Esther’s 10-month-old son Prince is sleeping on her bed in the small, quiet room they share with another Nigerian at a center for refugee women in the outskirts of Syracuse, Italy.
Next to the bed is a photo of Prince, a few minutes old, swaddled in white towels in the arms of an Italian nurse. Another photo shows him neatly dressed, months later, now sitting on his nursing table. A drawing below the photo shows three hearts forming a circle around the city’s name.
Esther was nine months pregnant when she set out into the Mediterranean in a ramshackle boat from the Libyan port of Zuwara and was ultimately rescued by a charity ship and taken to Sicily.
Esther is not the only one at the center with a tiny baby. The number of undocumented women arriving by boat in Southern Europe has increased significantly over the past five years, with many of them subsequently making their way to Northern Europe. Some arrive in Europe pregnant or having delivered on board the search and rescue boats. Others become pregnant shortly after arriving or women arrive carrying newborns.
While accurate data is hard to come by, one study in Sicily in 2014 suggested as many as 11 percent of women migrants arrive pregnant.
We talk about the deaths at sea – the drownings, the search and rescue. We also talk about the violence that occurs in Libya, the politics, Sahel strategies, Libyan deals, Turkey deals. But the specific births and reproductive challenges for women during the migration process are often overlooked.
While on fieldwork this summer in Sicily I saw how the drama of high seas rescue missions and the disembarkation ritual are popularly observed by the border police, journalists, volunteers, visiting politicians, activists and researchers like myself. They all take part in the most visible and dramatic aspects of migration politics, ones that often overwhelm the quieter yet crucial politics and experiences of births and burials along the way.
As an anthropologist working among undocumented female migrants for several years, many of them sex workers and some victims of human trafficking, I have met pregnant women, those seeking abortions and those who miscarried or helped fellow travelers deliver during the journey or upon arrival in Italy. Undocumented and scared of deportation, many women did not dare ask for professional medical assistance.
I first met Becky five years ago during fieldwork in Southern Nigeria. In 2016 she died, six months pregnant, during her third attempt to reach Italy. Her baby died inside the womb and she died because the doctor in a Nigerian clinic en route couldn’t get the baby out. A few years prior to her death, Becky had assisted her friend Maureen during her delivery in the Sahara Desert, just south of the Libyan border. Maureen died as her placenta was not delivered; the baby lived.
Becky explained how she suddenly became “the doctor” that day, even though all she knew about deliveries was what she had seen in films. She traveled with the now motherless baby for three months before she could return the baby to its grandmother, Maureen’s mother, back in Benin City.
Women arriving pregnant or with newborns are frequently the subject of anti-immigrant discussions that use terms like “anchor babies.” The idea is that migrant women time their pregnancy deliberately to exploit the humanitarian protection systems established for children to prolong their stay in Europe. The reality is more complex than this suggests.
We need to understand the interlinkage between reproduction and the routes and trajectories of women migrants as they make their way from Nigeria to Europe. Migrant women’s journeys toward Europe are interlinked with and shaped by their intimate relationships with the fathers of their children – boyfriends, husbands, fellow migrants; and, in particular, by the sexual violence along the way.
The “anchor baby” argument is further undermined by the fact that women who become pregnant after sexual abuse en route do ask for abortions. The Lancet reported on a study with a group in Milan in which seven out of the eight women, pregnant as a result of sexual violence en route, asked for an abortion.
Waiting in Agadez in Niger is not only suffering, it is also a time of hope and new encounters. With so many young people on their way to Europe, people meet and partner up with others along the way. Despite difficult circumstances some fall in love, foster hopes to make it to Europe together and make a life once there.
Esther was one of them. She became pregnant on her way to Europe with a Nigerian man, Prince’s father. He made it across the Mediterranean on a different boat than she did and is now at a refugee center in northern Italy while she is in Sicily. They have not seen each other since the crossing and his only contact with Prince has come via video calls.
While the women would often say they did not want to have sex en route or in Agadez because there was no privacy or nothing but a sand floor, they would feel pressured to to do so with the men they sought protection from. In the Sahara women seek the protection of men to stay safe. Having no access to birth control they would describe how during long periods waiting in Agadez or in Libya they would pull out material from mattresses and stick it inside their vaginas to try to guard against pregnancies.
The argument that women are arriving pregnant and using anchor babies overlooks how difficult it can be to reach Europe without getting pregnant, with no access to birth control or abortion, while seeking protection via sex from men.
Studying births and pregnancies provides a window for showing the specific challenges for migrant women in transit. It reveals the relationship between gender, pregnancy and migration politics and hopefully opens the discussion toward a gender-sensitive understanding of migrant journeys. From other studies, we know, for instance, that women migrants are more likely to die en route.
Furthermore, despite wanting to return rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, Europe is struggling to do so. Migrants disappear to live under the radar and avoid deportation or refuse to go home. For many migrant mothers, the question of return is existential. It is not only about reluctance to return to unemployment and insecurity, it is also about going through all this suffering, the pain and life-changing events without getting anything but a return ticket at the end. As Becky said while sitting on a migrant truck taking her through the Sahara desert: “Dear God don’t let me suffer all this in vain.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.