“We have a lot of bitter memories. We will never forget these bad memories. [Giving birth while on the move] didn’t only affect us, there were those who gave birth to their babies in forests, while travelling with smugglers. Nobody cared about them,” Aadila,* an Afghan woman who gave birth in a Serbian hospital while migrating to Europe, reflects. Aadlia was one of four women I interviewed in Serbia while conducting preliminary research on migration to the European Union (EU) in August 2021. Fewer women than men migrate to the EU to flee the conflict and instability in Afghanistan. However, gendered dynamics mean that women making this journey, especially mothers, face unique challenges – such as giving birth on the way.
Gendered dynamics of migration to Europe
A frequent stopping point for these women, and many Afghans who have their sights set on Europe, is Serbia. It is considered a transit country through which refugees pass before reaching the EU Schengen Zone to seek safety, secure a better future, or reunite with their families. However, entry into the EU countries bordering Serbia has become increasingly restrictive. Conversations I had with both Afghan women and Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) actors indicated that these changes in border controls affected perceptions of mobility for mothers. During a temporary opening of borders in the Balkans between 2015-16, NGO actors recall women giving birth on the way. These women would do so without any medical assistance – stopping for minimal amounts of time – in order to continue their journey to the EU. As borders into the EU started to close in 2016, there was a perception by some Afghan women that pregnancy or having a new-born baby would put their families higher up the prioritisation ‘list’ for transfer from Serbia into Hungary, thus aiding mobility. However, increased border restrictions since then has resulted in many Afghans being ‘stuck’ in Serbia due to the lack of legal routes into the EU. Afghan mothers I spoke to had been staying in Serbian refugee camps for extended periods, between 9 months and 5 years.
Challenges facing Afghan women refugees
In the current context, border crossings into the EU are extremely dangerous. There are high risks of human rights abuses at borders, as well as exhaustion of migrants from being forcibly refused entry, and having to attempt re-entry multiple times. Furthermore, Afghans on the move might engage with smugglers for assistance with their journey, which puts them at risk of exploitation. Often, these smugglers are unwilling to take young infants across the Serbian border. Instead, Afghan women often have to wait until their children are older, or they need to seek legal routes in order to ensure the safety of their children. This can sometimes take years, and be costly due to complex bureaucratic processes. While settling in Serbia is not undesirable theoretically, respondents indicated that the poorly organised asylum system and limited integration opportunities enforce Serbia as a country of transit. The challenges of attempting to cross the border disproportionately affect women and children.
For many of the interviewed Afghan women staying in Serbia, motherhood represented a simultaneously fulfilling yet burdensome aspect of their life. In a culture where womanhood and motherhood are inextricably bound together, having children provides a sense of purpose, and an ability to fulfil key milestones of life, in spite of border restrictions. Even still, life is challenging due to poor living conditions, and a lack of privacy, safety, basic provisions for new-borns, access to nutritious food, and educational provision. There are many personal accounts of women like Zohra*, who face challenges crossing the border, and have to give birth under challenging circumstances. Many women also mentioned that the Covid-19 pandemic made motherhood more onerous and emotionally demanding. NGOs provide programmes for women and children living in the camps – such as educational workshops and recreational activities – but these are slowly diminishing as humanitarian efforts are reprioritised to Ukraine. My research indicates that in existing programmes, little attention has been paid to maternal health or the motherhood needs of refugee women in Serbian policy and programming.
A way forward for inclusive programming and policy
These insights from Afghan refugee women living in Serbia point to the gendered nature of mobility. Due to the lack of legal routes to international protection and provision for settling in Serbia, Afghan women will continue to cross borders, with their children, to enter EU countries. Thus, a three-pronged approach is required to better support women in these circumstances. Firstly, there is an urgent need for EU States to end the illegal and harmful pushbacks at their borders, which reproduces violence against women. Rather, pathways for safe and legal routes into the EU are needed. Secondly, workable asylum procedures and long-term livelihood opportunities need to be established that will enable families who wish to settle in Serbia the opportunity to do so. Thirdly, NGO programming should account for the needs of pregnant and lactating women, as well as the needs of refugee mothers living in the camps. It is evident from my research that the journey to motherhood continues during migration, in spite of unique challenges faced by Afghan women. The drastic measures to repel refugees from EU borders do not stop Afghan mothers from seeking the safety and security they need. Policy and programming must ensure that women on the move can do just that, by being gender-sensitive, and using evidence from the ground to inform decision-making.
*Names have been changed to maintain anonymity of interview respondents
Esther Sharma is a Doctoral Researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is a UK Registered Midwife who has worked in a variety of clinical and management roles over the past 20 years, as well as the third sector in the UK and voluntarily in Afghanistan.