Interview with Women in Exile – an initiative of refugee women

Women in Exile

When refugees are the subject, the discussion is unfortunately far too often only about them and rarely with them. That is why we are very pleased that Women in Exile took the time to answer some questions for us. 

For more than 20 years, the initiative by and for refugee women has been campaigning for the rights of women and girls on the move. In this interview, you will get an insight into the work of Women in Exile, including a critical examination of discriminatory systems.

What do you do in your network? What do you stand for?

“Women in Exile is an initiative of refugee women founded in Brandenburg in 2002 by refugee women to fight for their rights. We decided to organize as a refugee women’s group because we have made the experience that refugee women are doubly discriminated against, not only by the racist and discriminative general refugee laws but also as women.

In 2011 Women in Exile and activists in solidarity without flight background founded Women in Exile and Friends. Our fights are focused on the abolition of all laws discriminatory to asylum seekers and migrants and on the interconnections of racism and sexism. Together we develop strategies to achieve political change and take our protest against the inhuman living conditions of refugee women to the public.

Our fundamental political goal is the utopia of a just society without exclusion and discrimination, with equal rights for all, irrespective of where they come from and where they go to. We perceive ourselves as a bridge between the refugee and the feminist movement. Our experience is that women can relate to each other, regardless of all differences like age, origin, religion, status, sexual orientation or other factors, and can make an impact together.”

Some of your members have survived the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Why do so many people feel forced to take this risky escape route?

“Many people are forced to risk escaping through dangerous routes because of the hindrances of freedom of movement, such as border guards, controls and high wired fences. This is nothing new. It is history repeating itself. Europeans are experts in building borders in Africa. During the Berlin conference 1884-85 the colonial powers divided Africa among themselves. Until today companies and individuals are profiting from the misery they created and continue to create.

As long as people cannot cross borders freely and these borders are controlled by forces subsidised and militarized by the European Union or European troops, people from the global south will risk their lives to cross them –unlike their counterparts from the global north, who have the privileges of crossing them freely.”

With regard to regions south of the Sahara: are there particular reasons which cause women to flee? If so, what are they and to what extent do they affect women specifically?

“Modern day colonialism, extraction of our natural resources, such as minerals, commercial farming of our lands from multinational companies are catalysts of climate changes, which results in long term droughts.

Cheap labor and the western markets determine the currency of exchange of our markets. In exchange of our natural riches, there is poverty for the majority of people in our societies. Only a postcolonial elite benefit from the extraction and exploitation and get richer. To add to all this, guns are spread and fuel conflicts into military ones or even civil wars. And European support of corrupt leaders destabilizes our nations. Women bear the heaviest burdens, because they are left alone to be responsible for the welfare of the whole family.

These are some of the reasons which make us leave our countries to escape all these disaster, but instead of finding a promising future, racism, deportations and isolation are our destiny.”

Libya is considered a particularly dangerous place for people seeking refuge. The accounts shared with us describe arbitrary exploitation and violence that is unimaginable for us, especially sexualised abuse. At the same time, we also see an impressive resilience amongst the women on board our ship. How can people deal with the experience of violence and find the strength not to give up hope?

“The European Union subsidizes these conditions through the cooperation with Libya. This is yet another example of the deadly consequences of Fortress Europe. For these miseries and experiences some companies and individuals are profiting.

Refugee women in our group who came through the Mediterranean and Italy describe how they had to endure sexualised abuse and exploitation. It is not easy for the women to overcome all this, because after getting to their destination, they are accommodated in camps. Here, they experience same predicament or continue to live in fear of suffering the same fate. Camps are not a space for healing, rather they re-/traumatize.

A life in isolation for people already severely traumatised is disastrous and worsens their health. Women* and children need special protection and must finally live in humane conditions in order to avoid being repeatedly assaulted sexually and physically.

Maybe it is the long intergenerational, anticolonial struggle for freedom, that our ancestors fought, that gives us power to overcome? Cause we are still not there yet. Or it is the sacredness of our bodies and souls that keeps us fighting for dignified life? Somehow there is a lot of courage and determination to overcome the dangerous journey and to live a dignified life. The longing for a safe, better or simply different life, leads to self-empowerment and the fight for their rights and those of their children.”

From your experience: how often do women flee together with their children? What does it mean for them to take the dangerous route with their children? What does it mean for the children to go through this?

“The women who are courageous enough to flee with their children take the risk not only for their own survival but also for their children. They take these desperate measures to run from dangers of all kind and for a better life for themselves and their children. This sometimes means children or parents perishing on the way. The traumatic experiences in taking these dangerous journeys leave deep psychological scars in children.”

The work of NGO search and rescue organisations is often criticised, and rescuers are criminalised. The myth that people only risk the dangerous crossing in the first place because of the presence of rescue ships comes up again and again. What would you say about this with regard to women’s experiences?

“Do they think it is a choice? Do they really think we take our children and cross the most dangerous border in this world just because of fun and adventure?

This is part of the war on migrants and refugees. And it doesn’t only take place on Europe´s external borders. It is manifested in all laws restricting the freedom of migrants and refugees. It is also demonstrated when the life and health of people is threatened through the process of deportation. Women, queers and children are the most vulnerable in the whole process.

Border policies, be it physical or unseen borders, are money-making machines for all the players involved. The European Union, individual governments, companies involved in producing and exporting arms, Frontex and those running the camps. To justify their inhuman acts of hunting people on high seas and across deserts, European policies of course shift the blame onto those who are trying to rescue the victims from distress on sea.”

Find out more about the important work of Women in Exile on their website.
Cover picture: © Women in Exile

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