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At the Borders of Europe

Experiences of Illegalized African Women

Against the backdrop of the deaths of 27 exiled people, who drowned in the English Channel while trying to reach the United Kingdom in November 2021, Camille Schmoll’s book sheds light on the migration tragedy and the responsibility of states and the European Union when it comes the fate of migrant women on the margins of Europe.

Reviewed: Camille Schmoll, Les Damnées de la mer. Femmes et frontières en Méditerranée, Paris, La Découverte, 2020, 248 pp.

Geographer Camille Schmoll conducted her research during a decade (2010-2020) in which the sea became a border-graveyard for Europe’s unwanted migrants. [1] Contrary to the dominant discourse, based on a multi-sited empirical work, her book makes a socio-spatial analysis of the constraints and violence experienced at the borders as well as of the capacities of exiled women to act, in and outside the margins where they are confined.

Through five thematic chapters, the author returns to the Italian and Maltese cases, which have become "useful margins" (p. 30) of Europe for migration control. She invites readers to immerse themselves in a "political geography of life at the time of the border" (p. 34) that shows the construction of what others have called "border-bodies" (Guénif-Souilamas 2010), bodies subjected to the violence of the migration orders in force, according to racialized and gendered criteria.

A myriad of profiles and paths among the survivors of the crossings

The first chapter of the book is dedicated - a rare and welcome choice - to the story of one of the "damned of the sea" told in the first person. The author highlights the journey of Julienne, a Cameroonian national who passed through Libya before crossing the Mediterranean and arriving in Italy and then in France, whose route was marked by, among other things, sexist and sexual violence. Her story appears both singular and exemplary of those of the other women she met (p. 34). This story embodies the gendered processes analyzed in the following chapters: the vulnerability of migrant women at different levels - by different agents and authorities who want to control their bodies and their lives in various ways - but also their capacity to act; the rest of the text leaves less room for the points of view of the first people concerned than for those of the actors who gravitate around them. In the line of feminist works (such as those of Judith Butler [2]), vulnerability is understood here as the result of relational and political processes, and not as a supposedly natural characteristic of women, even if they are migrants.

The profiles of African women who cross borders are the subject of chapter 2. Responding to the classic question of the motivation for departure, Camille Schmoll insists on their complexity and the plurality of their journeys, all punctuated by desert and sea crossings and marked by multiple forms of violence. Starting with the trajectories of those who, for a variety of reasons, leave Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Libya, the author shows the limits of a binary vision opposing voluntary and forced migration. This entry through biographical trajectories allows her to criticize certain notions that have become classic in the discourse of international organizations, such as that of "mixed migration" [3] (p. 71), which is used by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) to legitimize the sorting out of acceptable migrants from those who should be expelled. Or the term "autonomous migration" (p. 88) used in migration studies to designate women’s migration outside the framework of family reunification, a notion which, as Schmoll points out, does not easily take into account the plurality of constraining dynamics in which women are caught up, whether at the time of departure, on the road, or upon arrival.

The researcher thus proposes to study the "autonomy in tension" (p. 24) of African women reaching the coasts of Italy and Malta.

On the margins of Malta and Italy, the quest for "autonomy in tension"

The Italian and Maltese islands, described as "archipelagos of constraint" (chapter 3), constitute for the geographer an observatory of the punitive treatment of migration, where real "careers of confinement" begin (p. 121). Camille Schmoll unravels the processes that lie behind the jargon designating the various selection, control and confinement mechanisms: hotspots, transit centers, hubs, detention centers... She shows to what extent these different places, whether improvised camps in sheds or spaces planned for control, materialize the criminalization of migration. The hypervisibility of bodies and the deprivation of privacy (p. 93) prevail, in a total mix of genders and ages, producing a particular vulnerability of women and children.

In these highly coercive contexts, collective mobilizations do take place, against fingerprinting for example, as well as "micro-acts and tactics of resistance" (p. 109). From these spaces, fates are divided between migrants categorized as "acceptable", eligible for an asylum procedure and possibly relocated, and those who will be repatriated, "Dublined" [4] or "expelled". However, the former continue to be subject to strong constraints and controls once they cross the border, leading the author to speak of "those who have left but have not yet arrived" (p. 34), thus illustrating the disillusionment - but not the resignation - of women assigned to these socio-spatial margins of Europe.

The geographer then dissects the dynamics of "reception" and confinement, which turn out to be deeply intertwined. She investigates the underside of the "moral landscapes of reception" (pp. 123-158), and in particular the "brothel" (p. 143) of the Italian centers hiding behind "the empire of acronyms" (p. 129). She points out the plasticity of these places, which can be reconverted and change function in a few days (p. 209). The author also underlines the paradox of the so-called reception places aiming at both protecting and controlling migrants, in particular women (p. 182). But is this really a paradox? The demand for protection is often an expression of power, even domination of women (Young 2003).

Based on women’s experiences and the discourse of those who supervise them, she deciphers the politics of intimacy (p. 148) at work in the various centers. These are materialized by the control and discipline imposed on the bodies and lives of migrant women. Their bodies are thus sexualized (p. 146), when they are not accused of having a deviant sexuality. Those who become mothers are assigned to breastfeed (p. 152) and, later, are told to "take better care of their children", according to the criteria of the supervisory staff. All this is part of the process of "forced extimization" (p. 148), a concept by which Camille Schmoll designates the permanent, forced and controlled exposure of women’s intimacy in the centers. Social science research can also participate in this forced extimization, as suggested by a woman inmate in the Ponte Galeria center who said to the author: "Do you think you haven’t seen enough? To see our bodies, like this? (p. 104), referring to the recent passage of another European researcher before Schmoll. Or when the author reveals the contents of videos that an Ivorian woman reserves for her estranged boyfriend (p. 161). These forms of intimacy that women try to (p)reserve are analyzed in the last chapter in terms of capacity to act and resistance.

Starting with the relationship to the body, domestic space and the use of the Internet during exile, the geographer analyzes the way in which migrant women produce, despite everything, an "autonomy in tension" (p. 161) in the places to which they are assigned. The author emphasizes the importance of discrete scales - such as that of the body and domestic space - in understanding the micro-geographies of power (p. 166) and women’s resistance. Making the spatial dimension of migrant women’s strategies and tactics salient, Camille Schmoll argues, for example, on the subject of pregnancy and childbearing, that "giving birth in Europe or on the road to Europe is for these women already operating a form of reterritorialization, putting down roots" (p. 170).

Such an analysis greatly repoliticizes these issues, which are often reductively approached as collateral damage of so-called clandestine migration or as amoral strategies of women to cross borders. Moreover, the author shows that the production of women’s subjectivities is also exercised through the internet and social networks in particular, apprehending them as spaces of resistance from the margin - some of the analyses can also be extended to migrant men.

The ghost of Fanon

If the racial dimension appears in the experiences described in the book, Camille Schmoll does not make it an axis as such of her analysis of migratory governance and its effects. Yet racial sorting, with its gendered variations, is at the foundation of the production of border bodies. Some passages of the book invite us to think, in a hollow way, about the weight of race relations: the animalistic treatment denounced by the women themselves (p. 108), the speeches of the staff of the Italian centers explaining the behaviors of the migrants by their supposed ethnicity (pp. 128-129) or the case of Maltese families coming to see the families in the accommodation centers, especially the children, in the manner of a "visit to the zoo" (p. 152) are all examples of the processes of racialization (Guillaumin 1972) of these migrants. Fanon’s thinking on zoopolitical power [5] – which he develops in The Damned of the Earth (1961) – could undoubtedly have been mobilized here. The "forced extimization" of migrant women could also be seen as a process of gendered racialization, illustrating the interweaving of social relations of sex and race at work here.

In any case, Camille Schmoll’s book is a fine contribution to the feminization, or rather, the "feminization" of the view of border control and racialized migrants, which covers an often unexplored gendered dimension. For the geographer does not only shed light on migrant women. She integrates a feminist perspective, situated, perceptible in her ethnographic practice, in the modalities of restitution of the voices of her respondents as well as in the elaboration of her analyses. She thus participates in a feminism of positioning, taking women’s lives and opinions seriously (Bracke, Clair and Puig de la Bellacasa 2012), a necessary prism in migration studies that are still relatively androcentric and blind to gender relations.


  • Bracke, S., Clair, I. and Puig de la Bellacasa, M. 2013. “Le féminisme du positionnement. Héritages et perspectives contemporaines”, Cahiers du Genre, n° 54, pp. 45-66.
  • Fanon, F. 2002 [1961]. Les Damnés de la terre, Paris: La Découverte.
  • Guénif-Souilamas, N. 2010. “Le corps-frontière, traces et trajets postcoloniaux”, in A. Mbembe, F. Vergès, F. Bernault, A. Boubeker, N. Bancel and P. Blanchard. (eds.), Ruptures postcoloniales. Les nouveaux visages de la société française, Paris: La Découverte, p. 217-229.
  • Guillaumin, C.1972. L’Idéologie raciste, Paris/The Hague: Mouton.
  • Young, I. M. 2003 “The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 29, n° 1, pp. 1-25.
Article translated with the support of the Luxembourg National Research Fund: C17/SC/11608387/REFUGOV • Traduction soutenue par le Fonds national de la recherche, Luxembourg : C17/SC/11608387/REFUGOV

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To cite this article:

Elsa Tyszler & translated by Oliver Waine, “At the Borders of Europe. Experiences of Illegalized African Women”, Metropolitics, 13 May 2022. URL :

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