The Struggle of Women across the Sea (vom 25.03.2018),
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[25. Mar 2018]

The Struggle of Women across the Sea

In April 2017, Sylvie and Joelle wanted to cross the sea to escape their predicament and start a new life in Europe. They did not know one another until they boarded the small rubber boat in Turkey, together with twenty-two others, including two children.

Sylvie was anxious and entered last, handing over her red bag to Joelle who promised to return it after their safe arrival. They departed, but at some point, somewhere in the Aegean Sea, they ran out of fuel and could not continue.[1] Sylvie tried to call for help, but her phone was caught by a large wave. Lost at sea, Joelle, who was in the 8th month pregnant, started to cry and pray for help, but nobody came. The boat capsized, and everybody fell into the water, drifting away from each other. Sylvie and Joelle were separated but Joelle did not give up: “I had a strong feeling of power in me. I don’t even know where this came from, where we fell in the sea there was nothing, no boats, no fishermen, no police, no one.” She was able to stay together with two others, Guilaine and Teddy. They floated in the water throughout the night, trying to stay conscious and together. But at some point, a wave parted them, and Joelle was all alone. Hours later, she suddenly saw a boat approaching. She was taken aboard of the rescue vessel of the NGO Proactiva and brought to land.

When they lost each other, Sylvie was able to stay together with three others, holding hands, talking, giving each other hope and trying to stay awake. But after a while they also lost one another, and when Sylvie was finally discovered, she could not see anymore: “The sea salt had burned my eyes. I was blind.” She was brought to Joelle and together they went to the hospital. Joelle asked: “Where are the others? Let’s hope they bring them even if they are not alive. But no one could join us. The same evening I saw an assistant and a psychologist and I asked them: ‘Where are my brothers and sisters?’” Eventually, they were informed that only the two of them had survived. Two out of a group of twenty-two. Joelle still had the red bag with her and returned it to Sylvie: “I thought maybe she has her money inside, I can’t abandon the bag.” Joelle said that without the SAR NGO, they would not have survived. She gave birth a few weeks later to a healthy girl: “She is my joy and my power, I believe I would have died if she was not in me. God really pitied me. It’s really a miracle. I call her Victoria-Miracle.”

Stories of women struggling across sea borders are rarely heard. When we do hear them, women are often simply portrayed as subordinate, exploited, and passive victims who depend on male companions, and who lack individual migration projects and political agency. The erasure of their agency and voices is also the effect of hegemonic narratives of migration to Europe, in which ‘the migrant’ is routinely imagined as young, able-bodied, and male, more an abstract figure than a human being, commonly constructed as a dangerous subject against whom border enforcement and deterrence policies are legitimised. Knowing well that the personal is political, and the political is personal, we want to listen to women’s voices and stories, and be inspired by their disobedient movements, their strength, their resistance. This report is published shortly after the International Women’s Day, on which women led demonstrations all over the world, including in Spain where the first nationwide ‘feminist strike’ took place against sexual discrimination, domestic violence and the wage gap, or in Turkey where the crowd of protestors shouted: “We won’t shut up, we are not afraid, we won’t obey”.[2]

The European border regime is also a gendered regime. It creates hierarchies of mobility, making it impossible for many women to leave their places of predicament in the first place. If they are able to leave, they make particularly gendered experiences, and unfortunately, many are exposed to systemic forms of gender-based violence. The increasing securitisation of borders and the criminalisation of migration are the main factors contributing to ever-more risky journeys, and the need to find professional help in overcoming border obstacles. Given the ever-lengthier and costlier journeys, exploitative situations are common, and ‘consensual’ movement can quickly turn into ‘non-consensual’, or forced, movement. At the same time, the dominant binary understanding of ‘voluntary’ or ‘forced’ migration, even inscribed in international refugee conventions, cannot do justice to the complexity of migrant experiences and journeys, and certainly not to their gendered dimension.

When women cross the sea, they often have different experiences than men and are exposed to greater danger, due to a range of factors. Proportionally, more women than men drown when trying to cross a body of water. 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 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. 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. And, of course, they are also exposed to patriarchal forms of violence, during their entire journeys, including on the boats.

In the first weeks of 2018, up until mid-March, women composed about 13 percent of travellers through the Mediterranean Sea. In the Aegean Sea, we see the most diverse composition of groups in terms of gender, with women making up 22 percent of those crossing into Greece (but also in terms of age, with children making up 37 percent here). In the Central Mediterranean, the number is about half that, women making up about 11 percent (around 15 percent children). In the Western Mediterranean, we have the lowest number of women crossing, with about 8 percent women (12.6 percent children).[3] While the Harraga border crossers from Tunisia are still predominantly male, we have seen more young women take to the boats over the second half of 2017 than ever before. Given the lack of data, we cannot say how many of the 458 deaths at sea this year were women.

Throughout their entire migratory trajectories, women are affected disproportionately by violence. Especially the women we have spoken to and who have fled from Libya tell of unimaginable suffering prior to their departure. The NGO SOS MEDITERRANEE has rescued more than 4,000 women onto their rescue vessel over two years, and they report that the number of pregnant women has doubled in their second year of operation, to 10,6% in 2017.[4] Many carry children that have resulted from rape.[5] Given these atrocities that women are subjected to, their portrayal as victims may seem unsurprising. And yet, what tends to fall out of sight through the constant repetition of such narrative are the moments of survival, political agency, and resistance that demonstrate migrant women’s tenacity and the ways in which they transform themselves, others, and the spaces they pass through on their journeys.

In our work, we have encountered countless women who have led the struggle against borders, containment, deterrence, and the separation of families and communities. During the ‘long summer of migration’, the gender composition of travellers changed – we witnessed the feminisation of migration. The reasons for the change in composition at the time were manifold, but some of the main reasons were certainly the continuously devastating situation in Syria and the escalation of conflicts in Iraq. Many simply could not remain any longer in warzones and had to leave, often to follow the men who had left months, or years before, hoping to bring their families over, once they had survived their dangerous journeys. For many, the hope to use legal routes to travel safely to Europe – either alone or with other family members – vanished when EU member states created even more restrictions on family reunification schemes, and more and more of the few legal pathways were closed down. Moreover, for those living in exile in neighbouring countries of conflict-ridden places such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the living conditions deteriorated over time, and with more and more people crossing over into Europe in 2015, they also took their chances. While before there had been boats in the Aegean Sea exclusively with male travellers on board, suddenly, there were boats where men were in the minority, and women as well as children in the majority.

Safinaz was one of them. She called us from the sea in September 2015 and stayed in touch after she had survived the crossing into Greece, so that we could follow her movements throughout Europe, via the Balkan Route, and eventually into Germany, where we met her in 2017.[6]

She was part of the migratory movements of 2015 that would lead to a historic, if temporary, collapse of the EU border regime. Those survivors of sea crossings marched on through the Balkans and there we saw women in the front rows, not only due to the tactical rationale that security forces may feel greater restraint to use violence against them, but also simply because they were strong and courageous, and willing to face-off European borderguards who stood in their paths.

It is time to listen to the voices and stories of migrant women, who are always underrepresented and overlooked. We continue to voice our solidarity with them, with those unable to escape, those on the move, and those who, after arrival, still face extreme forms of violence, such as the over 100 women at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre in the UK who have gone on hunger-strike, calling for dignified treatment and the end of detention.[7]


[1] Great thanks to Alarm Phone member Marily for supporting Sylvie and Joelle, for writing down their stories, and showing them at an exhibition in Hamburg. She gave us the permission to re-print the images. You can find the full story here :: We also want to mention that it was due to the solidarity of volunteers and activists that Sylvie, Joelle and Victoria found support after surviving their horrible journey – thanks to Refugee Rescue Mo Chara, Sea-Watch and Noborder kitchen!

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[6] ::, 12. Mar 2017

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Source: Alarm Phone 6 Week Report, 5 February – 18 March 2018, published first on 22. Mar 2018 in ::