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Survivors: Women and Migration

About: Camille Schmoll, Les damnées de la mer, La Découverte

by Laura Odasso , 5 April 2023
translated by Kate McNaughton
with the support of

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C. Schmoll invites us to feminize our view of migration towards Europe. Public migration policies select women according to frequently incompatible principles of morality, vulnerability and utility, and determine the positions that they will come to occupy in our societies.

In the night before Christmas 1996, 283 of the 500 migrants who had set sail from Egypt in the hope of reaching Europe lost their lives off the coast of Syracuse, in Sicily, to general indifference. It was not until January 1997 that some fragments of this tragedy emerged thanks to the words of its survivors. This shipwreck marked the beginning of a series of crossings, some of them successful and some never completed, of the Central Mediterranean. To the faces of those survivors were eventually added those of thousands of other people who have come near to the borders of Europe, have managed to find their place there, or are still wandering in distress [1].

The media has put forward an interpretation of this phenomenon that combines urgency, spectacularization and compassion, and politicians have exploited the increased visibility of exiles in order to increase anxiety about a supposed invasion and “great replacement”, only very rarely – save for a few notable exceptions – opting to argue in favour of long-term, welcoming policies. In addition, since the 1990s, as various dubious European and national policies have been implemented, violence has increased on migration routes, and a repressive approach and heavy-handed security measures have reduced the opportunities opened up by mobility. Numerous research projects have attempted to carefully parse these dynamics.

While definitely being part of this abundant academic production and drawing fruitfully on its contributions, Camille Schmoll’s text also stands out because her analysis of eight years of ethnographic work carried out in Malta and Italy [2] presents us with a history of female survivors. She invites us to “feminize our view” (p. 197) of migration towards Europe and the management thereof. In fact, the book highlights the complexity of the motivations and experiences that characterize the migratory departures and trajectories – often in conflict with the categories acknowledged by international law – of those “women who “transgress the immobility to which they have been condemned” (p. 189) and “cross the Mediterranean” (p. 187-188). In contrast with images of women going to join their husbands, or staying home in villages that have been emptied of their men, these women, whose points of view the geographer reveals to us [3], decide to leave. They are of different nationalities (Eritrean, Nigerian, etc.) and find themselves in a range of administrative and legal situations. They do however all have in common the fact that they have overcome “the challenge of the Mediterranean” (p. 210), together with innumerable ancillary challenges that constitute the “common singularity” (ibidem) of their stories.

Margins and Borders

A political approach to the margins allows us to understand both the plurality and universality of these women’s experiences. The concept of margin “refers [here] all at once, and not always simultaneously, to phenomena of spatial periphery, of social and political marginality, of the marking and transgression of borders” (p. 23). And in fact, it is the closing of European borders to migrants coming from the global South – through a visa policy that is never called into question – which creates and upholds marginal zones. These are neither really in Europe nor outside it (as in the case, for example, of “hotspots” [4]) or, on the contrary, they are right at the heart of the continent (as with welcome centers or refugee camps). But for the migrant women which the geographer’s eye follows over a long period of time – first physically, and then through social media – the margin also becomes an existential mark. It translates into daily microaggressions that are added to the continuum of violence they have been subjected to on their journey, and often already in their home countries (cf. La vie de Julienne – “Julienne’s Life”, pp. 33-56). Marginality, which for these women extends into the suspended time of waiting for a legal status and a home, arises out of the extension of the effects of the border on the continent. In fact, borders define both the start and the end of the journey.

The text takes the reader through three key moment-spaces of these female journeys, in which these borders are materialized in a variety of ways: their land and sea crossings, their arrival in Europe, and the places where they are “welcomed”. These moments are metonymic of other moment-spaces (their home countries and families, the desert, Libya, etc.) that are marked by deep and fragmented temporalities, and by emotions and memories that stay with and, sometimes, pursue the women throughout their efforts to settle in their new home countries. For indeed, crossing over European borders is just one aspect of the migratory journey. The logic of filtering desired forms of mobility is a sprawling one: it is externalized to the migrants’ home countries, present in the countries they transit through, and erected as an emblem of a common European policy at the external borders of the Union.

But this logic also quietly defines the daily lives of these migrant women well after they have arrived in Europe: sorting upon arrival, identification procedures, submission of a request for asylum, wait(s), different accommodation(s), attribution of protection or risk of refusal, irregularity, and removal procedures or, alternatively, secondary movements towards a country that is not the one via which they first arrived on European soil, return to the country they first arrived in, etc. These bureaucratico-administrative mechanisms remind the exiled women that they have not yet quite arrived. And, on top of this, access to gynecological care, their relationships with the agents of their welcome or, once they have obtained their administrative status, the desire to reunite their families, to find appropriate work and housing, once more bring to light this border, and constantly make these women’s positions precarious and even marginalized. However, Schmoll formulates the hypothesis that even though they have – or perhaps because they have “experienced the challenge of the border on numerous occasions” (p. 220), these female survivors develop a certain intentionality to infiltrate the asymmetrical social relations that disqualify them. And it is these “subjectivities emerging in the margins” (p. 25) that this book is interested in.

The Political Geography of Bodies

The intentionality of the women arises out of a constant interaction with the immigration system. While their journeys involve unspeakable violence and unexpected bifurcations, their arrival marks their entry into a dimension where time dilates and space shrinks. The wait for administrative steps and access to services turns out to be a “technology of subjection” (p. 134) which amplifies externalized checks and maritime borders. Seen up close, the welcome system functions as a mechanism for “modeling the subjectivities” (p. 130) both of exiled women and of its employees. The management of life in the centers, what is permitted and what is forbidden, cohabitation, hierarchical relations, boredom, idleness and the injunction to be active shape the hosts’ mutual representations, and influence or even limit the migrant women’s ability to act. By outlining “moral landscapes of waiting” (p. 134) which act as analytical tools or ideotypes, the geographer presents the various situations within which the welcome system defines the contours of what is legal and illegal, of what is licit and illicit, and thus of what constitutes a “good” and a “bad” female migrant. These landscapes are located at the crossroads of efforts to establish gender-based boundaries and efforts to establish stricter borders, meaning a series of spatial and social redefinitions of borders through an “intense activity of delimitation and hierarchisation” (p. 135) that is carried out from above by politicians and by the law, and from below by the agents responsible for managing the reception of migrants and the socio-administrative formalities related to this (p. 136). And indeed, the access to protection, to residence, and to the services these women require is conditioned by the – seldom neutral – decisions made by the mediators they come across.

This creates a game of judgment and suspicion, of vulnerability and victimization; a culturalist game, and one that is normalized and rife with gendered and sexual prejudice, or even by the fear of the service offered being abused. These moral landscapes constantly remind the players involved of their asymmetrical positions, their – real or imagined – gender characteristics, but also those characteristics related to their “race”, class or age. The degree of freedom granted to such women in reception centers has an impact on their experience. They are subject to the rules and gazes of the agents managing their reception, but also to those of neighboring inhabitants and, in mixed spaces, to those of male exiles. Even though these reception centers are theoretically safe compared to a dangerous outside world, in these spaces, the intimacy of these women is constantly exposed, and the rhythms of their bodies and of their days are defined by the other people present and the constraints imposed by the place itself (promiscuity, absence of locks on doors, imposed times for getting out of bed etc.). This “forced making extimate” – as opposed to “intimate” – (p. 148) goes hand in hand with a politics of intimacy that deals in choices connected to sexual health, to childcare and to interpersonal relations. These are choices that are often combed over by other people, since these women are in an “ambivalent” position, “at once protected and controlled”. Nevertheless, depending on how they function and are structured, reception centers are emblematic of the frictions between imposed discipline and opportunities “to experiment with new practices and a new relationship to oneself and one’s environment in migration” (p. 157).

The Politics of Resistant Life [5]

The “attempts to discourage and immobilize” (p. 82) made by international organizations, nation-states and the media have failed to reduce the departures of migrants. Although the horrifying difficulties involved in the journey are now well-known, Europe still remains an island of safety. Thus, the women choose their fate in a “tension between ‘mortification’, ‘inhuman treatment’ […] and ‘luck’, ‘adventure’ or ‘destiny’” (p. 82). The road, with its dangers, leaves profound traces in the bodies and souls of the women. For them, “penniless, assaulted, raped, and above all when – the supreme disgrace – they are expecting children as a result of these rapes” (p. 82), it would be unimaginable to return home.

Various motivations, desires, relationships, pressures and forms of oppression frame the intentionality of the migratory enterprise. To illustrate the “imbrication of motivations and temporalities” (p. 89) and show how the subjectivities of these women “are constructed in and through the border” (p. 165), Schmoll opts for a diachronic reading of their journeys in light of “autonomy under stress” (p. 163). This concept allows us to identify the contradictions due to the coexistence of the vulnerabilization inherent to the migratory process and of hope for a better life. The tension between these two dimensions is presented through a description of the interlacing between a subjective desire to act and the effects of structural conditions arising out of the immigration system in the women’s daily lives. More specifically, the tactics and strategies that illustrate this autonomy under stress are identified according to three scales: that of the body, of the domestic space, and of digital space. Thus, by controlling their biological and reproductive conditions, through forms of physical resistance (as in the case of hunger strikes) that are less publicized than those of their male companions, through acts of intimate micro-resistance, through the reappropriation of small “home” spaces, or, alternatively, by setting up online spaces that focus on beauty, positive performance and establishing social networks, the exiled women are, on a daily basis, affirming a politics of life in a state of resistance. Thus, the margin is not just a place of oppression, but also of transformation for exiled women.

Written in a language aimed at immigration experts, but that is quite well explained to the average reader, this book allows us to locate these women’s journeys, which are so unique and, perhaps, still in the minority, within the landscape of international migrations towards Europe, and to shed light on the interplay between different stakeholders (political decision-makers, people smugglers, border agents on both sides of the Mediterranean, international organizations, cooperatives responsible for migrant reception etc.) that characterizes them. It is true that Schmoll insists that she is offering us her own, located version of the trajectories of the female wretched of the sea, since feminizing our gaze involves, first and foremost, knowing how to admit that the position of the researcher is never “innocent” (p. 31) and free from power relations. Aware of her position as a white, European researcher, whose life story is profoundly different to that of her subjects, she tries not to speak for them, but rather to make their voices heard. In so doing, she pleads in favor of a repoliticization of the gender question as part of the current critical turn in migration studies (p. 190). In practice, the issue here is to give space to the women who have been erased in accounts of migrations and, in light of these counter-intuitive female trajectories, to interrogate public migration policies that select women according to often contradictory principles of morality, vulnerability and utility, thus establishing hierarchies between them, and determining their future positions in our societies. It will not have escaped the reader’s attention that the title of the book is a reference to Frantz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth, and thus suggests the need for an intersectional perspective on feminine migrations in the Mediterranean, and our treatment of them.

Camille Schmoll, Les damnées de la mer, La Découverte, 2020. 248 p., 20 €.

by Laura Odasso, 5 April 2023

Further reading

Further Reading

• Agier Michel, Gérer les indésirables. Des camps de réfugiés au gouvernement humanitaire, Paris, Flammarion, 2008.
• Akoka Karen, L’asile et l’exil. Une histoire de la distinction réfugiés/migrants, Paris, La Découverte, 2020.
• Di Cesare Donatella, Crimini contro l’ospitalità. Vita e violenza nei centri per gli stranieri, Genova, Il Melograno, 2014.
• Fogel Frédérique, Parenté sans papiers, Paris, Éditions Dépaysage, 2019.
• Heaven Crawley, «Gender, “Refugee Women” and the Politics of Protection», in Claudia Mora et Nicola Piper (dirs.), The Palgrave Handbook of Gender and Migration, Cham, Palgrave MacMillan, 2021, p. 359-372.
• Laacher Smain, De la violence à la persécution, femmes sur la route de l’exil, Paris, La Dispute, 2010.

To quote this article :

Laura Odasso, « Survivors: Women and Migration », Books and Ideas , 5 April 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at We will get back to you as soon as possible.


[1To which must be added the over 30,000 migrants who have died at sea since the end of the 1980s. Cf. the map of people who have died while migrating near Europe, Les damn.e.és de la mer 1993-2018.

[2The survey was carried out from 2010 to 2018, by observing reception centers for families and lone women, detention centers for women and other centers for minors, by gathering the stories of around 80 women, and continuing to follow some of these over the long term through social media, and by conducting interviews with reception center managers, activists etc. (cf. methodological annex, p. 205-206).

[3Adhering to standpoint theory’s feminist approach (cf. for example the pioneering work of Sandra Harding, Dorothy Smith and Patricia Hill Collins).

[4This refers to migrant sorting and registration centers set up in Greece and Italy by the extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council of the European Union on 14 September 2015, in order to make a distinction between those migrants entitled to refugee status and who can hope for some form of international protection and thus will be able to continue their journeys, and those who will potentially be sent back to their home countries. These centers, which bring together several European agencies (e.g. Frontex; Europol, etc.), will serve to improve control over the Union’s external borders.

[5Following Schmoll’s example, I am borrowing this expression from Michel Agier.

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