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Refugee women give birth on way to Europe, even on boats

14 September 2015, 19:24

Warsaw - The baby names carry the mark of struggle and gratitude.

A Nigerian migrant mother called her baby girl "Gift" after a difficult delivery on an Italian navy ship that rescued her in the Mediterranean. A woman from Ghana named her baby Angela Merkel Ade in admiration for the German chancellor. Other migrant women who have delivered babies during risky journeys to Europe lately have been given their newborns names like "Lucky" and "Hope."

Among the surging number of migrants headed to Europe are pregnant women who are giving birth — whether it's in Libya as they wait to cross the sea, on rescue ships or at Budapest's Keleti train station. Just this weekend, a 5-day-old baby and two women who were nine months pregnant were among 284 rescued from a fishing boat in distress in the Strait of Sicily, the Italian Navy said Monday.

"It is dangerous but these people are desperate," said Meron Estefanos, director of the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights. "They think that either you die with your unborn child or if you are lucky you will make it."

Many of the surviving newborns now appear to indeed face futures filled with the promise that some of their names convey, especially since Germany agreed this month to take in hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from Syria and other conflict-ridden countries.

But there are many heartbreaking endings as well. Some newborns have died in shipwrecks or due to a lack of medical help. Those who survive could face future health problems given the stress and injuries suffered by their mothers, who are sometimes undernourished and abused by their smugglers.

When a boat carrying over 500 refugees capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October 2013, one of the victims was an Eritrean woman who drowned while she was giving birth to a baby boy. Days later, when Italian coast guard divers pulled their corpses from the water, they were still attached by the umbilical cord.

More recently, a newborn boy died Sept. 5 when a boat with Syrians capsized while crossing from Turkey to Agathonissi, a Greek island of 152 people without a hospital or even a permanent doctor.

"The child had fallen into the sea and swallowed a lot of water," said mayor Vangelis Kottoros. "It was half-dead when it was brought ashore."

A coast guard patrol vessel was busy looking for other survivors from the boat, and it took two or three hours before the child could be taken to nearby Samos, the nearest island with a hospital, Kottoros said. "Now I can't say if it would have survived if there had been a doctor here," he added. "But we haven't had one for the past two months."

The U.N. and the International Organization for Migration do not have figures for how many pregnant women are making the journey. But it is clear that people fleeing Syria and other conflict-ridden lands are so desperate that being pregnant, even heavily pregnant, is not holding women back. If anything, they sense an even greater urgency to leave horrifying conditions in places like Libya, where smugglers often deny them medical care, some aid workers say.

Amina Asmani of Syria fought her way past baton-wielding Macedonian riot police in August, managing to get to a train with her husband and 10-day-old son, who was born on a Greek island during her journey. "The policemen let us on the train only because they felt sorry for the baby," she told the AP at the time.

Barbora Sollerova, a midwife who works on Dignity I, a Doctors Without Borders ship that has been carrying out rescue operations near Malta since mid-June, says about 10 percent of the women taken on board were pregnant.

Recently her ship rescued a Nigerian woman close to delivery who vowed to name her unborn daughter Dignity, after the ship. They also took onboard a 5-day old baby born in a detention center in Libya whose mother was not allowed to go a hospital and was assisted in her delivery by her mother-in-law.

Some go into pre-term labor because of the strain of the trips or the violence they endure from smugglers.

"The women experience repeated sexual, physical and psychological abuse. They are used as forced labor. They lack adequate food and they often get no antenatal or postnatal care," Sollerova said. "And they are forced to have unprotected sex, putting them at risk of syphilis or HIV."

Sollerova believes such abuse and stress could have a long-term impact on their mental health and ability to bond with their children.

Even for the healthy babies, there are potential legal risks for those born on the move outside their home states. Some parents flee without IDs, babies born on the road sometimes are not issued birth certificates and women from some countries, including Syria, don't even have the right to pass on their nationality to their children, a potentially huge problem in cases where no father is present. Babies cannot count on getting European citizenship, even if they are born on European soil, because European countries grant citizenship based on "blood" right, that is, the nationality of the parents. There are some exceptions: France will often give citizenship more easily to stateless children than other countries.

This leaves some children at risk of being stateless, a legal condition that affects some 10 million people worldwide, 600,000 of them in Europe. People who are stateless are often unable to obtain ID documents and suffer serious limitations to their rights and freedom of movement. Among those rights, according to aid workers, could be the right to go to school although that is not expected to be an issue in Germany.

The full extent of the problem is not apparent yet but the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says it is worried that the problem could grow amid the largest refugee crisis facing Europe since World War II.

A birth during a migrant journey "is not only extremely dangerous from a health point of view but it leaves the children very vulnerable," said Fanny Dufvenmark, a migration law expert with the International Organization for Migration.

Those most at risk of becoming stateless are children born to Syrian mothers whose fathers are dead or absent. The reason is that Syria — where many people are now fleeing war — does not give women the right to pass their nationality on to their children, a form of gender discrimination still practiced in 27 countries.

So for instance, a woman who gives birth outside of Syria after her husband has died or disappeared in the conflict in Syria, would not be able to pass her nationality on to her child.

The UNHCR says that surveys show that around 70 percent of Syrian children born in Lebanon, where many Syrians have taken refugee during the civil war, are born without an official birth certificate, and that the situation is probably similarly high throughout the region.

According to the UNHCR, some refugees who are unable to obtain birth certificates in host countries in the Middle East have taken huge risks to resolve the problem, smuggling newborns back into Syria to register them as if they had been born there or having family members return to the country to get critical documents. In some cases, people have died in the attempts.

"The number of stateless children is expected to grow considering the numbers of Syrians fleeing abroad," said Inge Sturkenboom, an expert on statelessness with the U.N. refugee agency.

She and other refugee experts stress that this is a problem whose full dimensions will only be apparent later.

William Spindler, a spokesman with UN refugee agency, says the proper registration of the asylum-seekers once they make it to Europe is vitally important in the current situation "because at least there will be evidence that someone has arrived."

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- AP


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