On the evening ofOctober 3rd, 2013, an overloaded fishing boat carrying more than 500refugees foundered off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.
Among many peoplewho drowned and died was an Eritrean woman who gave birth, and her newborn/deadbaby was still attached by the umbilical cord. Her name was Yohanna, whichmeans ‘congratulations’ in Eritrean (Danewid 2017, p1674). One wonders howdesperate she must be to escape her home country so as to consider taking sucha life-threatening route when she was heavily pregnant. Hers is not a lonecase. The United NationsHigh Commissioner for Refugees estimates that amongst Mediterranean Seaarrivals, about 20% currently are women (UNHCR, 2017).
Many women like Yohanna,either alone or with family, are fleeing conflict and violence in their native countriesin the hope of liberation and search of a peaceful life in Europe. However, intheir attempt to seek protection in Europe, these women are rendered even more vulnerableand insecure as they are subjected to various forms of gender-based violence, includingsexual violence, during their journey or on arrival at the destination. Animperative question arises here: Whose fault is it? Are these women, who believeEurope to be ‘safe’, making a wrong judgement to escape widespread unrest andchaos in pursuit of safety elsewhere? Or possibly, the system put in place bythe nation-states and its ‘humanitarian’ policies (or lack thereof) to helprefugees seeking protection are basically flawed?While the currentrefugee ‘crisis’ in Europe has provoked numerous responses and activism overthe last few years, insecurities of refugee women have remained invisible tothe international community, and gender-based violence, including sexualviolence against women has not been able to gain so much attention withinpolitical and public opinion. EU’s closed borders and restrictive migrationpolicies forces refugees to take illegal routes which increases their relianceon smugglers (Wilkins 2016, p312). I believe this is the primary reason whyrefugee women are exposed to violence and abuse.
There is a high possibilitythat some women on the move lack economic resources. Due to this, they will be eithercompelled to use sex or raped to pay the price of their passage. Then, there isalso the risk of traffickers who might lure the victims by giving false hopesof a faster and safer route. Among the range ofinterventions and responses to ‘manage’ refugee crisis, crackdown of smugglershas been a priority for European leaders. Very conveniently, the internationalcommunity has put the blame on smugglers as a main cause of the current crisis,and has even gone further to propose military force against smuggler’s boats attemptingto reach Europe (The New York Times, 2015). However, it is very likely thatincreasing restrictions to enter Europe would increase women’s vulnerability tosexual abuse.
For those who are determined to leave the atrocities of war andconflict behind and manage to reach the shores of Europe, suffering andviolence doesn’t end upon arrival. The proliferation of makeshift camps furtheraggravates violence and insecurity due to lack of adequate infrastructure and hygienicliving conditions. There have also beenreports of police and security forces committing violence against women andtransactional sex during which women were promised priority treatment of theircases and faster release if they agreed to sexual relations with the maleguards (Human Rights Watch, 2015).
There is no doubt that European borders havebecome a site of violence that facilitates gender violence. This problematizesthe notion of safe and civilised Europe. As Bhambra rightly points out, “themoral duty to relieve the suffering of others” is not applicable to those whoexist outside European frontiers (Bhambra 2009, p7). Another point of deliberationcan be that women taking such a perilous journey alone are being forced to doso by the male members of the family. There is a possibility that men are usingwomen’s perceived vulnerability to negotiate with border authorities andincrease the chances of getting asylum.
If these women are able to attainrefugee status, then their families can join them in Europe. It is interestinghow some human lives become more vulnerable than others as “vulnerability isdifferently distributed” (Danewid, 2017, p1677). It is important tonote that these refugee women are escaping from countries such as Syria,Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Eritrea that were under colonial rule. Thedire conditions such as wars, oppression and human rights abuse which force thesewomen to flee their homes have “roots in Mediterranean racial slavery,Enlightenment thought (i.
e. humanism that has relied on the provision of dehumanized other), the colonial North-Southrelationship, and its colonial legacy, as well as in its fascist and imperialworldview”(Danewid 2017, p1680). In this light, Europe can be held responsiblefor the contemporary refugee crisis, which has rendered women insecure andprone to abuse. However, instead of taking responsibility of the ongoingtragedy, the nation-state is busy portraying itself under threat from ‘barbaricstrangers’ and “splitting the world into humans and non-humans” (Danewid 2017,p1680) by playing the politics of mourning. The crisis unleashed in the Mediterranean regionhas mobilized humanitarian and security discourses, which has shifted the focushas shifted from nation-state to the individual. This has led to the creation ofbinaries: citizen who needs to be protected vs the ‘Other’ who are thestrangers, outsiders. Interrogating the category of human which is often takenfor granted, Marhia demonstrates how it is constructed as exclusionary andgendered, which can have major implications on who needs to be secured and whatkind of security is to be provided. This further leads to reproduction ofdominant hegemonic norms.
The ‘human’ in the human security draws criticalattention to conditions that make a life more human than others and “obscuresthe matrices of power through which individuals become socially differentiated”(Marhia 2013, pp 20, 21). It is quite apparent that the conditions which makecertain lives more human, vulnerable and grievable than others are based oncertai