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Drowning mothers

As refugees try to cross the Mediterranean Sea - women are more likely to drown.

Women protest against the living conditions at a camp in Athens, Greece, in February 2017. Panayotis Tzamaros/ABACAPRESS.COM/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Few images of the current refugee crisis were more horrific than that of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who lay dead on a Turkish beach in September 2015, a victim of drowning trying to reach Europe. But Aylan had a mother, and she drowned too. We have no photo of her, no story. We heard of Aylan and his distraught father. But the drowned mother was hardly newsworthy.

As late as June of 2015, men comprised nearly three-quarters of the world’s migration flow, according to UNICEF. This has been replaced by a major spike in the numbers of women and children across the Mediterranean and up through Europe.

More migration, unfortunately, has meant more deaths from people trying to cross borders. Although far more men than women undertake the perilous journey through the North African desert or across the Mediterranean in rubber rafts, it is the women who have a greater risk of dying along the way – most of them at sea.

For every five men who drown in the rubber rafts trying to cross the Mediterranean, six women also die.

Women’s increased risk of death is not only true for the Mediterranean journey. The same lethal pattern can be seen along other borders. A major quantitative study of “border-crossing deaths” by Sharon Pickering and Brandy Cochrane focuses on precisely “where, how and why women die crossing borders”. Using data from 2012, well before the current crisis, Pickering and Cochrane surveyed deaths among female migrants in three areas of the world: in the Mediterranean on the way to the EU, in the Mexican desert on the way to the United States, and in the South Pacific for migrants sailing from Indonesia toward Australia.

The most obvious risk for refugees crossing the seas to the EU or Australia is, of course, drowning. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 75% of all refugees and migrants who die trying to cross borders drown in the Mediterranean Sea. This route is now the deadliest in the world, and is even more deadly for women than for men. For every five men who drown in the rubber rafts trying to cross the Mediterranean, six women also die. And for the voyage between Indonesia and Australia the ratio is eight women for every five men. Women crossing the Pacific are 26% more likely to drown than men.

On the ships, women and children are often placed below deck by their male family members in order to protect them during the crossing. But this location can quickly become a trap, often with tragic consequences. Rescue teams coming to the aid of capsized ships often find women and children who have suffocated from toxic exhaust fumes or drowned by incoming waters. Women often have poorer swimming skills compared to men, and their attempts to save their children often also lead to their higher risk of drowning. When rescuers discover drowned women, they often find them with heavier clothing that pulled them under the water.

With increasing numbers of women fleeing violence, instability, and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, Pickering and Cochrane conclude that the number of women who die trying to cross legal borders will probably increase. Most in danger are those women (and men) who come from countries with limited or no possibility to obtain entry visas, who will be compelled to take the more dangerous sea or desert routes. More men, women and children will die.

The anonymous bodies

Why take a female perspective on the tragic deaths in the Mediterranean? Of course, the drowning of a small child like Aylan Kurdi is as tragic as the death of any woman or young man. But a gender perspective provides a window for showing the relationship between migrants’ deaths and restrictive border controls. Unlike those migrants who die in the desert on their way through Mexico and who can often be identified, the identities of the drowned refugees often remain unknown.

Yet drowning at sea leaves traces, and researchers focusing on “border-crossing deaths” go to great lengths to count the dead and collect information about the drowned persons’ lives and backgrounds. These efforts are important in order to tell a full story of how and why particular persons risked their lives. Research on border deaths, especially border deaths of women, is a way of avoiding the mere counting of drowned bodies. Instead of allowing the dead to slip anonymously out to sea, a more detailed picture of who dies and why helps confirm for us that many of these deaths could have been avoided.

Researching border-crossing deaths is hardly routine. It is research into tragedies that are predictable and unnecessary. These deaths are predictable because restrictive border controls do not stop refugees and migrants. Borders themselves do not eliminate the refugees’ need to migrate; they only force them to take routes that are riskier, deadlier. Denied entry at the border point, they will take the rubber raft across the sea, and capsize.

These deaths are predictable because restrictive border controls do not stop refugees and migrants.

We now have a wealth of information about border-crossing deaths from a variety of sources, including narratives from survivors, rescue crews and from migrant aid organisations. Pickering and Cochrane's study shows that while women refugees and migrants have an increased risk of dying at sea, in the desert, or at the geographical border-crossings, male refugees and migrants have an increased risk of dying after arrival – in detention, under arrest, or in connection with deportation.

The mothers and their children

When women die, it is often in an attempt to save the children whom they have brought with them. The more children, the more risk of death. Evidence shows that refugee families often travel with more than one child on the boats, and that these children are placed together with the women.

The women who take the perilous refugee journey across the Mediterranean or the Pacific, or through the North African or Mexican desert, are not only mothers, they may be pregnant as well. Among a group of Nigerian women whom I studied, most had trudged hundreds of miles through the North African desert to arrive at a port. Several of them had been pregnant during their journey, and many had assisted other women with birth. Most had seen both women and babies die during birth.

Recently, a woman who had just been rescued by the Italian coastguard gave birth on the deck of a rescue ship. Among women from Eritrea and Somalia who ended up in Malta, we have several reports showing a high incidence of pregnancy. At one Red Cross reception centre in Spain, Maja Lund Rasmussen, a researcher, found that 27 out of the 34 female residents were either pregnant or mothers with their own children. 'Monique' from Conakry in Guinea, was pregnant when she sailed from the Moroccan coast to the Spanish border town of Melilla. As she explained, "I travelled to Melilla by boat. It was not a big boat – just a little one (she shows that it is inflated with air, ed.). We were 19 on board. I didn’t want to go. I cried. I was afraid of the sea. You don’t want to go when you see the sea. So I prayed, ‘God, let me survive’. But many people died. Many. It’s very dangerous. It's very, very dangerous at sea. I had never crossed the sea before – it was the first time".

There is little doubt that restrictive border controls have caused women to make life-threatening decisions about when and how to give birth.

Critics of immigration often comment on pregnant migrants when calling for measures against “anchor babies”. These critics view women as using their pregnancy, arriving with babies in their arms in order to obtain legal residence or avoid deportation.

We need more systematic knowledge about the relationship between pregnancy and migration. However, there is little doubt that restrictive border controls have caused women to make life-threatening decisions about when and how to give birth. This is partly because the women may be spending months in a transit area in Libya, Morocco, or other embarkation points before undertaking their journey. This shows the degree of desperation when women must take the chance, setting out on a life-threatening journey at sea in the final weeks of their pregnancy.

Survivors from ships that have capsized when sailing between Indonesia and Australia tell of newborn babies they have seen floating in the water, right next to their drowned mothers. Medical experts say that a woman can go into labour as a response to a stressful event, such as a boat capsizing or trying to swim to shore. The Nigerian women whom I interviewed tell of women who give birth prematurely on the way through the Sahara. The babies tell their own story of the conditions for women who set out to see or through the desert, fleeing violence and poverty, in desperate search of a better life. This is why we need the full story of Aylan Kurdi’s mother.

About the author

Dr. Sine Plambech is a post-doc anthropologist at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and a former research fellow at Columbia University in New York. Her research interests include Nigerian sex workers in Europe and their deportation, as well as the sex work and marriage migration of Thai women. She combines her academic work with directing documentaries, most recently Becky’s Journey. This has so far resulted in four award winning documentaries on the topics of international migration, sex work and human trafficking. Follow her on Twitter @sineplambech.


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