The struggle of refugee women across the sea

The struggle of refugee women across the sea
Feature: Women escaping war-torn countries to enter Europe for a better life are faced with many calamities, suffering the fate of all refugees along with gender-based violence, writes Marta Bellingreri.
7 min read
10 April, 2018
Stories of women struggling across sea borders are rarely heard [Getty]
Destinity wanted to cross the Italian-French border in the Alps in hopes of safely reaching France to seek asylum and better care. She was pregnant and sick. 

The French police found Destinity and her husband at the crossing, but they were pushed back and left in Bardonecchia, an Italian town in the city of Turin, well-known for skiing tourists. Heavily pregnant Destinity was abandoned in a snowy town near the Alps border during one of the coldest winters in Europe. She then spent a month at a hospital close to Turin where she gave birth to a baby weighing less than two pounds. The day after, Destinity died.

March 22, 2018 marked yet another tragic day for the European border regime. Destinity's story may be one of the latest, but it definitely is not the first of its kind. An insightful report, written by the members of the international collective Watch the Med Alarm Phone (WTM-AP), highlighted voices and stories of women from different nationalities and continents who have struggled across sea and borders.

The network counts activists and civil society actors from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea, including Morocco and Spain, Italy and Tunisia, Turkey and Greece, but also large groups from Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and the UK.

The Alarm Phone (AP) is an alarm number to support and monitor rescue operations at sea, offering people in distress the possibility to make their SOS more noticeable.
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"When 368 people, mainly from Eritrea, died in the largest shipwreck near the Lampedusa island in Italy on October 2, 2013, and when the week after another 260 people, all Syrians and Palestinians, were left to die at sea by both Italian and Maltese authorities, we asked ourselves how we – as a civil society in Europe and in Mediterranean countries – could act against death at sea," Maurice Stierl, member of AP tells The New Arab

"So, the year after, in October 2014, we started our Alarm Phone work to make sure coastguards and other competent and responsible authorities would intervene to rescue migrants in distress," Maurice adds. 

Over the past three and a half years, Alarm Phone has engaged in over 1,950 distress situations at Europe’s gates in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, the Central Mediterranean between Libya and Italy and the Western Mediterranean between Morocco and Spain.

In dealing with all these cases, AP members became increasingly aware of the struggles of women, who are often absent in the dominant media portrayal of the "refugee crisis," or just simply portrayed as subordinate, exploited or passive victims who depend on male companions.  

The report seeks to challenge the mainstream narrative and hegemonic imagination where the migrant is usually "a young, able-body, male." Instead it listens directly to women's voices as stories of their struggles across sea borders are rarely heard. Alarm Phone says it wants to be inspired by these female's disobedient movements, strengths and resistance.

Alarm Phone says it wants to listen to women’s voices and stories, and be inspired by their disobedient movements, their strength and their resistance

The long summer of migration

Safinaz crossed the Aegean Sea in 2015, in what is known as "the long summer of migration," where one million refugees – a large number escaping the Syrian war – arrived in Europe.

During this time, Alarm Phone witnessed "a feminisation of migration,” where they found that a large number of women had crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, sometimes with their families, sometimes alone with male and female friends.

Safinaz got in contact with Alarm Phone after embarking on a rubber boat to Europe. In most cases, these rubber boats are of poor quality and usually overloaded increasing the danger and risk of death at sea. Alarm Phone followed Safinaz's journey through the Balkan Route, until she reached Germany where she could meet some of AP’s members.

There have also been some incredible stories that have come to light from these very dangerous borders, such as Syrian Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, who jumped into the sea and swam for three hours in open water to stop the dinghy from capsizing, eventually reaching Lesbos in Greece. Another woman from Syria, Rania Mustafa Ali filmed her entire journey from Kobane to Austria, passing through the violence and repression of Balkan Route’s border police which delayed their safe arrival to Europe for months. 

As women continue to cross the Aegean Sea, sometimes becoming stranded or stuck on Greek islands, often in migrant centres like the Moira camp on Lesvos, the perilous journey in the Central Mediterranean route makes female stories even more complicated.

A woman holds a child as refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos while crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on March 2, 2016 [Getty]
When women cross the sea, they often have different experiences than men and are exposed to greater danger, due to a range of factors

The Alarm Phone’s report describes conditions in the rubber boats in detail.

"When women cross the sea, they often have different experiences than men and are exposed to greater danger, due to a range of factors," the report explains.

"In the Central Mediterranean, they are often seated in the middle of rubber boats, intended to keep them as far as possible from the water and thereby 'safe’. However, it is in the middle of the boats where sea water and fuel gather the most, creating a toxic mixture that burns their skin and often causes grave injuries. There they are also most at risk of being trampled and suffocated when panic breaks out on board.”

In the wooden boats, the situation for women is not any better. "In some of the larger wooden boats, women often sit in the vessel’s hold, where suffocation due to the accumulation of dangerous fumes occurs more quickly, and where in situations of capsizing, escaping is more difficult," the report says. 

Even clothing can make a difference and often women are left at a disadvantage. "Many women wear longer and heavier clothes than men, making it more difficult to stay above water when they have fallen into the sea, and it has been reported that women leaving from Libya have often insufficient swimming skills. Some women are pregnant, which increases the risk of dehydration, or they hold the responsibility to care for young children that travel with them," Alarm Phone's report said.

From human trafficking to sex slave markets

The Crying Eye by Viviane shows people crying for help,
while the tears represent waves that have
washed corpses ashore [Watch Med Alarm Phone]

The sea journey from Libya to Italy means having to travel through different African countries, so prior to reaching the sea journey, women have already witnessed all kinds of violence and torture. This was highly evident in Libya where it was found many were becoming victims to human trafficking or destined to sex slave markets in Europe or elsewhere.

Viviane is from the Ivory Coast, but now lives in the Tunisian capital city of Tunis. She escaped her traffickers in the South of Tunisia where she was enslaved for months in a house. Many women have their passports taken away and are forced to work in wealthy houses where they are often sexually abused. Their wages were often withheld and as ‘illegals’ in Tunis they can rarely fight openly for their rights.

"It’s not easy to tell my story, but I have to,” Viviane tells The New Arab. "I managed to escape my boss – both employer and exploiter, I denounced them and have now put them under trial," she says.

Viviane says she has been threatened and does not feel very safe in Tunisia, but rather than living in fear she chose to transform her violent experience into an opportunity to help other women. She is trained in public health and now supports other women who have had similar experiences, giving advice and care.

Viviane also turned her experience into artwork which depicted the struggles and suffering she encountered during and after her perilous sea journey. 

So far this year, women have constituted as 22 percent of those crossing the Aegean Sea, 11 percent in the Central Mediterranean, and eight percent in the Western Mediterranean, Alarm Phone's Maurice tells The New Arab.

"But numbers are not the reason why we decided to write this report," Maurice explains. "It’s more to underline the gendered dimension of migration, even at sea, and to visualise stories of women that demonstrate their tenacity and struggle, even in really adverse conditions."

Marta Bellingreri is a freelance researcher and writer, with a PhD focused on gender studies in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @MartaDafne