On June 14, the Mediterranean Sea experienced one of the deadliest migrant boat sinking incidents in recent years. Tragically, this shipwreck is not the first of its kind; unfortunately, it may not be the last. Out of the approximately 750 people onboard the trawler, only 104 survived.
The recovery efforts led to the retrieval of eighty-two bodies, while the fate of the remaining individuals remains unknown. Following the incident, Greek border guards have faced significant criticism, with witnesses alleging that the coastal guards intentionally caused the ship’s sinking.
Yet, this devastating shipwreck did not capture global attention. Irrespective of these tragic incidents in the Mediterranean, the hot topic of discussion revolves around the impact of refugee flows on border security and national identity. However, what truly alarms me is the troubling rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric within politics.
I share my thoughts in this blog post in a world filled with concerns and uncertainties. I aim to highlight the often-overlooked narratives of refugees pushed to the margins, their stories eclipsed by a dominant and narrow perception of what a refugee should be.
We must acknowledge that social media and statistics heavily influence our understanding of the refugee crisis, reinforcing a simplified narrative focusing solely on a single male migrant with limited skills. This portrayal can fuel apprehension and make us question our safety and security.
Therefore, we should expand our perspective and listen to the voices of “others,” especially the stories of courageous women. To gain a deeper understanding of why migrants embark on migration journeys despite the risk of death, let me tell you about the migration journey of Sameera, whom I met in 2019 in Istanbul.
Migration journey of Sameera
Allow me to share the story of Sameera, a woman whose journey I greatly admire. She crossed the border from Afghanistan into Turkey. She was en route to the European Union when our paths intertwined in 2019. Sameera’s life has been marked by unimaginable hardship, and she dreamt of reaching Europe by boat. Interestingly, she had already been granted admission to a resettlement program and accepted by the United States. However, despite this opportunity, she was on her way to Europe due to her vulnerabilities and immediate concerns for her well-being.
Life in Afghanistan: A Childhood Full of Struggle and Abuse
Sameera was orphaned at a young age. She was raised by relatives who denied her an education and forced her into labor. Married off at a tender age to a cruel and abusive man, she endured physical violence, the tragic loss of her unborn children, and constant threats to her life:
“Before marrying me, he had been married to another woman he tragically killed. I could not take any action or raise my voice to marry him. In Afghanistan, if a woman raises her voice, she is deemed guilty, subjected to a trial, and ultimately sent to prison. Being a woman in Afghanistan is a crime, with all rights exclusively reserved for men, whereas women are denied any rights. My only recourse was to pray to God, as I felt completely powerless and incapable of taking any meaningful action. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to flee to Turkey in search of a safer haven.”
In a society where women’s rights were marginalized and their voices suppressed, Sameera faced numerous challenges that hindered her dreams. Determined to break free from her oppressive circumstances after giving birth to her daughter, she decided to migrate to Turkey. However, escaping her abusive husband was not easy. Sameera cleverly planned to persuade her husband to migrate to Turkey with her, intending to seize an opportunity to escape his grasp upon their arrival.
The Journey to Turkey: Escape from Afghanistan
Initially reluctant, the husband was eventually persuaded to come to Turkey. They crossed the border via Iran on foot for almost a month. They settled in a small city in Turkey. Once the money ran out after their arrival, he demanded Sameera work to provide him with money. Despite explaining her caregiving responsibilities for their baby, he resorted to physical abuse. Sameera felt powerless to take any action.
Struggles in Turkey: Threats, Violence, and Uncertainty
Sameera faced domestic abuse from her husband while residing in Turkey. Encouraged by a supportive friend, she got the courage to report the abuse to the police, resulting in her husband’s subsequent arrest and deportation. Left alone in an unfamiliar city, she found employment but encountered financial hardships.
Meanwhile, her ex-husband persisted in harassing and threatening her, leaving her feeling helpless. Seeking a means of escape and protection, Sameera entered into a second marriage with another Afghan migrant living in Turkey. During the interview, she told me she could not entirely trust the man she married. She lived in constant fear for her safety and the well-being of her child.
Navigating the Asylum Process: Uncertain Future
Sameera sought assistance from an NGO in Turkey to apply for resettlement in the US and went through interviews. She had been granted international protection status, and the United States had agreed to resettle her, but the process could take several years.
Unable to wait that long, while receiving a death threat from her ex-husband, Sameera decided to leave her city and move to Istanbul to take a boat to Greece. During our interview, Sameera and her family stayed in a “safe house” owned by a smuggler, uncertain of the future.
The Journey on a Boat: Taking Risks to a Better Future
Facing imminent danger, Sameera decided to embark on a journey from Istanbul to Greece on a boat, hoping to find safety elsewhere. She knew the risks involved, including the potential loss of her and her daughter’s life. Yet, crossing the EU-Turkey border was her only option. Despite holding an international protection status granted by the UN, she felt constant fear of deportation from Turkey triggered by public and political discourse. She thought they had to move:
“If they decide to send refugees back, can I stop them from doing that? No, I can’t. That is one of the reasons I am trying to get out of here.”
As we also found in our recently published article with Dr. Aysen Ustubici, refugees feel compelled to take risks at the borders to prove they still have agency or control over their lives (Kiriscioglu & Ustubici, 2023). Thus, with limited resources and no clear destination in mind, Sameera sought to escape the constant fear and insecurity that endangered her existence.
Conclusion: A Call for Raising the Voices of Refugees
Sameera’s story provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by many migrants worldwide. Probably, I will never know whether she crossed the border from Turkey to Greece. Yet, her migration journey marked by desperation, resilience, and perseverance will be vivid in my memories.
When I learned that there were no women survivors from the sinking boat on June 14, I felt desperate for the future of women like Sameera. That is why I am more committed to raising my concerns regarding migrants on the move than ever before. In doing so, I aim to convey the voices and stories of individuals like Sameera and countless others who have entrusted me with their experiences.
I invite academics, pundits, and journalists from around the world to join me in raising the voices of refugees. We should recognize the urgency of addressing the root causes of displacement and invest in solutions that provide support, protection, and opportunities for those on the move, especially for resilient women worldwide like Sameera.
Note: Some of Sameera’s life story details are hidden and changed for privacy reasons. I also gave a pseudo-name to the interviewee for this blog post. Yet, the story represents a composite of various real-life experiences.
Eda Kirişçioğlu is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and a research fellow at MiReKoc, Koc University. Her research project explores why and how migrants aspire to move onwards, stay or return along their migration journeys. The research investigates how migrants’ risk perceptions inform their migration aspirations. Her dissertation is part of the ADMIGOV: Advancing Alternative Migration Governance project, led by Dr. Anja van Heelsum. For more information, see: https://admigov.eu/
Kiriscioglu, E., & Ustubici, A. (2023). “At Least, at the Border, I Am Killing Myself by My Own Will”: Migration Aspirations and Risk Perceptions among Syrian and Afghan Communities. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 1-15. doi:10.1080/15562948.2023.2198485