The first time I visited the refugee camp on Samos island, I had a sense of what to expect, but never imagined how much it would impact me. Like many, my experience of life in a refugee camp was limited to the portrayal offered in news stories. However, speaking to these individuals face-to-face, hearing their experiences and witnessing the extreme conditions in which they were forced to live, was quite different. As I stood in the camp, taking in my surroundings, I remember thinking, this situation couldn’t get any worse. And then, the pandemic hit.
In 2019, the pro bono team at DLA Piper formed a secondment program with Avocats sans Frontières France (ASF France) to support their work on the Island of Samos. ASF France have run a legal centre on the island since 2019, supporting thousands of asylum seekers. Their centre is staffed by an incredible group of international jurists and Greek lawyers who have worked tirelessly to increase access to justice on the island.
Samos island is one of the most over-populated refugee camps in Europe. Currently, there are over 3,100 migrants living in a space initially intended for 648 people. Almost 20 per cent are female and living in situations that can best be described as degrading.
Prior to the pandemic, we sent two DLA Piper lawyers to Samos every fortnight. The lawyers, who worked at the Samos Legal Centre were paired with an ASF France volunteer to prepare and accompany clients to their asylum interviews. They also assisted ASF France with family reunification cases and legal workshops for LGBTQI beneficiaries and women. Since 2019, the Samos Legal Centre has supported more than 1,600 asylum seekers.
Many new arrivals to the camp are forced to build their “homes” on the side of a rocky hill in what is sometimes called “The Jungle.” This is where a number of our female beneficiaries, who were either pregnant or had young children were living. Here, it is common to see rats and scorpions. There are no sufficient toilets and many women live in bad tents or sometimes under a tarpaulin, along with other members of their family. The public toilets are about 800 metres away from where many women are living. It is therefore difficult, particularly while pregnant, to reach the toilet at night. And, in the event you have to do this, it is unsafe for women to walk alone. There have been a number of cases of sexual and other violence against women in the camp. During hot Samos summers it is also difficult for pregnant women to access water.
When COVID-19 began to spread, I remember thinking about Samos and feeling a knot in my stomach. Having been there and witnessed the situation, I was concerned about those living there. In particular, I thought of the women I’d met – the ones with newborn babies who, like most of us, just want the best for their children.
“Asylum seekers tend to have more health problems because their living conditions are so dire. The medical support is insufficient. There is only one camp doctor and the small hospital in Samos is already over capacity. Pregnant women live with the fear that they will have to deliver their baby in the camp without any medical assistance.” – Margaux Bia, Pro bono associate, DLA Piper
When a situation as unexpected as this pandemic occurs, there is an initial sense of hopelessness. We already knew how vulnerable so many women and children were. An initial lockdown occurred on the camp in March 2020. Following the discovery of Covid-19 in the camp in September, lockdown measures were extended. This impacted people’s ability to access services, and for new mothers, meant difficulties buying necessities. The lockdown is still ongoing.
As we were no longer able to travel to the camp, we began filing urgent interim measure applications that allow us to directly petition the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and bring their attention to cases where there is an imminent risk of irreparable harm. These interim measures are a last resort to try and use the European Human Rights framework to urge the Greek government to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable, including, pregnant women and those with new-born babies.
Given everything happening in the world it was a difficult process but, over time, we began to see positive results. We helped three young Syrian women who were heavily pregnant and living in “The Jungle”. They had no proper access to food or water. One of them was sleeping in a very small tent with her husband and brother-in-law. We drafted an urgent interim measure application. However, just after it was submitted, she gave birth. As such, she was living in inhumane conditions with a new-born child. There was no way to sterilise feeding equipment and no sufficient place to wash or change the baby.
Luckily, the urgent interim measure application was successful and the family were moved out of Samos to Athens where they were given more suitable accommodation and have access to healthcare. Currently, ASF France team members were able to be relocated on the island and have resumed their activities on the ground. Over the past few months, the Greek authorities have also transferred thousands of people from overcrowded camps on the Greek islands (including Samos) to the mainland. Many of those transferred are vulnerable individuals, including women.
This has been a difficult year for the global community. However, I have always been of the opinion that it is in times of difficulty and hardship that we must come together. As women, we should seek to empower one another. Through this work, I have been forced to think about the most basic rights that every woman should enjoy. The right to safety, the right to raise our children in an environment that is conducive to health. So many rights have not been afforded to the women living on Samos. While our work has helped people, I think it is important to recognise that human rights must be protected, not just in periods of turmoil and crisis, but even in more settled times. For the women in Samos, pandemic or no pandemic, they are living in a time of crisis. They should be as empowered as we are, to re-build their lives, raise their children and hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Olivia Clark and Margaux Bia are pro bono associates at international law firm DLA Piper. The firm recently signed a partnership with the Greek Council for Refugees to run a number of strategic cases before the ECtHR over the next 12 months. The firm will also continue working with ASF France in Samos as well as Fenix in Lesvos and the Greek Council for Refugees on the mainland.