The refugee crisis and the representation of women in the media-Greece

Speech of Sissy Vovou in the Mediterranean meeting

of Journalists with a gender point of view – Barcelona, 16-4-2016

Greece is in the middle of the refugee crisis that broke out massively in 2015, despite the fact that the issue of refugees and/or migrants was present for decades and escalating.
In 2015 alone, there was a movement of one million people, from Turkey and North Africa towards Europe, mainly by sea, about 850.000 of them came to the Greek islands from Turkey, and the rest went to Italy.
About 65% men (mainly young) was the gender composition  until October of 2015, while as from then and gradually, more than 50% were women (some in pregnancy) and children, many of those children accompanied by mothers mainly. There has been, also, a large number of unaccompanied minors, mainly boys in the ages of 12-17.
Concerning women and unaccompanied minors it was stressed by the UNHCR spokeswoman, ms. Melissa Fleming, in October 2015, that they are in danger of sexual violence, and other discrimination, and that responsible organisations and authorities should take appropriate measures to protect them.
Our feminist collective supports the principle of open borders and of granting asylym to all those people coming from mainly was zones. It has a dynamic website, called, which is in four languages, mainly in Greek, second in English, third in French and fourth in Spanish. Thus, our contribution to underlining such problems and to informing the public, has been constant. The media more generally, concerning the women, stress on the one hand the humanitarian duty to support women and children, which is of course very positive, but on the other hand some poisonous and islamophobic media stress that women coming from islamic countries are more oppressed, and men are more violent and if they come to Europe they will be a danger for gender equality and for safety for European women.
There has been a huge wave of solidarity to the refugees in Greece during the last and the current year, coming from citizens, since the presence of the state was very weak in the beginning of the massive phenomenon and at times totally absent. Since the beginning of 2016, the state undertook some of its obligations, usually accompanied by authoritarian behaviour towards refugees and solidarity organisations.
After the signature of the agreement between EU and Turkey on the 18th of March, things have changed dramatically. The agreement’s essence is deterrence of refugees or migrants coming to Greece and Erope, and it has a provision that all those coming to Greece illegally will be turned back, refugees or migrants, but on the other hand, for every Syrian refugee “returned” (deported in fact) to Turkey, another Syrian refugee awaiting transport to Europe and asylum will get this right, thus, the power of the traffickers will be minimised, according to the official European thought that made the base for this agreement. This agreement is totally illegal, also, in relation to the Geneva convention, as many international organisations have claimed, including the UNHCR.
On this basis there is already mass deportation of migrants mainly, from the islands back to Turkey, people of course revolt, and many solidarity activists supporting them, or more accurately supporting the principle of welcoming the refugees and of open borders are under the threat or repression by the state and the aggression of the fascists, who re-emerged in the last few days massively and violently. Of course there will be revolts by the imprisoned immigrants, and the future is very bleak.
Apart from the above information, which is to a large extend known, we have to evaluate ideological elements that developed or come to the surface in the course of this development which included large masses of migrants/refugees.
The larger part of understanding and of solidarity with the refugees, come from the fact that many women, especially as from last September, started coming to Europe via Greece, accompanying children or having the responsibility for their children. Many of them pregnant, too. Also many women gave birth in terrible conditions, in tents, without medical assistance. This caused sympathy and understanding for the people escaping war with their families. Thus, the women were those who caused the strongest sentiments of solidarity, but for the reason that they are mothers and accompanying children. There was not any discussion about the autonomous right of women for asylum or for movement out of their countries, and this differs very much with the attitude about men, who are considered citizens moving away from war. In the framework of this mentality, the idea of the family was very much underlined, the family of course being mainly the responsibility of women.
The other element which has been stressed at times, is the violence against women-refugees from their own people, as was underlined very often by different media, which took the opportunity to depict the picture of a refugee-rapist rather than express concern about safety of the women refugees from  gender violence.
One could think that family and children and the responsibility of women about their children in a patriarchal society where they come from is a natural way of analysing and presenting reality, but in fact they overemphasise this side of people’s and women’s relations thus losing the picture of the autonomous right of women. In the middle of this crisis that involves both refugees and local people in different ways, the idea of the family is strengthened in both sides, which is not in favour of women and of women’s rights, if we don’t forget the feminist analysis that the family is the first and basic nucleus of society where hierarchy, oppression, and discrimination are established.
The above elements concerning women and women’s roles in the eyes of receiving societies, are accompanied by arguments that women in those societies are in an inferior social situation and under stronger patriarchy, thus the large populations of refugees that come to Europe will undermine the rights won by local and European women. Such arguments occupy a certain position in the more global ideological concern about the influence of refugees in our societies. Not all of them are racist, they often simply show concern in a landcape where our societies are changing due to the results of wars and their products and therefore impose a change in the way of thinking and of living. In many other cases they are the conscious instrumentalisation of existing differences of the people who are going to live together for unknown time, in order to promote or even to create racist or xhenophobic attitudes.
Feminists are influenced of course by the more general climate and their own political preferences, thus we cannot all agree on the idea of an open society.
I want to close this paper by underlining the strength displayed by many women activists on the field of solidarity, but also the fact that this massive phenomenon mobilised and motivated many women to enter dynamically and creatively in the public space.
Member of the editorial board of
(TO MOV means the purple colour)

Melissa Fleming

UNHCR concerned at reports of sexual violence against refugee women and children

My report in September 2015, for the refugees in the island of Lesvos-Molyvos

The generous solidarity to the refugees, in Molyvos

Sissy Vovou (in the middle with white shirt). Foto Lídia Vilalta