We are steeling ourselves for a turbulent summer: The silent struggle of refugee mothers and their babies
As summer comes, the waters of the Mediterranean grow calm. And so, we, in the charity sector, steel ourselves, as gentler crossings make journeys by migrants and refugees more likely.
Last week Carlotta Sami, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), warned that Southern Europe faced a ‘sea of blood’. The familiar scenes of Syrian and Afghan refugees at European ports, are burgeoned by those fleeing political, social or religious persecution and war on new fronts, in parts of Iran, Africa and Myanmar.
Within days of Sami’s statement, we got news of seven people, including two children, drowned off the coast of Lesvos, Greece. The deaths come at a time when NGO rescue ships are being decommissioned from the task at hand, leaving little to no rescues from European shores.
Since 2015, over 1.1 million refugees and migrants have travelled through Greece in search of safety. Among them are more lone young women than you might imagine — pregnant, frightened and vulnerable. Some gain a place in refugee camps; too many end up on the streets of Athens, in tents at the side of busy roads during harsh and wet winters.
In the face of this, from my kitchen table in Greater Manchester, I set up CRIBS International (Care for Refugee Interim Baby Shelter) in Athens — a charity offering a roof and a safe place to live during those crucial pre and post natal months. Providing women and their families some shred of normality, preserving their dignity and nurturing the bonds with their newborns. We have never had a quiet period — my phone pings constantly with new and compelling cases.
And so, I grasped for myself how desperate life is for these women living in the camps. I saw Reema who had been discharged from hospital within days of an emergency cesarean section with her tiny baby. As we sat talking in her shared tent about the traumas she had experienced, we swatted away flies from her newborn’s face in conditions that, at best, are described as squalid. Reema shared one of four showers with over 2000 people.
Elsewhere in Athens, in April 2019, the Greek government, in a pre- election PR move, evicted over 300 refugees at gunpoint from a supposed safe squat, including families with babies.
We could not meet the demand that ensued. The women included Mahsa, turfed out while experiencing a suspected miscarriage. She started bleeding at the police station and lost her baby two days later; doctors put it down to raised cortisol levels triggered by terror and panic.
As always, CRIBS staff and volunteers liaised closely with other agencies on the ground, working through the night to get as many young families off the street. We are still working now.
Last week, new mother Dorcas, a refugee escaping from political persecution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was sent from hospital, three days post partum without her baby daughter. The staff wouldn’t release the baby until Dorcas had somewhere to stay.
Dorcas and her partner spent four days on the streets and in a hostel; her newborn alone in hospital, until we intervened. Any woman who has experienced those tender and fraught early days post birth will understand the immeasurable anguish. It disrupted her opportunity to establish breastfeeding and interrupted those early bonds.
Today Dorcas, her daughter Blessing and her partner have moved into CRIBS accommodation. We rent nine older apartments, prone to maintenance issues, that house between one and three families. It’s a bit of a squish but it’s the best we can do.
Cases like this are not unusual — and shelters are closing. We run on a shoestring but the need for our services is rising. This is life-saving work and it should not be done through cake sales and appeals. Governments and large international organisations should be leading.
Instead, the UNHCR ESTIA scheme, funded by the European Commission’s Directorate General of Migration and Home Affairs (DG HOME), which provided accommodation, food and essentials for refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece, has been closed down.
We are dealing with the upshot of the staggered eviction of 15,750 men, women, and children. CRIBS staff beaver away at my kitchen table supporting women and their babies. But while the governments fail us all.
A storm belies those calm Mediterranean seas — I don’t know how we will cope, let alone the mothers and babies.