Researching migrant arrivals, births and burials across the Mediterranean

by Sine Plambech

Plambech, FB 27 July, edited

Life-changing events happen to migrants on their journeys towards Europe. These experiences are rarely what the migrants envisioned at their departure. Some migrants die trying; others become pregnant or give birth en route, giving life to children who are thereby born as migrants.

In this post I reflect on my impressions from recent fieldwork in Italy, and on how to study and account for the experiences of migrants upon their arrival to Europe.

Plambeck, waiting room, edited
Catania waiting room

The Sicilian city of Catania, Italy, is one of the main ports receiving migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. More than 100.000 migrants have arrived by sea to Italy this year. I spent my summer in Catania, doing fieldwork among arriving migrants. Rather, as I have previously done, emphasising departures or the lives migrants lead at their destinations, this part of my research has emphasised the study of arrivals and the life changes migrants experience upon arrival as essential for discussing migration politics.

We talk about the deaths at sea – the drownings, the search and rescue. We also talk about the violence that occurs in Libya, and the politics of ‘governing’ migration, the Sahel strategies, Libyan deals, Turkey deals. At the harbour in Sicily I saw how the drama of high seas rescue missions and the disembarkation ritual are observed by the border police, journalists, volunteers, visiting politicians, activists and researchers like myself. They all take part in one of the most visible and dramatic aspects of migration politics, spectacles that often overwhelm the quieter yet crucial politics and experiences of births and burials along the way.

I started working on Nigerian women’s migration in 2009 and have over the years done fieldwork in Southern Nigeria and in the Red Light District of Copenhagen among Nigerian sex workers. My work in Italy and Sicily widened my field as the Nigerian women migrants most commonly transit through Sicily on their way to Northern Europe. In Sicily I interviewed IOM, UNHCR, local NGOs, leaders of refugee camps, Italian researchers, the grave-diggers at the local graveyard, and most of all the migrant women themselves. The MIGMA-project (Transnationalism from above and below – Migration management and how migrants manage), of which this fieldwork was a part of, is concerned with return migration from Europe back to Nigeria. Yet, my argument is that to understand why so few migrants, and in this case Nigerians, are willing to return, we have to understand the arrivals and the existential experiences of life and death that migrants go through on their journeys.

As I said, I have worked on Nigerian women’s migration across the Sahara and the Mediterranean for several years. To get access to the field I made use of pre-established connections among migrants in Italy. Through my work I advise a number of NGOs and Government institutions on migration and human trafficking who were very helpful in getting access to the port and refugee camps. Yet, since many researchers and journalists over the past couple of years have wanted to study the “migration crisis” I needed to wait and write more letters than usual, asking for access, at times to no avail.

Studying the arrivals of newborn migrants

Within the context of the Mediterranean migration crisis, the arrival of so-called “irregular” migrants are structured as part of the humanitarian and administrative response of European states. The vulnerability and special needs of pregnant migrants have lately received increased awareness by NGOs working with migrants in the Mediterranean. Migrant mothers with newborn babies are directed to special reception units where they receive social and health support and monitoring. These mothers are also granted a half-year permit to stay, which is most often prolonged several times. The fact that mothers with small children receive these permissions to stay has led anti-immigration supporters to perceive of such pregnancies as an intended strategy, and the children born by migrating parents have been labelled as “anchor babies” or “passport babies”, implying that they are conceived to aide their mothers in their efforts to remain in Europe.

Looking at the arrivals of migrant mothers, it seems clear to me however that, if this really is a “strategy”, these women quickly realize that it is a complicated one. Their life in Europe is generally more difficult when they have a baby. As mothers they also face specific kinds of both state and NGO controls and restrictions. For instance, they cannot leave Italy and they have to stay and take care of their baby. So even if having a baby allows them to stay in Europe, it limits their mobility (though some still travel onwards to Northern Europe) and their options when it comes to being able to get a job because of their migrant motherhood status.

The argument that women are arriving pregnant and using anchor babies overlooks how difficult it can be to reach Europe without getting pregnant

Furthermore, we need to understand the interlinkage between reproduction and the routes and trajectories of women migrants as they make their way from Nigeria to Europe. While the women would often say they did not want to have sex en route or in Agadez, Niger, because there was no privacy or nothing but a sand floor, they would feel pressured to do so with the men they sought protection from. In the Sahara for example, women seek the protection of men to stay safe. Having no access to birth control they would describe how during long periods waiting in Agadez or in Libya they would pull out material from mattresses and stick it inside their vaginas to try to guard against pregnancies.

The argument that women are arriving pregnant and using anchor babies overlooks how difficult it can be to reach Europe without getting pregnant, with no access to birth control or abortion, while seeking protection via sex from men.

Studying the arrivals and burials of deceased migrants

Only a few kilometres from the migrant baby cradles and the reception centres for women is a cemetery for the drowned migrants. Catania has a cemetery where a dusty dry corner of the land is designed solely for migrants who have died while crossing the Mediterranean, situated on the outskirts of the city.

The ships assigned for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean bring back migrants to the port of Catania. Both dead and alive. The bodies of deceased migrants are taken to the morgue in Catania, where they are searched for documents and personal belongings. Personal belongings are kept in an office in the city, in case family members come and look for them. However, it is most unlikely that anyone will be able to trace their loved ones.

In contrast to the spectacle at the port, bustling with migrants, NGO workers, journalists, researchers, doctors, police, border control and so on, the cemetery is both a literal and metaphorical backspace of migrant reception; a space where migrant stories are erased.

Here is what I wrote about the day at the graveyard:

Plambech FB 31 July, edited

There are very few visitors, and hardly any flowers at the graveyard. At the entrance to the cemetery sits a group of older men, gravediggers it turns out, in the shade of a tree. The day I arrived it was 2pm and the Sicilian sun was relentless. Two of the men followed me and an Italian colleague to the graves. The gravediggers showed great respect for the dead migrants as they explained their work and the process of migrant burials.

Plambech, two graveyards, edited
The Borders are continued in death. On the left-hand side are the migrants. On the right-hand side, the Italian middleclass. Race, gender, class and citizenship shapes the cemetery.             Photo. S. Plambech

Prospects of getting a visa to search for deceased loved ones are slim for Nigerians. And if there should be other Nigerian family members already in Europe, they would, as the plaque from the graveyard illustrates, have to know which ship they were rescued by and at which port they were disembarked. Some of the plaques at the cemetery don’t even mention the gender of the deceased making it even more difficult to search.

Plambech, plaque
Photo. S. Plambech
Plambeck, Soyinka poem
Photo. S. Plambech

While the graves are unmarked, the City of Catania has erected a monument to commemorate the deceased migrants. Since so many of the drowned are from different African countries – and many from Nigeria – I found it comforting that the County of Catania choose this poem MIGRATIONS by Nigerian poem Wole Soyinka to honour them in Death.


Wole Soyinka

Will there be sun? Or rain? Sleet Damp as the pasted smile of the frontier clerk? Where will the last tunnel spew me out Amphibian? No one knows my name. So many hands await that first Remittance home. Will there be one?

Tomorrows come and go, beachcomber days. Perhaps you’ll wear me, seaweed stitched On fake designer goods, invisibly branded: Sweat-Shop. Or gaudy souvenirs that distance, Yet bind us, as migrant handicraft, and crafty Rolexes jostle for space on glazed Side walks. The outspread rugs entice, but No embossment reads – WELCOME.

Cowrie shells, coral reef or chalk cliffs – All are one at the margin of elements. Loose sands dog my steps. Loose sands Of deserts, of chiseled seabed shrouds – For some went that way before the answer Could be given – will there be sun? Or rain? We’ve come to the bay of dreams.

In times of important life changes, such as the birth of a child or the loss of a loved one, the need for the support and companionship of others is essential. For migrants, this is rarely possible. Due to the constant fear of being deported, migrants try to protect themselves by not revealing their names or personal details, which adds to the experience of migration as a form of solitude. The life and death events these migrants experience on their journey to Europe are important in understanding why so few want to return voluntarily. Having so much vested in the journey makes it more than difficult to return.

Plambech, man looking at sea, edited
Man watching the sea, at Catania port. Many migrants have to manage big life changes all on their own. Photo. S. Plambech

Adapted from interview with the author by By Emma Villman & Per Jørgen Ystehede:

All photos by the author

About the author

Sine Plambech, anthropologist and researcher at DIIS. Currently Visiting Professor at Barnard, Columbia University, New York. She was in Sicily as part of the MIGMA – Transnationalism from above and below project, which explores European attempts to return Nigerian migrants. The MIGMA project is a co-operation between University of Oslo, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and the Faculty of Law at the University of Bergen (UiB).

Personal profile

The research project is financed by the Research Council of Norway.

Links to recent publications

God brought you home – deportation as moral governance in the lives of Nigerian sex worker . Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43 (13), 2017.

Sex, Deportation and Rescue: Economies of Migration among Nigerian Sex Workers. Feminist Economics 23 (3), Special Issue on Sex Work and Trafficking, 2017.

Short pieces

“Drowning mothers”, OpenDemocracy

“Becky is dead”, OpenDemocracy

Plambech, FB 27 July, edited
Plambech, FB 27 July, edited
Plambech, FB 27 July, edited

Leave a Reply

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: