Struggles of Women* on the Move
by the Alarm Phone network
8 April 2020 (original post)
Alarm Phone – Women and LGBTQI+ Report, April 2020
Daily struggles of women on the move in the western Mediterranean: Alarm Phone activist reports
- 8 March 2020 in Tangier
- Stories of Struggles with the Boumla
- Aurore Boréale, based in Rabat: “Only by fighting together can we can have real progress”
- “With your courage you can do this work” – Interview with Leonie
- Hayat, killed at the border by the Moroccan Navy in September 2017
Central Mediterranean: Women on the move
- The invisible struggles
- Women on the phone
- Trapped by the UNHCR – Interview with Daniella, Tunisia
- Intercepted to Tunisia – Interview with Abeni, Tunsia
- We felt welcome – Kobra’s testimony, rescued by the Ocean Viking in September 2019
- Search-and-Rescue Solidarity – Letter from an Alarm Phone activist to an amazing woman of the SAR world in January 2020
From the crossing of the Aegean Sea to the struggle for women rights. Women on Lesvos
- All women against Moria
- Experiences of crossings and life in Moria
- “Your whole life is waiting in line”
- Self-organization and a daily life strategy
LGBTQI+ people on the move
- Lesvos LGBTQI+ refugee solidarity
When the crowd gathered for the Women’s Day demonstration on 8 March 2020 in front of Cinema Riff at Grand Socco in Tangier, Moroccan feminists, Sub-Saharan women for freedom of movement, single mothers, and a few Europeans came together. The women of our local Alarm Phone team, all from Sub-Saharan Africa, sat together afterwards with some of their friends from Europe and started to write down their experiences for this report.
At the same time, on the Greek island of Lesvos, women from Alarm Phone teams interviewed women in and around the hotspot of Moria; they spoke out about the suffering they had gone through on the easternmost escape route towards Europe. They reported how on 30 January a crowd started moving from the overcrowded hotspot Moria towards the city of Mytilene. “All women against Moria,” “Women in solidarity,” “Moria is a woman’s hell,” and “Stop all violence against women” were some of the slogans written on the many signs, while the crowd chanted “Azadi” (Farsi for freedom) with raised fists.
Shortly afterwards, an Alarm Phone activist met with a young woman from Somalia who had made the crossing from Libya to Italy last September and who wants to encourage rescue groups to continue their amazing work.
Another woman sat down and wrote a beautiful solidarity letter to one of the women active in Search and Rescue: “When I hear her voice on the phone saying, ‘my boat will head to the target with full speed,’ I picture her behind the wheel of this massive boat carrying four hundred people, flying above the sea as if it was weightless.”
Some write in a brave way about the suffering women had to go through, the pain they feel and the suffering that the simple fact of having to pee means for women in Moria. Or the struggles with the Boumla (Wolof for police) deporting them within Morocco towards the deserts, exposing them to greater dangers. Or the death of a young Moroccon student.
There are others who decided not to recall the suffering in detail, but to point out their strategies, their struggles, and their thankfulness for the solidarity created among us.
In this report we tried to write about the manifold experiences of women and LGBTQI+ people who cross the sea to reach a place of safety or who are stuck in transit, and about the experiences of women active in Search and Rescue who are trying to support these struggles. Women are on the move for their own freedom of movement in all three regions of the sea: in the east between Turkey and Greece in the Aegean, in the central Mediterranean from Libya and Tunisia towards Italy and Malta, and in the west from Morocco towards Spain. Everywhere we meet more women on the frontlines of these struggles than we used to in the past. In the east, the percentage of adult men among those arriving even fell below fifty percent after 2015, which created a completely different situation. While all of them face intersecting forms of visible and invisible violence, making border crossing even more dangerous and lethal for women, we know that women on the move are more than what they are reduced to, and that they bear a power and a strength that no border is able to defeat.
Also, more and more women are active in Search and Rescue initiatives as well as in our Alarm Phone team. In the Alarm Phone we are even a majority. We decided to write in a very subjective way and what we ended up with is a patchwork of different stories in various styles and tones. We hope that this report empowers others to raise their voices as well and to become more visible with all their great expertise.
We dedicate this report to all women and LGBTQI+ people who are struggling for their survival in the refugee camps all around the world in times of the Coronavirus under life-threatening conditions. The only option to end this suffering is freedom of movement as a basic global right for all. We will continue this struggle.
The Alarm Phone’s last report dedicated to the specific situation of women at sea was published [and republished by Antidote Zine] in March 2018. From now on, we will try to publish a report every year about the special situation of women and LGBTQI+ people on the move.
Daily struggles of women on the move in the Western Mediterranean: Alarm Phone activist reports
8 March 2020 in Tangier
The Women’s Day demonstration is gathering on 8 March 2020 in front of Cinema Riff at Grand Socco in Tangier. Moroccan feminists, Sub-Saharan women for freedom of movement, single mothers, and a few Europeans come together. A Samba group is drumming. There is a lively exchange between the different groups. Purple-colored cloths—the symbolic color of March 8—are handed out, banners are rolled out, contacts are exchanged. The atmosphere is great. About eight hundred women come together.
This makes an impression in the northern Moroccan metropolis, because their voices are loud and determined. Slogans like ‘Solidarité avec les femmes du monde entier!’ and ‘Raise your voice, seize your rights!’ in Arabic and French start the demonstration, which runs along the big boulevard to the Place de Nación. Passersby and journalists follow with interest. One thing is already clear at this early hour: the march is empowering, and this in a place that has been marked by the worst police repression for several months.
Julia and Pauline* participated during this march with the women’s group of Alarm Phone:
Julia: “Sub-Saharan women are too tired, we suffer all kinds of violence, the violence of Moroccan security, of Moroccan compatriots. Even Moroccan women have their difficulties, in their households, in their homes, in their surroundings. There are too many cases, and there is evidence too. Women do not have a loud voice towards men in uniform. They don’t open the doors and they don’t listen to us; we’re always there in moments of distress. That’s why we raised our angry shouts. I hope that our message is sent to the Moroccan authorities. We want peace and we have the right to live.”
Pauline: “We women are brutalized in the home and we have no right to express ourselves. But we as women have to express ourselves, also in the media, so that the people understand what is really going on in the field. This is violence in everyday life. But we women want equality. March 8 was an opportunity to express ourselves. As we walked, there were many people who followed us. We fought, we sent messages. We gave ourselves the right to speak out and we said no to violence against women. We demanded our right to free expression and free movement!”
Here is Pauline’s speech, which unfortunately could not be presented on Women’s Day:
I am an activist who is concerned about the rights of migrants in Morocco, especially in Tangier, but this struggle is not easy with the new policy of the Moroccan authorities, because we suffer repression by the police and deportation to southern cities and sometimes to the Algerian border. So, we as activists are calling for our rights and the rights of migrants.
As Morocco has signed international conventions on the right of asylum and freedom of movement, the Moroccan authorities are asked to respect international law and not to be the gendarmes of the European Union. It is a bad policy to block migrants in Morocco, issuing neither work nor residence permits, and to prevent migrants from their liberty in order to avoid illegal immigration. But Morocco must try to review its state policies and open the borders so that people can move freely. So that Sub-Saharan migrants can go earn a living in Europe just as Europeans can come here and earn their living in Africa. We simply ask for freedom of movement for everyone and for their well-being.
Stories of Struggles with the Boumla
After the demonstration, we are together, the friends of Alarm Phone: Pauline, Carla, Fatou, Co, and Julia in Tangier. We tell and listen to each other’s stories about the Boumla (Wolof: police). As Alarm Phone has often reported, persecution, racism, violence, and deportations are part of the daily life of black communities in Morocco, especially in the Tangier region. The women describe how they face discrimination on a daily basis and what strategies they have developed against repression.
Fatou: “We stopped the deportation in Rabat. Me and Pauline were with friends. We saw the police and we knew they’d take us even though we had papers. I said: ‘No, I’m not leaving, I have my passport and I have my residence permit.’ They slapped me and took me to the police station. They told us they’d take us to Tiznit. When we got to Rabat, we told ourselves we had to do something. If not, we’ll end up in Tiznit and it’s far from Tangier. So we revolted together to annoy them. We started to shout, shout with force. The Moroccans, they started to get irritated. And we shouted shouted, shouted, shouted…and they said “safi, safi safi safi safi!” (Arabic: enough). We stopped and we got out in Rabat.”
Pauline: “I want to talk about the violence I suffered as a woman in Morocco. The police came many times to catch me and take me south. I didn’t accept it, because I don’t know anyone there. At that time, I had my own restaurant in the Medina (Arabic: city). The police sent me to the police station. When I left there, I saw a lot of people and I told myself that if I didn’t do something, they would send me south, to Tiznit. I told the officer that I was sick. He said, ‘No, you’re not sick, you’re going to go out to the bus with the others.’ The bus was already there in front of the door. I was afraid of being deported to Tiznit, because I couldn’t afford to go back to Tangier. So, I went to the toilet. I had the second day of my period, so I took off the cotton. I threw it away and went out. There was a lot of blood coming out, it got on my pants, everything was spoiled. I said to the chief of police, ‘Look, I’m sick.’ But he said, ‘No, you’re not, get in line…’ That was when I opened my legs. He was surprised and said: ‘Okay, okay, okay.’ He gave me a ride home. So, I went back to work.”
Julia: “The last attempt to deport me was in 2019. The Moroccan police came to our house very early in the morning. They wore Kagoul outfits as if we were criminals in our own house. I had lost my residence permit, because I couldn’t renew it. They took us to Tiznit. We couldn’t resist. We were on the road from eight in the morning until eleven in the evening, without food, water, or anything. Two kilometers before reaching Marrakech, I told myself that I had to find a possibility to go down there, because at least it was a city I knew. Just before I got there, I made a lot of noises and had a crisis, they got scared and called an ambulance to pick me up. I really wasn’t sick, I had nothing, it was just a trick so they could release me. So I made gestures, I stopped breathing. In the ambulance they gave me an oxygen mask. When I got to the hospital, they put me on a bench with a mask, by the time they went to find a doctor I took off everything and I ran away.”
Aurore Boréale, based in Rabat: “Only by fighting together can we can have real progress”
Since the dawn of time, human beings have been on the move, looking for green pastures, a milder sky, a better elsewhere—or simply out of curiosity. That leads us to the conclusion that the desire to see what’s on the other side has always been there, and this in turn leads us to conclude that migration is a phenomenon inherent—I would even say vital—to living beings.
The most shocking thing today is to see how migration has become demonized and criminalized everywhere. Leaving has become anathema, to the point where barriers are being erected everywhere. The means that are being used to hinder freedom of movement are becoming more and more dramatic every day. Let us take the case of Morocco: on the one hand, due to its geographical location it is considered the gateway to Eldorado by many Africans—and also Syrians, Bangladeshis, and Filipinos rush to Morocco hoping to live a better life on the other side of the Mediterranean, or perhaps simply to settle there.
On the other hand, however, while non-dark-skinned migrant communities may enjoy more tranquility and are not often subject to the most blatant forms of discrimination, the same does not hold true for the black African migrant community in Morocco. The case that interests our report is that of women.
If yesterday it was rare to see women taking to the migration routes, today that is no longer the case, and women migrate as much as men. Today, more women take the routes, swallowing the fear that arises, facing cold, hunger, danger, and closing their ears to not hear about all kinds of violence.
Today the women are leaving too. But what about the daily life of these women once they have settled in Morocco? A country which, despite progress and openness in terms of women’s rights, remains a country where women do not enjoy practically any of the rights granted to them by law or the constitution. A country where women still remain the inferiors, the subordinates, or simply things belonging to men, to satisfy their impulses or their egos. Basically, I would say, a country where women are not truly free to be who they want to be.
Migrant women in Morocco have to deal with all this, and additionally with the fact that they are black women. Thus, they are perceived in the collective consciousness of Moroccans as women of little value, of light morals, prostitutes, or beggars. The black woman is at the bottom of the ladder that people with an atrophied mentality have decided to create. For some migrant brothers, or for some chairman’s prey, single migrant women’s bodies are there to be exploited when promising them the journey to Eldorado.
And they are left to their fate as soon as these men have found more attractive prey. Thus, many women find themselves single mothers, with children whose fathers don’t give a damn, or don’t even want to know. Because of this hard reality, some women find themselves in a relationship and move in with the first one who could offer her a roof over her head and food on her plate, in order to reach the basic comforts. Sometimes it turns out well, sometimes it turns out very problematic. Migrant women who work in private homes are also subject to exploitation, even physical abuse, and non-payment of wages that are insignificant compared to the work they do. We can also talk about how difficult it is to be respected in public health centers: complications, late care, or lack of care on discriminatory and racist grounds. They remain on the margins.
What I find most appalling is that even in some militant associations, where women are under-represented, they are given less responsibility and no real decisionmaking power. They are infantilized, or just given a place to serve as a showcase to obtain grants from organizations that take the status of women seriously. Once the grant is awarded, these women are sidelined, without any decisionmaking power, bullied, and subjected to everything that men have decided without them having a say.
There are organizations, such as UNHCR, Caritas, and CEI (Comité d’Entraide Internationale), which provide assistance to migrant women. But here again, there is the eternal question of eligibility, the unhealthy hierarchy of suffering, the categorization of migrants. They are classified according to their suffering, according to how they arrived in Morocco, and the migrant who arrives by plane is often not entitled to this little help (“You can’t help everyone”) unless you have a story that holds up, a lie that is worth telling, or if you pretend to be someone you are not.
I have seen people who really needed help but were not given it, because they did not meet the criteria for it. I know people who died as a result. And even when help is given to these women, it is not free. In one way or another, they remain like prisoners of the organizations, spied upon even in their most intimate affairs. That is the price that has to be paid.
There are a few women’s associations such as La voix des femmes de Hélène Yalta, the Collective of Migrant Women in Morocco (COFMIMA) and ARCOM, which try as best they can to fight for the status of migrant women in Morocco. But a real struggle for the rights of migrant women, for women’s empowerment, is almost non-existent. The urgency, the need, the survival cries out too loud…it is in dispersed groups and individually that the great majority of women fight. Can we hope for real progress or evolution by fighting in dispersed groups? No, not at all.
“With your courage you can do this work” – Interview with Leonie
Although the situation in Tangier is becoming more and more difficult for Sub-Saharan travelers, a group of women has been formed who are active with Alarm Phone there. We spoke with Leonie, who is new to the group. She has been living in Morocco for five years.
Leonie, why do you take part in Alarm Phone?
It was a good brother who introduced me to the group. He told me that there is a network of activists, and he said, “I see that you, with your courage, can do this work.”
Have you already worked here in Morocco in solidarity activities?
I am in almost all the associations in Tangier that bring together migrants. When there is a meeting or a small activity, they invite me. I am almost always present. Alarm Phone is a network of activists who help migrants who are already on the water, so that they don’t lose their lives in the water. In case of distress we guide them.
Can you explain the situation of migrants here in Morocco?
In Morocco it is not easy for migrants. Whether you are regularized or not. It’s very tense. Life is no sugar for us. I myself have suffered the consequences. They break your door down. At two o’clock in the morning the soldiers are here, they don’t warn you, they don’t ask if you have papers or not. To your surprise you jump out of your sleep and they break your door down. They come home like thieves. They don’t even try to find out if you have papers. You are supposed to say, ‘But sir, I have papers.’
Once they arrived at my house—I was washing myself around three a.m., last summer, in 2019. The man opened the bathroom and I said, ‘But sir, I’m showering.’ He said: ‘That’s not my problem.’ I said: ‘When you came in, did you ask me if I’m legal or not? You come in my house, but I have my house contract, I have my papers. You want to come in the shower? If you put your head in the bathroom again, I’ll throw the water on you!’ And that’s how he left the toilet.
It hurts, it’s frustrating. Every year like this, they treat us like animals as if we’re not human. Really, it’s disgusting. And as women you don’t have the right to speak up, especially in front of the authorities, they don’t consider you. It hurts you, it stays in your heart. And morally, you don’t have the right to express yourself! That’s the suffering of women here. We’re trying to talk to human rights- and women’s rights associations.
In the work of Alarm Phone, what are the demands?
Alarm Phone demands that borders are open. That if someone wants to go out of a country, the person passes freely without being caught and without being violated. This is the demand of Alarm Phone: Freedom of movement!
Hayat, killed at the border by the Moroccan navy in September 2017
In order to prevent young people from setting out, armed force is used in Morocco: On 25 September 2017, the navy shot and killed nineteen-year-old student Hayat Belkacem from Tétouan. Three other men were injured, some of them seriously.
The four of them, along with twenty-one other young Moroccans*, had set off from Martil neach in a “Go-Fast” (speedboat) in the direction of Spain. The navy wanted to stop the travelers; when the boat started, they opened fire. The hashtag #Quiadonnélordre (Who gave the order?) went viral afterwards and contradicted the version of the navy, which allegedly only fired warning shots.
For days, before Hayat’s death, hundreds of young people had been flocking to the beaches in the north after Spanish videos of successful arrivals in Spain were posted on the internet. Moroccan security forces had blocked the young Moroccans* from accessing the beaches of northern Morocco. In response, hundreds of young Moroccans* demonstrated in Martil and demanded ‘l’harga fabor’ – their right to free passage. (Video)
After the death of Hayat, people in many cities, including many Ultras, took their anger to the streets. In Tétouan, the people chanted ‘We will avenge you, Hayat!’ as well as ‘We will renounce the Moroccan passport!’ and ‘Viva España.’ (Video)
A student was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison; his call for protest via Facebook had allegedly insulted the nation of Morocco and called for an uprising. Other young people have also been accused, many of whom are still minors.
Central Mediterranean: Women on the move
The invisible struggles
It is difficult to write about women who cross the Central Mediterranean. It is difficult because, in the first place, we don’t want to write ‘about’ women on the move. We would love to write ‘with’ them about their experiences, to use this platform to make their voices heard. However, their stories are often kept invisible, as is the violence they experience on a daily basis.
Too often, women crossing the central Mediterranean route just appear to us as a number communicated by the person who speaks on the phone—a number that we try to clarify several times, to then quickly report it in an email to the authorities or in a tweet. “We were called by a boat in distress, on board there are sixty people fleeing from Libya, including three children and eight women, two of them are pregnant.” We rarely hear their voices. Communication with people in distress in the central Mediterranean is brief and fragmented: it starts with a distress call through a satellite phone, it ends with a satellite phone being thrown into the water. And then silence. A silence that can mean many things, but too often does not carry good news. This communication through an unstable connection does not allow us to get back in touch, to ask for details, to ask for their names and testimonies once they make it to Europe, or when they are returned to violence and war in Libya. And this is how, painfully, the powerful voices of women on the move get lost, and their presence remains fixed in a dry and uncertain number.
Of course, we often know what is beneath those numbers, and here we could write stories of violence, slavery, and torture in Libya. We also know that many women are fleeing not only war or poverty, but also gender-based violence, forced marriages, and harassment due to their sexuality. We could write about their pregnancies, and about the rapes behind them. We could write about what it means to be a mother and to embark on a precarious rubber dinghy holding your child’s hand in the hope that the sea will be less violent than the Libyan camp or the homes they left behind.
The borders of Europe amplify the violence women flee from, but security measures, surveillance and criminalization of people’s movement are often legitimized under the flag of combating human trafficking. With one hand, Europe pretends to give protection: it portrays border controls as humanitarian acts to protect ‘vulnerable women’ from ‘bloodthirsty’ traffickers. With the other hand, Europe pours money and resources into creating stronger borders, organizes trainings, and signs deals and agreements to limit freedom of movement, thus fueling border violence.
Depicted as vulnerable victims in need of protection, discourses of women’s protection and vulnerability are often used by European member states to put a humanitarian face on the violence they inflict through their border policies.
While all these intersecting forms of visible and invisible violence make border crossing even more dangerous and lethal for women, we know that women on the move are more than what they are reduced to, and that they bear a power and a strength that no border is able to defeat. This is what we would love to write about, and this is what we learn from the testimonies and experiences collected here.
Women on the phone
In a few situations, we talked to women in distress who called the Alarm Phone, and since then, when the communication is difficult, we ask the people on the phone to let us talk to a woman on board.
As Alarm Phone, we talk to people during their journey. For us they are voices in distress that we try to comfort, with difficulty. We ask for their GPS coordinates and they try to read us numbers. It’s hard to be on the phone with people who could drown any moment and to ask them to read numbers. They just want to tell you that the sea is too big and the boat is too small. They want to tell you that they don’t want to go back to Libya, that they’d rather die at sea. They ask us to help. They tell us that they’re sick, that they won’t make it, that there’s water in the boat, lots of water, too much water. They ask why we haven’t arrived yet, and why we keep asking for numbers. And how do you explain that you’re not at sea, but in England, or France, or Germany? How to explain that you called for help but that European authorities aren’t answering your requests, and are letting them die at sea? How do you explain that the only thing we can do is to write down these numbers, and that because of these numbers their lives might be saved?
More than once, a chaotic situation where communication seemed impossible and where we felt that we will never be able to clarify the GPS coordinates of the boat, was solved by simply talking to a woman. As reported by a shift team: “They passed the phone to a woman, she speaks clearly, she is calm. She listens carefully and she understands how to find the GPS coordinates on the phone. She spells out the numbers: “North, 34 degrees, 22 minutes…” She is confident and she explains the situation. She said that there are sick people on the boat and that there is little fuel left. We keep regular contact, she knows what she has to do and how to continue.”
It is in these volatile moments, in these few exchanges and in the courage that we hear in their voices, that the invisible struggles of women on the move in the central Mediterranean become visible. Their voices become weapons against the brutal border regimes, a weapon on which the lives of a hundred fellow travelers depend. We wish we could hear more of these voices, and that we could talk to them and hear their voices beyond distress situations, as we did with Daniella and Abeni, who are still in Tunisia, or as we did with Kobra, who managed to reach Germany.
Trapped by the UNHCR – Speaking to Daniella, Tunisia
Daniella comes from the English-speaking part of Cameroon. The war has been escalating since 2016. Her husband has been murdered and she also lost her mother in that war. She belongs to a politically marked family as part of the opposition. She left the country in October 2017. Since she left, she hasn’t heard from the rest of her family.
She crossed Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Libya before crossing the border to Tunisia. She was arrested at Ben Guerdane, where her fingerprints were collected. She was in facilities of the Red Crescent and the UNHCR in Medenine, and then taken to the Ibn Khaldun center in August 2018. She was registered with UNHCR and underwent four interviews, in which she was asked the same questions, trying to ‘trap her’ on dates. Her request was denied. She was told she could very well go back to the English-speaking part of Cameroon: “But if you go to this area as a francophone, you are in danger because people will think you’re a spy.”
During her stay at the center, Daniella often organized sports activities such as football games, which did not please the UNHCR. She was also very active, taking part in the various demonstrations organized by the refugees and asylum seekers of the center to protest against their living conditions and to denounce the practices of the UNHCR.
Since the UNHCR rejected her asylum application, she no longer receives food coupons. She decided to leave the center after being pressured by UNHCR to make room for others. “It’s their strategy, they embarrass you to make you go away.” Today she lives in a small apartment with two other people. She says she doesn’t have the courage to appeal UNHCR’s decision. It has been eleven months since she left the center.
The crossing from Tunisia costs about a thousand euros. She intends to attempt the crossing. Their group of fourteen people is ready. The smuggler asked them to wait until the weather improves, saying it’s only a matter of a couple of days. It’s already been two weeks that they’re waiting for the weather to get better to cross the border. A month ago, migrants were intercepted. They are not imprisoned unless they are found to be smugglers.
She also crossed the ditch; it is about three meters deep. There was no water at the bottom, but there was mud. To climb, some men helped her, braiding clothes to hoist her up. The desert is full of aggressive dogs. She had to walk for a long time with her baby and a friend from the Ivory Coast before she came across the military. The military knew their number, they had to identify their group well in advance (they asked where the men were, looking for a group of eighteen people). The soldiers were equipped with huge searchlights sweeping across the desert. After you cross the ditch, there’s a barbed-wire fence three meters high. Crossing this border costs about three hundred euros.
Intercepted to Tunisia – Interview with Abeni, Tunisia
Abeni left Nigeria in 2017. She lived in a southern province. Her husband’s father was killed and her husband was threatened, so the family had to flee the country.
She arrived in Tunisia in May 2017 while she was six months pregnant with her first child. Her boat ran out of petrol and was rescued by the Tunisian authorities and handed over to the IOM. They were taken to Medenine by bus to an IOM shelter that shut down in March 2019. She remained in this center for one year and asked to see UNHCR, but for one year she was only offered voluntary return. It wasn’t until a year later that she was able to go to a UNHCR center.
She went to Zarzis with her husband for the UNHCR interview. Her husband, who only speaks Ikâ, was given a translation by phone. A few months later they received a negative response from UNHCR, telling them that the events that they had raised could not be verified on the net, and that it was a family problem.
She says that few Nigerians are accepted, with the exception of single women with children (one of whom has been relocated). They appealed against this decision by filling out a form, without an interview, but were again given a rejection. The UNHCR gave them three days to leave the center, along with her two daughters, aged two years and six months. This happened one year ago. They refused, were able to stay, but they no longer have food coupons and no more help from the UNHCR.
When she talks to the staff, they pretend to ignore her. UNHCR has not renewed their cards. They have stopped paying for medical expenses, while the baby has to go to the hospital regularly. The doctor said it was because he was suffering from the cold. Her husband tries to work but there are no opportunities in Medenine. He went to Sfax but he got himself arrested and imprisoned for two days for not having papers. Without documents, they have no freedom of movement. The second baby wasn’t registered in Tunisia. UNHCR refused to accompany them.
Her husband wants to go back to Libya to attempt the crossing, but she doesn’t want to and stayed in Tunisia. The UNHCR still wants to kick the family out of the shelter but can’t do it due to the current Coronavirus pandemic.
We felt welcome – Kobra’s testimony, rescued by the Ocean Viking in September 2019
My name is Kobra. I am eighteen years old and I come from Somalia. I want to tell you the story of my rescue in the Mediterranean Sea in September 2019. I don’t know how to find the words to describe the suffering I went through, and I don’t want to remember what happened before I left Libya. I also never want to forget the moment, after nearly two days at sea, when we finally saw a small sailing-boat on the horizon that ended our suffering.
We were full of fear, because finally our phone, our only connection to the world, had stopped functioning and water was rapidly entering the boat. It was a miracle when we finally found this sailboat. We were about fifty people in a blue rubber boat, and seven of us onboard were coming from Somalia. One pregnant woman was traveling with her one-year-old child and her husband. She is now doing well because she was transferred to Germany after the rescue.
I never learned how to swim, so the idea of the boat flooding was a possible death sentence to me.
I have a video a friend took on the boat and you can see the expressions of relief and happiness in everyone’s faces when we spotted the sailboat. There are no words to describe how you feel when you realize that your journey across the sea is over. It was a German sailboat, which was too small to take us on board. They came to us and asked us, if we could speak English. They then told us that they would call for the Ocean Viking, a big rescue ship, to come and take us on board. They gave us jackets and life-vests, because the weather was getting rougher and colder.
Later, when it was dark, it started raining and the waves got bigger. The small German boat took us to Ocean Viking which took us aboard. There were already other people with them who had been rescued earlier that day. Even the rescuers seemed so happy that we were all safe. They had doctors on board and they gave us medical treatment, since my pregnant friend and I had had vomited a lot. I had a heavy allergic reaction on my skin as well because the sea irritated my skin condition after being exposed to the salt for so long.
On the Ocean Viking we found another pregnant woman, whom I think was from Nigeria. She was brought by a helicopter to Malta because she was very close to delivering her baby. The crew later made an announcement to tell us when the baby was born in Malta.
We were on the Ocean Viking for one week because no country wanted to take us in. This time was difficult, but it was much better than what we experienced before. The crew was always with us and they tried to support us however they could. We had enough food. We had a doctor whenever we felt sick. They even gave us clothing. We felt welcome.
Finally, Lampedusa decided to take us in. When we finally left the boat after such a long time at sea it was not as warm of a welcome. We received food only after being forced to give our fingerprints and we were brought to a dirty place with barbed wire. I could not stay in Italy; the conditions were so poor. Today I struggle to live in Germany with the fear of my fingerprints on record and that I will be deported back to Italy.
I will never forget the good people on these ships, who welcomed me before I arrived in Europe. They will stay in my memory. Maybe one day I will meet them again. Until then I want to encourage them to continue what they are doing and I send them all my greetings.
Seach-and-Rescue Solidarity – Letter from an Alarm Phone activist to an amazing woman of the SAR world in January 2020
The past five days were crazy, my dear friend. We never met, but I have read the stories that you wrote on board of the rescue ship. Nine boats in distress fleeing from Libya called the Alarm Phone, and for the first time in a long time, all the boats that called Alarm Phone from the central Mediterranean where rescued to Europe, more than 650 people in five days. This was not just about luck. It was about the incredible efforts of the people out there doing everything they could to rescue these boats, despite European authorities’ efforts to let them sink without a trace. These were efforts mostly by women. Wonderful, fierce, kind, fearless women like you. In the past, I have mostly have dealt with men at sea and it was difficult. These five days were joyful instead.
L. crossed the Mediterranean up and down three times in seventy-two hours without ever sleeping, just following the GPS coordinates that we had received from the people in distress, which we also forwarded to the authorities and to the rescue ships. After sending an email, I would call the bridge. Again and again, for seventy-two hours. I would call the bridge telling her, “L.! There is a boat in distress again! you need to be quick.” I never heard a moment of discomfort in her voice. Even under that pressure, she was trying to create little cracks of softness, of love, of solidarity, of laughter. When I hear her voice on the phone saying, “My boat will head to the target with full speed,” I picture her behind the wheel of this massive boat carrying four hundred people, flying above the sea as if it was weightless. I cannot find the words to describe the love and respect I feel towards her when I read her emails to the authorities, defying their orders, placing herself and ‘her boat’ against the orders given by some colonel of the armed forced of Malta, or of some commander of the Libyan navy. I think there are no words in this world to express the magnitude of certain actions.
On the phone, we tell the people in distress that they have to stay strong and keep calm, that they have to trust us, that they cannot give up. We tell them, “Rescue is coming for you my friend, don’t worry.” When you’re out at sea, lost in the darkness.
Then L. and ‘her boat’ arrive to the rescue after hours of darkness and uncertainty. After hours when they thought they had been abandoned by everyone, and that they had been forgotten in a sea that is too big, on a boat that is too small. After so many hours of exhaustion, there is a certain magic in the moment when we can tell them, “Make light, with a telephone, don’t use flames – make yourself visible.” There is magic in the few words spoken by voices broken by panic and excitement: “We see a boat, it’s red,” and in an email of few words from the rescue ship we read, “We see an intermittent light coming from the sea, we believe it is the rubber boat.” I imagine this little light shining above a sea that is a cold, dark, liquid cemetery. A sign of life, of resistance, of struggle. Not just of despair.
Then silence. One second you are head and body in the Mediterranean, the next you are in silence and you realize that hours have passed. From this side of the phone we do not know what happens in this silence. It’s a feeling that makes you feel completely detached from reality.
Waking up reading the stories you write about these rescues, my dear friend, I always cry. Reading your descriptions of the rescue, reading the stories of the people who were on board, it makes it all real, it fills the void of these silences.
Reading your stories makes me think of all the witches of the sea like you, like L., like the women of Alarm Phone and the women crossing the Mediterranean, who relentlessly struggle together in this hostile sea. The Morganas of the sea, the few little lights in this darkness, sparks that are reflected by the waves, as magic as faeries and as fierce as witches.
I cannot stop being inspired by all these women, who cannot be stopped, contained, tamed. So yes, it is hard work also for all of us, and many people think we are crazy for doing this work, but we know that we are not the crazy ones, and that we are part of a brigade of amazing witches who believe that the real craziness is looking away. Thank you.
From the crossing of the Aegean Sea to the struggle for women rights: Women on Lesvos
All women against Moria
Most women have already endured hardship even before they get into a boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea. But the journey is far from being over once they reach the shore. Many of them find themselves in overcrowded refugee camps, such as Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos, where the authorities are overwhelmed with numbers and unable or unwilling to provide the most basic needs such as clean water, electricity, shelter, medical care, and security. It is a harsh environment where strict rules and violence are part of everyday life, which leads to an existence dictated by constant fear. In this rough environment, solidarity is a vital tool for survival, especially among women.
On 30 January 2020, approximately 450 women and children gathered in Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos, to protest the horrific living conditions in the camp and the dramatic increase of violence—including several fatal stabbings that had taken place within the previous weeks. The protest was organized by a group of about fifteen Afghan women, and their goal was to draw attention to the dire situation. It was both a cry of despair as well as a powerful and loud manifestation of female solidarity when women of all ages and different nationalities took to the streets and blocked traffic for several hours.
“All women against Moria,“ “Women in solidarity,“ “Moria is a women’s hell,” and “Stop all violence against women” was written on some of the many signs. The crowd chanted “Azadi” (Farsi for freedom) with raised fists. Several women said that it was the first time they had participated in a demonstration, but they showed great confidence during negotiations with the police or when giving media interviews. An elderly Afghan woman explained that she had focused on caring for her family all her life but the hellish situation in Moria had given her no choice but to join the demonstration.
Many women kept their faces hidden behind hijabs, voluminous scarves, and surgical face masks to conceal their identity. In the past, well placed rumors had been circulating that political involvement and contact with the press would lead to immediate deportation and repression by the Greek authorities. Taking this into account, 450 protesters is an astonishing number—even more so considering the difficulties a trip from Moria to the island’s capital, Mytilene, includes. For example, people have to queue for several hours to be able to get into one of the few buses. It has been reported that bus drivers had to push people away with sticks to be able to close the door. If you did make it onto the bus, you would miss your meals for that day as you weren’t able to stand in the food line. We also heard reports that a large number of women was prevented from leaving the camp to join the demonstration by the authorities and police forces.
No flyers, no Facebook group, no official announcement. News of the women-only protest was spread by word of mouth. The success of the demonstration was a surprise to many, especially the police, who initially showed up with only ten riot cops. After the protest, nine female volunteers were taken to the police station, where their identity cards were checked. The sneaking suspicion is that they were the ones organizing the women’s protest. The officials seemed to be unable to grasp the idea that women from Moria could organize themselves efficiently. The women’s role in the camps traditionally has been to calm the male-dominated unrest rather than taking part in them or even initiating them. But times are desperate, and increasingly women are discovering their political voice. They are finding strength in female cooperation. There had been an all-women sit-in last October after the tragic death of a woman in a gas explosion in the camp. Assemblies, empowerment workshops, networking, and practical support are less visible and yet essential aspects of the politicization of women.
Experiences of crossings and life in Moria
Again this year, with the increase in the number of people arriving on the island and the non-reaction of the Greek and European authorities, the conditions in Moria have only gotten worse and worse. When you talk with the women living there, their daily life is comprised of fear, no rest, long lines, attacks, power cuts…but also solidarity among each other, survival strategies and the struggle to be able to decide about their own lives. These are the stories of three women.
F. left Iran: “Unfortunately, in Iran members of my family did not have identity cards. We couldn’t go to school. We just had to work. My older sister and I worked as tailors in a basement. I started working when I was twelve years old. I have a passion for education. Finally, this year my sister and I decided on leaving in search of something better. Finally, my parents accepted. So, we started our travels. During our journey we tolerated several difficulties. Upon arrival to Lesvos, we slept two nights on the streets because we had to wait until Monday for when the offices of Moria opened. Finally, we could get a tent.”
N. and J. arrived on the island of Lesvos by boat last December crossing over from Turkey. Both are living in Moria today. For J., “Each person has their own way to experience and to bear the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea.” She had to pay $450 to the person who organized the crossing and was told: ‘In 4 days we will come to pick you up at 23 o’clock at the hostel.’
J. tells us her story: “…they put us in a covered pickup truck, there were a lot of us, really squeezed together. Four hours later we arrived in a very dark place. They put us in an abandoned house without any water or food all day long until seven p.m. Then we walked five hours up and down in the Turkish hills. Finally, we arrived on the shoreline. They inflated the dinghy in front of us. We left close to midnight. An hour and a half later the Turkish coastguards stopped us on the sea and they brought us back to Turkey. We were twenty-nine people on board. When they released us we went back to Izmir. I didn’t have any strength anymore. The smugglers told me, ‘You have to leave.’ Two days later we tried again. Same group, same way. Five hours of walking again. And again, we couldn’t reach Greece. The big boats came close to our rubber boat to make big waves and they were yelling at us to leave and go back to Turkey. This time we spent one week in the police station. The third time, we arrived in Greek waters and called the Greek coastguard, which came to pick us up. But we had to throw away our personal belongings because the boat was filling up with water. There was complete disorder on board, no organization. After we had called them for the first time, we still waited three hours until they came to pick us up.”
N. spoke about how “the fear comes when you’re at sea. You didn’t know who your neighbor was, but you held their hand. We started to pray. On the open sea the water was coming inside the boat. Each one was calling for god in his own way. I didn’t want to go on the boat, but they pushed me. The kids were in the middle. Me as well. I closed my eyes. We landed without any police, only fishermen. It was raining. I was wet and we had to wait fifteen minutes more for the bus. What gave us our hope back was this woman who gave us chips and sent her kids to say hello to us. They let us on the bus and we sat there until the morning without giving us anything.”
J. described her situation after being registered in Moria: “I didn’t have any tent in which to sleep. I slept from tent to tent. They kick you out of the tent when you cough too much. The little that we had, they would steal it. I was scared to be stabbed, mainly during the night—someone would do it just to take your phone. The worst is that the authorities don’t let us leave the island.”
Your whole life is waiting in line
For refugees, lines make up a big part of their daily and social lives. As N. and I were talking over some tea, N. had to leave to go stand in line for food. Very often they have to miss a workshop, a class, a commitment, or a friends-gathering to go stand in line for a basic necessity. Sometimes it gets so late that people have to return to their tents in Moria, even if they did not receive what they had been standing in line for all day. And the day is done.
J. told us: “In the morning, when you wake up, the first thing that you have to do is line-up. We line-up for every basic need. We pee in buckets since the toilets are too far away and we have to wait in line to use them. It’s infernal to wait and the belly burns. During the night especially, the toilets are too far to reach. And the toilets are dirty, so you easily get itchy. The Moria medical tent usually gives paracetamol to calm the itchiness down. To take a shower is the same. You wait in the cold, and sometimes when you arrive the shower is clogged.”
N. added: “You have to stand in line, but you know that someone can come and stab you for your phone while you wait. It has happened a few times since I have been here, and people have died just waiting. I am scared when I have to go stand in line. One time, they didn’t clean the ground and we had to line up standing on the blood of a guy who was stabbed. I was so scared. It was horrible.”
F. also described the situation in a letter: “When you get up you must stand in a line for breakfast, lunch, dinner, toilet, shower—for everything! You wait about two and a half hours in each line. Your whole life is waiting in a line. We have only two places for doctor’s visits, which is not enough for thousands of people. Again, you have to wait in a line. Only the people that go at four o’clock in the morning have the opportunity to be checked. If you have a cold, standing in a line outside is bad for your health. You will get worse. If you have a headache, cold, flu, or pain in your back or leg…it doesn’t matter. Doctors just give you painkillers and tell you to drink water.”
Z. is an underaged Afghan girl, who lives in the jungle of Moria with her family. She wrote the following in a letter: “There is a toilet but at night it’s so hard to go to the toilet because we have to cross a small bridge and we can’t see anything because there is no light. I am under eighteen and they don’t give me food because my mother is not here and when my father got sick, I was given the task to wait in line for food for the family but they didn’t give it to me because I am a minor. Life here is so hard: washing clothes, caring for my little sister, my brother and father. It’s so hard for me. I miss my mum.”
Living in Moria is like living in jail. You are constantly living in fear. J. explains: “Inactivity makes people go crazy. You will pass six months here without realizing it. You have nothing to do, nothing that you can do to be a part of civil society. The lines are dehumanizing. People become a ticket, a plate, a bottle of milk, a croissant or a bag of clothes.”
Self-organization and a daily life strategy
For N., solidarity is important: “We also have to accept each other and the situation. I cannot eat too late, but when the electricity comes back at two a.m., I cannot prevent others from talking, eating and cooking. So, I put my earphones on and cover my eyes. In any case, I don’t sleep well. I refuse to take the medication that they give me to sleep, because we know that boys spend the nights in the alleys. With the canvas walls of the tents, you can feel the people passing by close to you and your head, and I want to be awake in case something happens. To eat warm and cooked food, we have to prepare the food before the electricity comes on. The last time, my tent’s mates put the potatoes in the pan and everything was ready, but they had only ten minutes of electricity. So they had to wait, but when the power came back the food was not good anymore. As they were hungry, they added some milk. I don’t know how they ate it.”
N. continues: “In my tent we are seven people plus a little girl. We sleep on the floor and each one puts their stuff around their sleeping place. We keep the middle of the tent open to cook and sit, and eat together. It is important to show solidarity, so I said to the women that we have to protect each other and when one of us has to go stand in line early in the morning, some of us go with her until daylight comes. Also, the women in my tent dance and sing, do braids, and find time to do what they want, and that’s strengthening for me.”
J. talked about solidarity concerning food: “The food in Moria is disgusting and gives you diarrhea, meaning you then have to go stand in line for the toilets. Can you imagine! We collect money, around one euro per person, and we give it to the person, who cooks for the day. Every day it is a new person.”
When women cross the sea, and even before then along the journey, they often have different experiences than men and are exposed to greater danger. Being on the move is a difficult situation, but being on the move and being a woman puts you in an even more vulnerable position. Specific issues related to gender discrimination and racism are being reported by the women on Lesvos that we were talking to.
The women that we talked to speak about racism against black people within the hotspot, but also in the city. For example, a woman told us that in one supermarket, whenever a black person enters, a guard will follow that person around. She also told us that black women are often offered money in the street for sexual services. Prostitution is undoubtedly happening a lot, there is a lack of public information or data about this invisible side of the unbearable situation on the island. It is clear, however, that human traffickers take advantage of the overcrowded and unsafe situation in Moria and that people are doing business with women and kids. And since the administration is overwhelmed, people can wait up to three months to be registered and to be able to benefit from the “cash program for refugees.” Three months without any money.
As we are writing this report, there are five women locked up in different police stations on Lesvos. They were arrested after trying to leave the island without proper papers. They were arrested as part of a pilot project to see if an idea for a new law can be implemented. The new law indicates that a person who has been arrested must stay detained until the end of the asylum application. This would mean that all asylum seekers, who can be arrested for any illegitimate reason, would have to wait in detention.
Having daily contact with women living in Moria, you can see how solidarity starts with their everyday basic needs and continues with the provision of psychosocial human support in an effort to protect each other’s security, rights, and sanity in the face of the dire situations they face every day.
LGBTQI+ people on the move
We don’t want to overlook women’s experiences of discrimination and the needs of different vulnerable groups, but considering this report is about gender-based discrimination and violence, the situation of LGBTQI+ people on the move also has to be mentioned.
This report uses the acronym LGBTQI+: it is used to refer to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer and the “+” is for all the different expressions and intimate relations with (no)gender identity and sexual definition: non-binary, asexual, aromantic, etc.
Those who are LGBTQI+ face an even more difficult reality because they cannot always count on national solidarity networks. And even when these resources are mobilized, it is often at the cost of important precautions so as not to be identified as LGBTQI+. Housing in camps and collectives of LGBTQI + people with other non-LGBTQI+ in asylum accommodations can cause anxieties regarding being mis-identified or ‘outed’ unwillingly (for their sexual orientation or gender identities). This is especially the case for trans people in accommodation facilities who find themselves living in single-sex housing that does not correspond to their gender identity. Most of the time the authorities misgender trans persons, using the sex that is written on their official papers. Later on, when it comes to the asylum request, LGBTQI+ people fear that information about their sexual orientation or gender identity might start to circulate within the communities. This produces a lot of hesitation concerning what to say in front of the court, causing sorrow and fear because a large number of LGBTQI+ people take particular care not to reveal the reasons for their presence in Europe.
From the perspective of Alarm Phone, writing about LGBTQI+ people on the move during the situations they encounter while crossing the sea is difficult, because of course people also try and hide their identity in situations of close confinement, because the a risk of discrimination and violence is very high. We can hardly provide a general analysis about people on the move because there is only partial knowledge available. Statistics are often binary and queer people are not mentioned.
Lesvos LGBTQI+ refugee solidarity
This is taken from a text that was published by members of the group in 2019
As another deadly winter sets in, Moria prison camp on Lesvos is over its capacity by the thousands and growing fuller every day. In these conditions, LGBTQI+ refugees are particularly at risk of exposure, violence, and death.
With homosexuality still illegal in seventy-two countries, it is obvious why many LGBTQI+ people became refugees. Many of us fled from home because we had to hide our gender identities. When we arrive on Lesvos, expecting safety, we are shocked to find the same issues continue for us here. Homophobic harassment and violent attacks are frequent and severe, by fellow residents as well as by the police and camp guards.
We know some LGBTQI+ people that have been beaten and even hospitalized from homophobic and transphobic attacks. All have had to repress their identity, living cheek by jowl among communities which replicate the persecution they fled in the first place.
“When I was in the boat, a beautiful cry came. We’re starting a new life. We were just throwing all our troubles into the sea. I wasn’t scared. I just read the Quran and cried. I sat in the boat, my hand was in the sea along the way.”
“I left Morocco because for thirty years I was insulted, persecuted, and beaten by the community, the police, and my family—but on Lesvos I found the same thing.”
“In the early days in Moria, I was systematically raped. I’ve seen the most difficult conditions, but I’ve never seen such a horrible place.”
“These people are looking at you like you’re rubbish. Like you smell. On the street, on the bus. I don’t know how to explain this. Even when you are on the street, you feel ashamed, like there is shit on you.”
“If we can’t dress up the way we want, if we can’t do our make-up, why come to Europe?”
“And together we will change the world, so that people will never have to come out again!”
We did not flee our homes only to continue to hide and live in fear. We won’t be silenced. We won’t be ignored. We will shout it from the rooftops: we are gay, we are lesbian, we are women, we are men. We are here. We are all migrants. We want our freedom. We won’t wait ’til it’s given to us. We ask those that hear us to fight alongside us, wherever you are.
Queer solidarity smashes borders!
* names partially changed throughout the report
All images via Alarm Phone. Featured image: memorial to fourteen victims of a shipwreck in Morocco, February 2020