Arab women take to the ‘death boats’ of illegal migration

Some women seek to have their babies born in Europe so they can more easily obtain residence documents and give their children a chance at a better life.

CAIRO - Illegal migration is widespread but the migrants are generally male. Despite the perilous experience, however, some women in Tunisia were not deterred from getting on the boats. They were fleeing tough living conditions that have become even harder since the 2011 revolution.

Due to lax security, illegal migration became endemic in Tunisia but it was brought under check when authorities clamped down on traffickers. Still, the “death boats” of illegal migration entice young Tunisians, including women.

In 2018, there were at least two sinking incidents off the Tunisian coast. In June, more than 80 migrants drowned near the coast of the Tunisian island of Kerkennah and eight drowned off the coast of the island of Djerba last August.

Among the victims in the Kerkennah tragedy were quite a few women, some of whom were pregnant. Experts said desperation in their home countries led some of them to seek to have their babies born in Europe so they can more easily obtain residence documents and give their children a chance at a better life.

During the first nine months of 2017, Tunisian authorities foiled 164 immigration attempts, 1,300 Tunisians were among them.

In October 2017, the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior said the number of women attempting to illegally cross to Europe had risen to 5% of the total from just 1% in 2016. The Tunisian Forum on Economic and Social Rights said Tunisian women make up 4% of irregular migration from the country.

Forum President Messaoud Romdhani pointed out that “Tunisian females suffer twice as much than males from unemployment. More than 30% of women complain from the lack of job opportunities and that leads them to risk a dangerous adventure.”

Tunisian sociologist Taieb Touili said a Tunisian woman “would not dare to get on board a ‘death boat’ unless she is experiencing a real economic or social threat or in case her family fabric is torn apart by the absence of her husband. There are significant numbers of women who migrate to join their husbands.”

Touili said the fluctuation of the proportion of females among illegal immigrants “should be considered as a real indicator of the gravity of the security, economic and social conditions in the country.”

Tunisia is not the only country experiencing a rise in the illegal migration of women. Morocco has seen the same phenomenon.

Unemployment and marginalisation that characterise the lives of some young men and women are not the only reasons behind a growing clandestine immigration in Morocco. Many young women are fascinated with Europe and believe it to be the land of their dreams and happiness.

Hossam Hab, deputy head of the Moroccan Centre for Youth and Democratic Transitions, said illegal “migration of Moroccan women to Europe via ‘death boats’ is not a new phenomenon in Morocco. The new phenomenon, however, is the wide media coverage it is getting because of the popularity of social media networks in Morocco.”

Hab pointed out the country’s growing youth population will inevitably lead to increased demand for services to meet their social, economic and psychological needs. So, there should be an expected increase in the number of female migrants from Morocco if they see few opportunities at home.

In Egypt, too, women are taking to the “death boats.” Some are fleeing male domination and attempt the passage alone. Others cross with their husbands. There are women with young children in their arms or babies in their wombs.

Female illegal migration first came to light in Egypt in September 2016 when the ship Rasheed sank off the coast of Beheira governorate and more than 200 people died. The bodies of women in their 20s were recovered. Ten women survived.

A similar incident occurred three months earlier when the Egyptian Navy found nine decomposing bodies, including the body of an Egyptian woman. Also, a boat bound for the coast of Europe sunk and the navy rescued 12 people, including three women.

Amal Wajih, a 30-year-old Egyptian woman, lives with her 47-year-old husband in Italy after arriving there via illegal immigration channels. The passage to Europe had cost her about $2,250. Amal said by phone that she chose to get on a “death boat” rather than to live the bitterness of the conditions in Egypt.

Wajih said she was comforted by the presence of other women on the boat. There were women with their husbands. There was a woman who was running away from an “obedience” sentence and another who had served a prison sentence and could no longer stand the mean looks of society and what she said was her husband’s treachery.

Wajih said she could not remember how many days she spent on the boat because of pain and dizziness she suffered during the journey. She said she remembered howling winds and roaring waves that pounded the boat, knocking those on board to the deck.

For many women, the journey must have seemed a “ticket to death.”

Egyptian government efforts to stem illegal migration have significantly reduced “death boat” incidents. Still, illegal migration of females is expected to continue due to economic decline, the reluctance of young women to marry and their resentment of male dominance.

Hana Ashmawi, an Egyptian sociologist, said, despite tough measures provided by Egypt’s Law 82 of 2016 against illegal migration and human trafficking and the toughening of security measures, women would continue to risk their lives on the vessels. This will hold true even though clerics place attempts to cross on “death boat” on a par with suicide, which is considered a sin in Islam, Ashmawi said.

His view was confirmed by a young woman from the village of Borg Mghizel in Kafar Sheikh District in northern Egypt. She said: “My ardent desire to get to the shores of Greece and join my sweetheart as soon as the chance presents itself will not be deterred by the dangers ahead at sea.”

He had been in Greece for four years but could not save enough to afford a proper wedding. “Sailing into the unknown with a death ticket is not as painful as feeling estranged in a society that looks at a female only as a body for sexual satisfaction and for making babies,” the woman said.

What these experiences reveal is that more Arab women are willing to take great risks to achieve their ambitions and the migration of women from countries that fail to provide decent lives for them to more developed countries is inevitable.

Shirine al-Daydamouni is an Egyptian journalist. Mohammed bin Mhamed al-Alaoui contributed to this article.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.