12 MARCH 2018

The challenges faced by refugees and displaced people are complex and often interlinked. They arise, in different forms, at each stage of the journey: from clandestine border crossings to perilous oceans, to underfunded and overcrowded refugee camps or insecure urban accommodation. For refugee women, these risks are heightened by their gender.

The abuse faced by displaced women is well documented, and international organisations have long recognized the need for gender-sensitive responses. Yet in practice, women often lack the basic protection and care that they need – let alone the spaces, or resources, that restore their dignity and sense of self. As a result, grassroots and local initiatives have sought to create spaces where women can enjoy some respite from the stresses of their daily lives, and access the support that they need. At the forefront of these grassroots groups are ordinary women, doing extraordinary things in support of their sisters.

Risks faced by refugee women

Many of the risks faced by women in camps, both in Europe and elsewhere, stem from the space itself. Insecure shelters, a lack of safe spaces for vulnerable groups, and inadequate access to judicial protection create interlocking risks and, often, a climate of impunity. Single women, or women-headed families, are particularly vulnerable – and they are often forced to rely on their male counterparts for protection, placing them at further risk of exploitation.

The risk of sexual and gender-based violence is often exacerbated by poor infrastructure and inadequate camp facilities. Incidences of sexual violence, poorly lit hygiene facilities, and weak locks have often resulted in women feeling too afraid to use the washrooms after dark. The impact of such insecurity on women’s health, as well as their ability to participate in day-to-day activities, is devastating.

The Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre, Calais

In the so-called “Jungle” in Northern France, an unofficial camp that was home to over 10, 000 refugees and migrants, provisions for women were sorely lacking. Liz Clegg, a former firefighter from the UK, drove to Calais in the summer of 2015 – and stayed until the camp was evicted. During that time, she established the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre: a safe space where women and children, many of whom were unaccompanied, could have some respite from the challenges of camp life. There were Beauty Days, where women could do their hair and nails; film screenings and activities for the children; language classes and informal education sessions. For the women, there was nowhere else in camp like it: it helped to provide women with a sense of solidarity and community, within an abnormal environment.

The work of Liz, her daughter Inca, and the team of volunteers at the Women and Children’s Centre extended far beyond the provision of a safe space or the distributions of clothes and nappies. As trusted figures in the camp, they became the first port of call for women who needed urgent help after devastating events. They drove victims of sexual violence and abuse to the hospital; they waited outside the police station for survivors who were interrogated, on one occasion for five hours, by only male officers and translators. They drove women to the hospital (including those in later stages of miscarriage) when ambulances refused to enter the camp. They stepped up, and supported some of the most vulnerable groups in camp, when major agencies and governments failed them.

What’s more, they continue to do so. Over a year since the demolition of the camp, Liz and Inca have opened the Meena Centre in Birmingham (meena is the Pashto word for love). They continue to support refugee women and children struggling with the UK’s ‘hostile environment,’ helping them to navigate the asylum process, access mental health support, and assisting those made destitute by the Home Office’s policies.

The Irida Centre, Thessaloniki

Liz, Inca and the women who were in Calais are extraordinary – but they are not alone. In Northern Greece, the Irida women’s centre has just opened, under the direction of Chloe Kousoula, Lamya Karkour and the Intervolve team. The centre was first located in the notorious Softex camp, and provided a safe space in a highly insecure and exploitative environment. Following the camp’s closure, many of the residents were relocated to urban accommodation in the city of Thessaloniki – and so too was the centre.

While a certain improvement on the conditions in Softex, Lamya said that many of the women “are now struggling to access the services they need, and receive insufficient support to look after themselves and their families. Social isolation and boredom are a huge problem... some women said that they rarely leave their apartments because they have nowhere to go, feel unsafe and struggle to navigate the city.”

The women’s centre in Thessaloniki provides a range of activities – from informal education to budgeting classes, sewing spaces to childcare – to support women’s inclusion in Greek society. Not only did/do these centres provide vital community spaces, they also ensure that women are empowered and supported as they look towards the future.

Help Refugees, Europe and the Middle East

The Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre, the Meena Centre, and the Irida Centre all have much in common. They work towards the same goals; they are run by teams of incredible women; and they serve a population that continues to show remarkable resilience and courage. What’s more, each one is supported by Help Refugees – a grassroots organization set up by a group of friends in 2015.

The women who established Help Refugees, including co-founder and current CEO Josie Naughton, had no prior experience in humanitarian work or charity management. Yet their dedication, commitment and hard work – alongside that of thousands of volunteers who have worked with them – has seen the group grow, in just two years, from a hashtag to an internationally-respected organization.

In that time, the work of our implementing partners – including the women’s centres profiled here – has improved the lives of over 160, 000 women (out of a total 722,000 beneficiaries). What’s more, all of it has been funded by ordinary people determined to make a difference.

In the face of immense difficulty, the resilience and courage of both displaced women and those who support them is a constant source of inspiration. The challenges faced are great, but the strength and resilience of these women is firm. Until the rights and dignity of women on the move are protected, Help Refugees – and all of our partners – will continue to advocate for and support them.


Help Refugees supports over 80 projects in women’s centres in Greece, Lebanon, Syria, and the UK. This article was prepared in collaboration with Lamya Karkour and the whole team at Intervolve, who managed the women’s centre in Softex and now run the Irida Women’s Centre (Thessaloniki, Greece), and Inca Sorrell from the Meena Centre (Birmingham, UK). To help us help them, please donate here.