The missing women of the Mediterranean refugee crisis

By — July 24, 2015

Lampedusa, Italy—Dirty white gates fronted the detention center on the Italian island of Lampedusa, a tiny speck between Sicily and Tunisia, where 71 women were being held. Beyond the bars, I could just make out laundry hanging from the building in which they were housed—maybe 100 yards away—a yellow scarf, a hot-pink piece of cloth. Sometimes I could even see the women walking in or out of the house, some with hijabs, others with brightly patterned African skirts. But beyond that, the women were invisible, locked illegally for weeks inside a “first reception” center meant for 300 but now housing 771 refugees and migrants from all over sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Through the front gates of the Lampedusa detention center. Women’s quarters are on the right. (Andreja Restek/APR News)

The day before, I’d met five men who had jumped the center’s fence and were treating themselves to coffee and smokes in the center of town—which was really a sun-blanched strip of cafes and shops with few people in any of them. These guys stood out. With a blend of dark skin tones, they wore sporty clothes and were all thin. From Sudan, Morocco, Gambia, Eritrea, and possibly Syria (that guy changed his story a couple times), they welcomed me among them (the youngest, 22, with a high five) and we sat talking for a few hours. Phones were pushed toward my face—phones that didn’t actually work; their SIM cards were spent—and the men showed photos of where they sleep in the center: on the ground. Overcrowding had forced them onto the cement, where they made a kind of cube of thin mattresses for cover. Some had been there for three weeks, despite Article 13 of the Italian Constitution, which stipulates that no one can be deprived of personal freedom for more than 48 hours without the consent of a judge—consent that has not happened in the case of the Lampedusa center for “first aid and reception.” A court case that challenges the legality of the center’s lengthy detentions is currently pending in the European Court of Human Rights.

I asked the men whether women ever jumped the fence for a day out. No, they said. And women were kept separate from the men as much as possible, as were the 12 unaccompanied minors also behind the center’s gates.

As I entered my fourth consecutive day of battling for a confusingly revoked permission to enter the detention center, I began to clearly see the answer to the question that had brought me to Italy. As I had followed media coverage of the Mediterranean “migrant crisis” in the U.S., I’d begun to wonder why there so rarely seemed to be a woman’s story or face in the coverage. Why are we barely hearing about these lives amid the ongoing crisis? And now I knew part of the reason: Women who make the dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy by boat are being hidden away. Bureaucracy and what seems to be an attempt to conceal some of the failings of the overburdened (and corrupt) Italian infrastructure are preventing these women’s stories from being heard. Another reason is likely simple math: Women made up only 11 percent of people being smuggled across the Mediterranean in 2014 (of a total of 170,000 people), and the same percentage through May of this year, according to data from the Italian Ministry of the Interior. (Overall, in the first six months of 2015, 137,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean into Europe, says the U.N. Refugee Agency.)

But women’s stories are also absent from the media because of another, even sadder reality, I would soon discover. It would take me a bit more reporting throughout Italy to truly comprehend the intense trauma of so many of the women who had made the journey by sea.

Lampedusa was only the first stop on what would be a weeks-long trip of trying to speak to women caught in this ongoing refugee nightmare. I would trek through Sicily and finally head to Rome, where hundreds have been camping outside a train station called Tiburtina. In every place, the women were hard to reach—whether physically or emotionally—but slowly I began to get a picture of their lives. Their journeys by sea, while physically painful, are only the most obvious part of their experience.

‘In God’s hands’

As dusty hours swatting at scarabs turned into days of hanging around the entrance of the detention center, I learned from people who worked inside that the women there had experienced extraordinary violence and deprivation in their home countries. And what they endured as they tried to cross to Italy was just another chapter in the endless years of poverty and male violence in war-torn countries like Sudan and Eritrea.

Fleeing their homes in North and sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East is the beginning of a voyage filled with terror for women, but it is one taken out of necessity. Their lives at home are unbearable, and filled with violence and fear. Every single woman I came to meet in my reporting described or alluded to rape—either of themselves or of others—as they traversed the African continent through Libya to cross the sea to Italy. All who rested or were detained in Libya for a bit—men and women—talked about having been raped, beaten, tortured, or shot as xenophobia and unrest rise in the country. Every single one.

Viviana Valastro, head of Save the Children’s Children on the Move Protection Unit in Italy, said she recently told a Nigerian woman with a “fat-faced baby” that her baby was very sweet. The woman replied, “Do you want it?”

The child, lighter-skinned than the mother, Valastro said, was born from rape.

Refugees line up to board a boat leaving Lampedusa for another detention center in Sicily. (Lauren Wolfe)

All the women at the center had arrived by rickety wooden boat. Most journeys to Lampedusa or Sicily from Libya seem to take a day or less—perhaps 16 hours—although I would later watch the disembarkation of 213 people in Augusta, Sicily (farther from North Africa than Lampedusa), who had spent 11 days on their boat. When I asked Valastro whether she’d seen women arriving in very bad condition, she said: “I’ve seen so many arrivals, my level of ‘bad condition’ is very low.” She described meeting women with severe burns from boat engines or gasoline, as well as from salt and sun.

Many women taking these risks are also arriving pregnant. Their hope may be to give birth on European soil so their child will be European—something that is not likely to happen in any case. Two recent births at sea prove that even the basic gamble of reaching EU shores still pregnant can be a losing one. On May 3, a Nigerian woman gave birth on an Italian naval rescue ship, the sixth such birth since 2013, according to news reports. She named the child Francesca Marina, giving a nod to the Italian Navy (Marina Militare) and to Pope Francis and Saint Francis of Assisi, according to Italian news service ANSA. Just two weeks earlier, on April 18, a woman from Cameroon gave birth to twins on a dinghy sinking into itself like a black hole before being rescued by the Greek Coast Guard near the island of Samos.

But these children have reached land and, with it, medical attention. Multiple NGO staffers and refugees told me that they know of pregnant women who died in transit before making it close to Italian or other EU shores.

The crossing of the Mediterranean is a Stygian, thirsty voyage, whether a woman is pregnant or not, said every refugee I spoke to. Many described a brutal kind of racism on the boats: sub-Saharan Africans are forced to stay in the hold, where there is little air and often no food or water, while Middle Easterners travel above deck. Apparently, in Libya, where most crossings begin, smugglers refer to black Africans as “slaves.”

“We were in God’s hands,” said Ghida, a 30-something Moroccan woman at the Lampedusa center for 21 days already, who described being terrified as the boat she was on lost power to its engine and turned around mid-sea, floating. After 22 hours without water or food, she said, her boat was finally rescued.

Migrant or refugee?

Ghida, dressed in a long, dirt-brown tunic, moved to Libya in 2008 with a family who used her to clean their house. She was an indentured servant working without pay. She left behind two children, 17 and 13, in Morocco and eventually became homeless and jobless in Libya, she said. Ghida’s father and brother died when she was 3, leaving her and her mother to fend for themselves. Since she was 8, Ghida worked cleaning houses. At 12, she was married to a man of 25 who beat her every day, she said; “He treated me like you treat someone in the street.” Now, her two boys work soldering, burning themselves sometimes, and earning 2 euros (a little over US$2) a week. Neither boy has been to school, she said.

Sobbing, Ghida spoke the eternal refrain of refugees in so many eras and in so many lands: She left her country in order to help her children. “I want them to have a better life than I had.”

As I spoke to Ghida, her friend, Dounia, 29, also from Morocco, began to quietly cry as she described her 14 months in Libya. Before Libya, in Morocco, she’d worked sewing textiles from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. for 200 euros (about US$220) a month. In Libya, she worked as a waitress but made no money.

“There is nobody who can pay you, and people are dying in front of you,” she said. “Children are everywhere playing with guns.”

I asked whether either of them had directly experienced violence in their time in Libya. Dounia, my translator explained as I watched her crumple, had experienced violence “many times.”

“There are men who say, ‘Come with me,’ and you have to go,” she said, crying harder and harder. My translator clarified with her: “She’s saying she was raped many, many times,” he said.

“We escaped from Morocco because of misery,” Ghida explained. “Libya was worse. It was like a death sentence.”

Two Moroccan women in Lampedusa say they have experienced violence “many, many times.” (Andreja Restek/APR News)

While the two women had most recently fled Libya, a country torn to pieces by violence and poverty, since reaching Italy they’d been told by a lawyer that their origin means they will soon be sent back to Morocco, something I confirmed with other lawyers was likely true. Asylum status does not apply to them automatically since Morocco is not at war. But this is where the Mediterranean “migrant” crisis becomes murky. Are Dounia and Ghida “migrants” or “refugees”? Their country of origin means they are labeled as migrants, but their residence in Libya means they were fleeing conflict and violence. In any case, there is nothing for them in Morocco. There never was.

“I prefer to die in Italy than go back to Morocco,” said Dounia.

Trauma affects all

Dounia and Ghida wear trauma in their eyes like cataracts, as do a number of the men I’d met in town in Lampedusa. But my next stop, in Catania, Sicily, would truly drive home the pain of what women are experiencing.

At an outdoor cafe near my hotel, which was next to a mosque (in fact, the first modern mosque in Italy), Paola Ottaviano, an immigration lawyer with a nonprofit called Borderline Sicilia, patiently explained some of the ins and outs of the system. When I told her that it had been very difficult thus far to find women to speak to, she nodded and said, “It’s very hard to talk to women. They’ve all been abused. Many have been raped and are pregnant from rape from traveling through Libya.”

A report by Amnesty International released in May confirms something similar: The organization has received several reports of sexualized violence against women—as well as men—along migration routes, which are dangerous crossings through the Sahara or lawless towns. Magdalena Mughrabi, one of the authors of the report, called this violence “definitely a huge concern.” Mughrabi pointed out that women, men, and children all face abuse on their journeys, but that the kind of violence varies: “[M]ale migrants and refugees are systematically subjected to torture and other ill-treatment,” she said, “while women may be more vulnerable to sexual assault and violence (although they also face beatings and other forms of ill-treatment).”

A Somali refugee named Othman told Amnesty about his smuggler: “I know that he used three Eritrean women. He raped them and they were crying. It happened at least twice. Some of the women don’t have money to pay the ransom so they accept to sleep with the smugglers.” Othman went on to say that he and some other men stopped sleeping at night in order to guard the women’s tent.

Mughrabi said that women traveling alone are particularly vulnerable, although being with men doesn’t necessarily protect them either. A Somali woman told Amnesty that besides traveling by yourself, as she did, a man’s lack of “strength” can open one up to attacks: “[I]f you’re alone or the men with you are weak then you get into trouble.” At the detention center in Lampedusa, it was well known among staffers that a woman from Eritrea had been raped in front of her husband during her trip. Amnesty reports similar stories.

It’s not just the migration through Libya that is dangerous for women. Women being held in Libyan detention centers—an unknown number, said Mughrabihave reported sexual harassment and sexualized violence. Abuse is “widespread,” she said. One Nigerian woman, released from a detention center in Sabratah, in northwestern Libya, in December 2014, told the group that officials at an immigration center beat to death a pregnant woman and regularly beat and strip-searched the women.

They used to beat us with pipes on the back of our thighs; they were even beating the pregnant women. At night, they would come to our rooms and tried to sleep with us. Some of the women were raped. One woman even got pregnant after she was raped. No one touched me because I was pregnant. This is why I decided to go to Europe. I suffered too much in prison. One of the pregnant women died there—they took away her body, but we don’t know what exactly happened to her. They hit her on the stomach—she was seven to eight months pregnant and died. During the day, they would force us to come out of our rooms to clean or cook. They used to touch our breasts when we were working. They would beat us if we dared to shout.

But the problem of violence against women hardly begins (or ends) in Libya. Many of the women now fleeing to Europe have been raped in their home countries—it is the essential reason why they are fleeing.

In May, the Malta-based Jesuit Refugee Service, an international Catholic aid and advocacy organization, released a report with interviews from Somali women whose first applications for asylum had been rejected. All began the interview process while in detention and remained locked up for a year. One woman described why she left Somalia:

One afternoon three militia men raped me. There had been a bad clash between Al-Shabaab and another group that day. The news, that I had been raped, went around the area and I was ashamed. I returned to my farm after two months. One day, someone I knew, a young man, came to my farm just as I was finishing work. People from Al-Shabaab saw this and said, ‘you have been raped and now you have committed adultery.’ They declared I would be stoned as a punishment.

“We believe our dignity has been destroyed,” another woman told the group. “All our life, our dignity as women has not been respected. We lost our dignity in our country and during our journey.”

Hurdles to finding help

In Catania, tucked into a gray side street, there’s a Jesuit Refugee Service center called Centro Astalli that offers aid. Behind the front desk I found a friendly-looking older woman. I asked her if I could speak to any of the women who frequent the center. Without hesitation, she said, “No.”

“They will not speak to you,” she explained. “They’ve been through terrible things and don’t want to talk.”

As I wondered whether it’d be possible for her to please ask some of the women in any case, up to the desk walked a young Nigerian woman. After a flurry of Italian, she agreed, somewhat indifferently, to talk to me. We settled in a fluorescent-lit room nearby. The woman, Juliet, 24, pulled out her phone.

She fiddled with it. Soon she explained that she wanted to show me news reports of the bombing that had killed her father, a school headmaster, in the Wuse district of Abuja, Nigeria, in June 2014. Her trauma was evident. She could barely lift her head off her arm as she spoke and cried intermittently. I asked if she had received any counseling since she’d been in Italy.

“What’s that?” she asked.

I rephrased the question. “Has anyone approached you about speaking to them to help you feel better?”

After insisting she felt fine, I asked if she could sleep. No, she said, she never sleeps. “All I think about is death.”

Juliet, a Nigerian refugee in Catania, stays up at night remembering what she fled. (Lauren Wolfe)

There is clearly a cultural hurdle to overcome in getting help to refugees who need it. “Refugees and asylum-seekers may have understandings of psychopathology that differ from those common in their host countries,” says a 2011 study on migration and health in the European Union by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies—a combined effort of the World Health Organization, the World Bank, various governments, and other institutions such as the London School of Economics. “In some countries of origin, perceived psychopathology may be attributed to personal weakness, moral transgressions, physical complaints, and spiritual causes.” Or maybe, like Juliet, some people have just never heard of counseling.

While many refugees resist seeking help, the World Health Organization has identified asylum-seekers in Europe as particularly at risk for mental health disorders—they may have endured torture or sex trafficking in addition to the trauma of war, displacement, discrimination, and the violence of their journeys. Aurélie Ponthieu, the humanitarian adviser on displacement at Doctors Without Borders (MSF), estimates that 40 percent of the people in the reception center in Ragusa, Sicily, have PTSD. And it’s not just PTSD because of what they’ve already been through: “People suffer anxiety in the centers because they don’t know what is happening to them,” Ponthieu said.

Access to counseling, though, is also a problem. A 2011 study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of Bologna found that “Many studies indicate that migrants in Western countries have limited access to and low utilization of community mental health centers despite the high prevalence of mental disorders.”

Yet to assume that lives are forever broken is to miss the essential elasticity of so many people fleeing war and hardship. It is “important to recognize the resilience of many people who experience political violence or adverse life events,” the EU report implores.

To that end, the words of one Somali woman to JRS in Malta offer a crucial entreaty: “We came here hoping for a better future and yet we find ourselves in more difficulties, in detention, in a country where human rights are supposed to be respected. Please help us to restore our dignity.”

Falling through the asylum cracks

Under a sun sparking the waves of the Mediterranean in Augusta, Sicily, at the end of June, I watched as, man by woman by family, 213 migrants and refugees silently proceeded down a plank from a hulking Swedish Coast Guard vessel, which had rescued them at sea two days earlier. They were then seated on the ground in rows. One woman from Sudan was perched in a Red Cross tent near the boat, her back to the open flaps. Her orange headscarf was the only splash of color among the otherwise drab clothes of the others. Later I would find out she was pregnant.

A bewildered-looking family from the Damascus countryside with two young daughters and a son was taken to a separate, tented area for the intake process, in which they may or may not have been fingerprinted. (Another journalist at the port asked a representative from UNHCR whether they would be, and the woman told him, “If we have the machine.”) The kids smiled as their mother permitted me to take their photos before the head of security for the port ordered me, angrily, repeatedly, out of the area.

A Syrian family, just after disembarking from a Swedish naval ship in Sicily. The family spent 11 days at sea. (Lauren Wolfe)

A couple weeks earlier, there had been a boat landing of about 400 refugees and migrants at Augusta, a town marked by oil refineries and navy ships. When the refugees disembarked, nearly 300 took off—they ran for the desert scrub beyond the port fences, according to a port worker who did not want to be named because he did not have official permission to speak to the press. About 50 people escaped, he said. They ran because they did not want to be fingerprinted. If refugees are documented, they are forced to remain in Italy, according to a 2013 EU law called the Dublin Regulation. They then need to endure the one to three years that the asylum process generally takes, but many refugees prefer to move on to countries where there are more connections with their communities: to Germany, to Sweden, to the UK, wherever, according to multiple lawyers and NGO workers. It’s a well-known fact among those working on this issue that Syrians, Eritreans, and Somalis tend to leave Italy if they can. And it’s also widely known that Italy prefers, in many cases, that they leave.

“Italy tries to let them go so they don’t go for asylum,” said Lucia Gennari, a Rome-based lawyer at the Operations Center for Asylum Rights and the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration. “But other countries are turning them back.”

For months, Gennari has worked on the case of two Eritrean women in their 20s arrested near the Austrian border in the Italian city of Udine. Their plan had been to cross to Austria and go on to Germany, Gennari said. Instead, the women were caught and sent to the Ponte Galeria detention center in Rome, which nonprofit Italian aid group Doctors for Human Rights has described as looking “like a penal institution”; men have burned mattresses in protest there, leaving the center “half burned,” Gennari said.

In a strange flouting of law, a judge then handed the women an expulsion order—in spite of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which stipulates that someone cannot be forced to return to a country in which they fear persecution. As a blanket rule today, women and men fleeing Eritrea—where there is forced, lifelong military conscription of anyone 17 years old (and sometimes younger, as had been some men I met in Lampedusa)—are unlikely to be made to return to their country.

The burden of refugees and migrants on Italy—especially in the poorer south of the country—is enormous. To let thousands of refugees just quietly seep through the borders could ease that burden. At the same time, if these refugees are arrested as they try to leave Italy, as is more and more often the case, what happens to them next? Where do the undocumented go after that? For those who make it out of detention finally, will they find jobs and send their children to school? There is the very real possibility that there is an undocumented, lost generation in the making.

“People outside the system end up in the clandestine life, trying to survive by working the black markets and sleeping in slum buildings,” said MSF’s Ponthieu. “People are doing what they have to do to survive.”

Ponthieu described how lines are being blurred between people smuggling and human trafficking during this massive refugee influx. Women smuggled into Italy (particularly Nigerian women) are finding themselves forced into prostitution in order to pay back their smugglers. A local journalist told me about the case of a Nigerian woman now in Sicily who was told that her family was being held for ransom back home and that she had to pay that amount in addition to her own debt by prostituting herself. “It is not at all uncommon for people in West Africa to agree to a period of indentured servitude to repay their smugglers,” said Tuesday Reitano, a human trafficking expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a Geneva-based think tank. “But rarely do they envisage sex work, of course.”

When I asked Gennari where the Eritrean women are now, she told me they had “left” the previous Friday.

“They left Italy?” I asked.

“I hope so,” she said.

The lucky ones

Despite all the difficulties ahead, in some ways, the women and girls who make it to land, however exhausted or injured or impoverished they are, are the lucky ones. As of April, there had been 1,780 deaths this year already along Mediterranean migrant routes, compared with 96 in all of 2014, says the International Organization for Migration. And now for those who have arrived, the true test—how they will proceed with the rest of their lives whether here, in the next country, or once repatriated to their own—is about to begin.

Back in Lampedusa, I had very briefly met a girl named Breka, 14, from Somalia. Our meeting was short because the authorities at the detention center wouldn’t let me speak to her when I finally made it inside, despite her having passed along messages to me that she wanted to tell her story. What I had heard of her was that she was “very smart” and that she wanted to go on to Belgium possibly, because she hoped to try the chocolate. She had told staffers at the center that she wanted to be a pilot.

In Lampedusa, Breka, a 14-year-old Somali girl, thanks a staffer at Save the Children. (Lauren Wolfe)

For the week I was on the island, Breka, Ghida, Dounia, and dozens of other women and girls waited their turn to leave this center of “first reception” to go on to a detention center elsewhere—probably in Sicily—that would allow them to come and go rather than keeping them locked up behind fences day and night. It would be a place in which they could begin their processes for asylum (if they’d allowed themselves to be fingerprinted).

Ghida and Dounia, as lawyers have said, will likely be forced to head back to Morocco, where one faces a violent husband and the other a life of impoverishment. But a girl like Breka, I like to think, has a chance—that the EU system won’t let an unaccompanied child fall through the cracks. I asked Viviana Valastro at Save the Children what generally happens to girls like her.

“For underage girls, it’s very hard to find places for them,” Valastro said. “There are a lot more places for boys set up.” Girls, she said, are often sent to nunneries.

Girls like Breka, I asked?

No, she said. Girls like Breka, she explained, smart girls who have an awareness of how restrictive the system is and how difficult it is to navigate, “will escape.”

At night sometimes, as the memory of lights in the Lampedusa harbor flicker behind my eyes, I wonder about Breka and all the other refugee girls and women I met in Italy. They may be able to escape Italy and the ongoing misery of detention centers and interminable waiting and even nunneries, but will they be able to travel onward and upward and find a life for themselves that is free from violence and fear? Will they be able to get an education or will it be impossible for them to achieve the qualifications necessary to work more than menial labor? Will they get caught up in sex trafficking? Will they be able to sleep soundly at night or will they be like Juliet, the Nigerian woman I met in Catania, who only thinks of death?

For hundreds of thousands of women and girls envisioning a better, less violent life, the future is about as clear as a dark body of water lapping at the edge of a splintering wooden boat. Now that these women and girls have already made the treacherous crossing of the Mediterranean, it remains to be seen whether the land on which they have arrived—the land on which they have staked everything—will support them.