“Breaking Borders, Bearing Burdens: The Silent Struggles of Migrant Women on the move”

Foto door Joel Muniz via unsplash
Foto door Joel Muniz via unsplash

“Women are active and positive change agents—when given the proper resources—and are capable of improving their lives and the lives of their children, families and communities.” (The UN Refugee Agency)

According to UNHCR, of the 100 million displaced people worldwide, more than half are women and girls, who bear a disproportionate burden of the challenges associated with migration. Women are at high risk of exploitation, sexual and gender-based violence and trafficking, both during the migration journey and once they reach their destination. Women with children face additional barriers as their care responsibilities affect their ability to secure employment in host countries. In addition, a significant proportion of preventable maternal deaths, around 60 per cent, occur in humanitarian settings such as refugee camps due to the lack of adequate health care for migrant women.

The insecurity experienced by women continues after their arrival in host countries, as the process of applying for asylum and obtaining legally protected refugee status proves to be a difficult task, with governments often reluctant to grant asylum. As a result, a significant number of people remain asylum-seekers for years, living in refugee camps without legal permission to seek work or housing. Even after being granted refugee status, migrants face the challenge of adjusting to life in a new country. Language barriers can make it difficult to understand the immigration and education systems, especially for those with children. In addition, refugees without a stable source of income face difficulties in accessing basic needs such as affordable housing.

The challenges faced by migrant women persist even upon their return to their country of origin, as highlighted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). According to a study conducted by the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance at the University of Maastricht, refugee women encounter more obstacles than men in the process of reintegrating-  both under an economical and psychological perspective- into the communities they left behind.

The migration journey is all the more burdensome for being a woman, which already  is a tough challenge. In this article, we do want to focus on the journey itself from a female perspective and this idea comes from both an academic background and the personal experiences of the authors. 

Having volunteered with two NGOs supporting individuals on the move in 2021 and 2022, particularly in Greece (Samos) and France (Grande Synthe) I,Beatrice,  witnessed firsthand the adversities faced by women. While I, as a volunteer, occupied a position of relative privilege being white, able-bodied, and educated, it did not shield me from recognizing the immense struggles women endured. What I observed and learned during those months shed light on the harsh reality of being a migrant woman. The stories unfolded encompassed instances of sexual violence, rape, forced marriage, kidnapping, human trafficking, family violence, exploitation of domestic labor, and document theft.

I have the vivid memory of a young woman, Farah (fictitious name), in the informal camp of Grande Synthe showing me a photocopy of her passport, treating it as her most precious possession and sharing with me her fear that one of the people accompanying her on this journey might take it away from her. 

I still remember the words of Halima (fictitious name), a young Palestinian woman who told me that although she loved her children, she no longer wanted to be with the man who controlled and humiliated her on a daily basis. Weeping, she told me that she knew divorce was possible in Europe, but that he would never allow it. Once married, she was asked to give up her studies and devote herself entirely to her family. Now that she was living in one of the ‘little houses’ in the Closed Controlled Access Centre (CCAC) of Samos , she had to take care of everything, from cooking to cleaning to looking after the children. She confided in me that what she was going through was too much, that she was tired and that she felt like a prisoner, both because she was locked up in a camp for asylum seekers, and because she was the only one looking after her family. 

There were many women I met and all their stories had a common thread, which was courage. I do not want to give you a heroic picture of these women, because I do not believe that it is a picture that can convey, even partially, the courage and suffering that I saw in so many women on the move.

These narratives unveiled the profound challenges faced by migrant women, illustrating the urgency for a deeper understanding and advocacy surrounding their experiences.

In Samos, I was responsible for the Women’s Space of Samos Volunteers. The women space is a safe and supportive environment designed to meet the specific needs and challenges of refugee women. These spaces can offer a range of services and resources such as counseling, health care, educational programmes, vocational training and opportunities for community building. The aim is often to empower women and help them overcome the particular difficulties they may face during displacement, including issues related to gender-based violence, maternal health and economic empowerment.

I have thought a lot about the need for a space like this. Why do we live in a world that needs spaces where women can finally feel safe? Shouldn’t that be the norm? But I understand that these reflections are personal and can sound very simplistic, and I don’t want to take space away from the voices of those who have experienced and continue to experience the challenges of being a woman and a migrant every day. So, in the following parts, Wally  is going to talk to Amal, a woman who is a refugee in the Netherlands. 

Amal has been living in the Netherlands for several years now, together with her 5 children. She is originally from Idlib, Syria. a region which has suffered tremendously in the Syrian war. She left Syria in 2019, forced to leave her children behind. 

Can you explain what the journey you undertook to get to the Netherlands was like?
“I left Syria to cross the border with Turkey, together with my younger brother who was 15 at the time. We left illegally and crossing the border was difficult and dangerous as people get killed there by the Turkish police. We had to cross a river in order to get to Turkey, not by boat but pieces of plastic tied together. After running and hiding for Turkish police, the smugglers take us to a place for cows and sheep, like a stable. There were a lot of people there waiting to be taken to another city. It was cold and wet, I think it was in the middle of the winter. A van came to pick us up, it was for seven people, but thirty went inside. It took twenty-two hours in the van until we arrived at our destination, Bursa. My brother and I stayed there for a while, while my other brother was living there. We stayed at his house for some time. At that moment, it was not clear to me what I wanted to do as a next step. It was difficult for me to decide. I lived in Turkey for two or three months. I did not feel safe, the Turkish police were not friendly, they did not like strangers. I was thinking about my children the whole time. Then the time came and I decided to leave to go to Europe, to Greece.”

“There were two ways to go to Greece. Either walking from Istanbul to Thessaloniki, or going by Death Boat, which is what I called them. One of my friends went the walking route. She was pregnant. When crossing the Turkish-Greek border, the European border police caught her and the group she was traveling with. They hit her in her belly. They forced the people to take off all their clothes and they hit them and took their personal belongings. This had also happened to one of my brothers. I did not want to go that way. I would prefer to die in the sea than to die by their hands.”

“I paid a lot of money. 200 Euros to get from Syria to Turkey and another 3000 Euros to go from Turkey to Greece. You think that people will have mercy for you but most of them don’t see us as humans. They just see walking money. As a woman, you can get from Turkey to Greece without paying with money and you pay with your body. Many women I met did that, they go to a hotel with a smuggler and they can go ‘for free’. Luckily, I could borrow money. For this journey, there is no guarantee. You might drown in the sea or get arrested by coast guards. I tried multiple times and got arrested and was brought back to Turkey to the jail. There, there was no food, no place to sleep. There were children and small babies and women and men all together. The police officers were not as bad as in the border between Syria and Turkey, but they would talk to us like we were animals. Call us bad words, it was terrible. One time, after I got caught, they brought us back all the way to Kunya. The boats are not normal boats, they are rubber boats. There are two sizes. The smaller ones are more expensive and the bigger ones are cheaper. The small ones are for six or seven people and they put between twenty and thirty-five. The big ones are for twenty-five persons and the smugglers put around fifty persons. One time, we were on a small boat with not too many people, like sixteen. There was an older woman of like sixty years. She did not know how to swim and she did not have a life vest. There was a Syrian man, a doctor, on board who gave her his life vest. We were sailing for like an hour and the boat started sinking. We also had a mother and a child with us. I know how to swim. I was holding on to a rope attached to the boat. The doctor died, he drowned there. He was the only one who died. The coast guard came and they took all the people to the jail again. But the man was dead. He was a very young Syrian doctor from Damascus. It was 2019, I forgot his name.”

“After that time, I stopped trying for three months. I was really afraid to experience this again. I had seen a lot of people dying in Syria and I did not want to see more. I went back to my brother’s house. I could not deal with the situation, I just wanted my kids. I tried to find a solution to bring them to Turkey, but it was not possible as I could not even get documents there. I was nobody there. Even if somebody would kill you, rape you or take you somewhere, nobody would know about you. So I decided to try again. It was the seventh time. I tried again with a boat and I arrived to Kos Island. It was a relief when we arrived to the beach there. I was with a group, like thirty people. My younger brother stayed in Turkey. They said don’t let the Greek police catch you because they will send you back to Turkey. But they saw us, the Greek police and they came. They were nice. I was the only one speaking English so I spoke to them. They were helpful and got us to the closest camp.” 

“After I realized the situation in Greece and in the camps I knew I could not stay. I went to Athens to continue my journey. I stayed in the grass for many nights in the beginning. I had no money. I was looking for work, but people only wanted to abuse me. When they see a woman on the street, people just try to abuse her. Some men told me they had work for me, but it would end up with them only trying to sleep with me, so I stayed in the street. There was a church I was sleeping next to, I had not eaten in three days. After a couple of days the priest from the church came to me to ask why I was there. I told him it was none of his business as I thought they all wanted the same thing. The day after, he came again to ask if I needed something. He did not speak English and I don’t speak Greek so we communicated by typing on the phone. I told him to go away. The next day he came again to ask if I needed something. I said no. The day after he came again and I said no.The fourth time he came, I could no longer resist as I was hungry. I thought I could just see what he wanted. I had lost the faith in people. I told him I need to eat and drink. He brought me to an empty house. It was his friend’s, who was also a priest but who was sick and in a hospital. He told me to pray for his friend and take a shower and left. I locked all the doors and took a bath in which I sat for hours. The priest came back and brought food and clothes, he gave me his number to contact if there was anything. I slept for two days without waking up. At the beginning I did not trust him and thought I was dreaming or that he was planning something. I was afraid and anxious. I stayed for three months in the house, and I explained my story to the priest. I helped him in the church and he bought everything for me. After a while I wanted to leave. After doing research I thought the Netherlands would be the best country to go to. The reunion with my children would be the fastest. I told the priest, but it was so difficult to leave there. He was the first person to treat me like a human on my journey. It was so emotional, even when I remember him now I get tears in my eyes. But I really needed my kids. I had no contact with them because their father didn’t allow it. I did not know if they were even still alive.  For 4000 Euros I bought fake documents and the priest paid for most of it. I flew to Poland with the fake documents, to Warsaw. I stayed there for one night and the next day I flew to the Netherlands.”

What do you think are the biggest challenges women on the move encounter? 
“In my opinion, the biggest challenge is being a woman in a group of men. In my society, they were not used to seeing a woman going alone. The biggest challenge was to face the judgment of people. Not only in Syria, but during the entire journey. Men on the way tried to be close to me or even abuse me. If I didn’t accept, they turned out to have this inferior view. It does not matter if they are migrants or government officials. It is very exhausting, more so mentally. When you sleep a little bit, for an hour or two, your body charges but mentally you are really exhausted. You have to be ready 24 hours to defend yourself and to face the looks and the words.”

Did you find support in other women that you met during this time? 
“Yes. We as women were very supportive of each other. Not all women of course. I had friends, who I met during the journey. At one point I was with two other women, one who had two children. We shared everything. Food, water, stories and taking care of the children.”

Is there anything you would like to say to women who are currently in the situation you have been in? 
“I want to say that they should stand for their rights and never accept something you do not agree with. Believe in yourself. Nobody believed in me, not my mother, not my sister, but I believed in myself. Nothing is impossible and you can do whatever you want.”

This article is a collaboration between feminist magazines LOVER and Raffia. Raffia is affiliated with Gender & Diversity Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen. It publishes articles, columns and reviews around the themes of gender, diversity and feminism.

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International Organization for Migration. (2023). Returning female migrants face more reintegration challenges than men: IOM study. Retrieved June 2, 2024

United Nations Population Fund. (2019). Women and girls safe spaces: Guidance. Retrieved June 2, 2024

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2020). Global trends: Forced displacement in 2019. Retrieved June 2, 2024

If, after reading this article, you would like to know more about the work of some of the NGOs working to empower and support women on the move, here are some useful links:

Refugee Women’s Centre (refugeewomenscentre.com)

Grassroots NGO | Project Play (project-play.org)

Lighthouse Relief

Home – Irida Center

Action for Women (afw.ngo)

HOME – European Network of Migrant Women (migrantwomennetwork.org)

Samos Volunteers

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.