Refugee children as young as seven years old have been sexually assaulted in official European refugee camps in Greece, an Observer report says.
Human rights groups and charities cite testimonies from certain camps according to which youngsters are too terrified to leave their tents at night.
In one state-run camp, a former Softex paper factory on the outskirts of Thessaloniki, volunteer organisations claim that many women are too afraid to visit the camp toilets alone at night.
One volunteer serving at the Softex camp alleged that some young girls had been groomed by male gangs, while an Iraqi family had to be moved to another facility after their daughter was attacked.
“The parents are still in disbelief over what happened. A man from one of the ‘mafia’ groups asked their seven-year-old daughter into their tent to play games on his phone and then zipped up the tent. She came back with marks on her arms and neck. Later the girl described how she was sexually abused. It has scarred a seven-year-old child for life,” the volunteer told the Observer.
He added that the girl’s family were so demoralised they were planning to abandon their dream of a new life in Europe and return to the country they had fled.
According to the report, Anita Dullard of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said there had been a rise in incidents of sexual violence in Greece’s refugee camps and that they had alerted the government and the United Nations.
Anna Chiara Nava of Médecins Sans Frontières in Thessaloniki confirmed that they had heard allegations of sexual violence to refugee children. Nava said they were in regular contact with at least 10 women from the Softex camp who had complained of sexual abuse and explained that many occupants, including children, were too afraid to report violent incidents.
“It’s really hard for the unaccompanied minors – 16 and 17-year-olds – to survive. It’s the survival of the fittest in there. In the evening and night it’s impossible to find them [children] because they are hiding in the tents. The women are afraid. They complain that during the night and evening they cannot go to the toilet alone. They have all heard of reports of others being attacked,” Nava said.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed it had expressed concerns to the Greek authorities. It said: “It is an issue when it comes to Softex and others. UNHCR has been raising concerns about this, specifically about this issue [sexual violence], saying that we don’t think it will be safe for women and for children. We’ve raised the issue of security again and again. This is a problem; it’s under discussion.”
Government spokesperson for the refugee crisis coordination committee, Giorgos Kyritsis, said: “Softex is the camp with the most cases of small criminal behaviour but there was not any case of rape reported to the camp’s staff.”
The Softex camp accommodates about 1,400 refugees, mostly Syrian (60%), of whom around 170 are thought to be children.