Syria still, if he is dead or alive.
“I have two children in Germany, and four of my own and two from another family member here with me. I don’t know where my husband is, if he is in Syria still, if he is dead or alive.”
Rweda, 37, Syrian, Tsepelovo Camp, Epirus.
My message to the European Union is please help families get back together. I miss my husband and the children miss their father.
“I have no passport, just a Syrian ID card. So this is causing me problems. I want us to be able to join my husband [in Germany] to be safe. My message to the European Union is please help families get back together. I miss my husband and the children miss their father."
A mother, 36, Syrian, Doliana Camp, Epirus.
"All we want is some information so we can have some hope"
Every day we are worried about the next. Will we still be here tomorrow? Will we be deported?
“I arrived in Chios before the EU-Turkey Agreement. When I was on the island, I registered for the relocation programme, but since then I have had no information. After the EU-Turkey agreement, they told us we had to leave the island and come to Athens. So we lost our appointments for the relocation programme and now we have to do everything from the beginning.”
Melik, 26, Syrian, Skaramagas Camp, Athens.
All we want is some information so we can have some hope. All of these difficulties we have gone through – they would be easier if we knew what was going to happen.
“Every day we are worried about the next. Will we still be here tomorrow? Will we be deported?”
Afghan man, Filippiada Camp, Epirus.
“All we want is some information so we can have some hope. All of these difficulties we have gone through – they would be easier if we knew what was going to happen. Even if they told us that we would be here for six more months it would be better than nothing. We have no information.”
Sakine, 30, Afghan, Katsikas Camp, Epirus.
"We don't feel safe here"
“I can’t sleep at night – I don’t feel safe. We [two women] live in a tent together and we take turns sleeping.”
Afghan woman, Katsikas Camp, Epirus.
A man tried to kidnap a little girl. The child started shouting and the kidnapper put her down and escaped.. it could happen again.
“I don’t feel safe [in the camp]. Once, a man tried to kidnap a little girl. The child started shouting and the kidnapper put her down and escaped. And of course it could happen again.”
Jalal, 20, Afghan, Kara Tepe Camp.
“A few weeks ago [a couple of men] were drinking a lot and [one of them] broke a bottle in half and stabbed a 15-year-old boy in his leg. We went to get the police but they wouldn’t come – they said that they don’t get involved in these things. Only when it got really out of control did they come over to help.”
Afghan man, Epirus.
"It's hard to find help"
“I’ve been trying to find vaccines for a week now. I go down, they send me up. I go up, they send me down. My daughter is two-and-a-half months old and she needs the vaccine.”
Ahmed, 38, Syrian man, Moria closed facility, Lesvos.
My husband passed away two days ago. He was diabetic. He had to take insulin. But here we couldn’t find any.
“My brother is six years old and has autism. It’s hard to find help for him. He screams at night and has gotten worse since we got here.”
Ariana, 19, Kurdish from Syria, Konitsa Camp, Epirus.
“My husband passed away two days ago. He was diabetic. He had to take insulin. But here we couldn’t find any. He suffered from kidney failure. The authorities got him to the hospital. But it was too late. I had to find €2,000 to send his dead body back to Kabul. I borrowed money from anyone I could, and now I have to give it back.”
Naime, 38, Afghan, Schisto Camp, Athens.
My brother is six years old and has autism. It’s hard to find help for him. He screams at night and has gotten worse since we got here.
“I was diagnosed with arachnoid cysts in my brain, which causes nausea and seizures. I left the camp and went to the hospital in Athens to receive treatment but I passed out in the metro, fell down, and injured my back. The doctor examined me and said that I should stay inside, rest, and live in an environment with no stress because the cyst may grow and cause neurological damage, but I cannot leave my children alone in the camp.”
Syrian woman, 44, Skaramagas Camp, Athens.
About ActionAid’s work with refugees
ActionAid has been working in response to the refugee crisis in Greece since 2015 – initially starting work on the island of Lesvos and most recently extending our work to camps on the Greek mainland. Our focus has changed from supporting refugees in transit to helping them live in dignity and safety in the new refugee camps.
ActionAid runs women’s friendly centres in the camps, helping to ensure women have a safer environment, are better able to know about their rights and are helped with some basic needs – including hygiene kits, wipes, soap and nappies. In these safe spaces mothers can breastfeed in private and, equally importantly, talk and grieve with women who share their experiences and receive support and help. Please help ActionAid to continue our work with refugees.
About Oxfam’s work with refugees
Oxfam is providing emergency assistance to people arriving in Italy, Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. Oxfam started its operations in Greece in October 2015, as the humanitarian situation for people arriving from Turkey rapidly worsened. Oxfam started operations working on its core competencies of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and Emergency Food Security. Oxfam is currently supporting 3,000 people across six locations across Greece: Kara Tepe on Lesvos, and in the northwest region of Epirus in Katsika, Doliana, Filippiada, Tsepelovo and Konitsa.
All the stories in this blog have been taken from a joint report by ActionAid and Oxfam. You can download the report here.
*Some names have been changed to protect identities. Photos by ActionAid and Oxfam.