The European migration crisis which has exploded with such violence in recent months has prompted deep introspection from academics and policymakers. From the dead bodies on the shores of Greek islands to the living bodies of those detained at land borders, the crisis is played out under the overarching shadow of life and death.
Professor Vanessa Grotti is looking at one of the crisis’ forgotten actors; pregnant women. They are a steadily increasing category but remain an under-studied phenomenon according to Grotti. “Pregnant women are a complicated category; those who are adults are liable to be prosecuted for being undocumented in certain countries. But pregnancy means that they can be classified as vulnerable and subject to special rights for a limited time. Many fall between categories [of refugee and migrant]. They raise a lot of tensions.”
Grotti is a medical anthropologist working on the maternity care received by undocumented pregnant migrants in EU borderlands. “The places that have been forgotten”. Awarded her PhD from Cambridge University in 2007, she recently joined the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies (RSCAS) as Part-time Professor to lead a project entitled ‘Intimate Encounters in EU Borderlands: Migrant Maternity, Sovereignty and the Politics of Care on Europe’s Periphery’.
Grotti has over a decade’s experience doing ethnographic research, mostly in South America. She was attracted to the theme of migration in Europe after a stint observing maternity wards in French Guiana, a French overseas department, where she witnessed the ways in which hospital bureaucracy rigidly upheld a European framework of borders. She recalls, “65% of the women who give birth there did not have French identity papers or entitlement to French social security. Even to get a blood test you need to have proper papers and be inserted into the system. I got interested in the obsession the hospital staff had with migration.”
Her research rests at the intersection of humanitarianism and colonialism. “It’s very clear that healing goes with civilising. Historically it always has done; the two go hand in hand because medicine is based on technology, progress, and rationalisation. On organising where you think there is no organisation.”
She adds, “Caregiving is often hierarchical. If you help someone, you deprive them of agency. It is asymmetrical.”
Indeed one of the noteworthy developments of the migration crisis is the way in which military enforcement has merged with caregiving. Grotti explains, “You have maternity wards run by NGOs installed on ships controlled by the Italian navy and soldiers working alongside NGO workers, in a blend of helping and enforcing.”
As such, Grotti warns against a simplistic dichotomy of force and care, emphasising how border enforcement and humanitarian agencies often work together during search and rescue operations. For example, portable maternity wards on board Italian naval vessels. “It seems to be black and white. Those ‘nasty’ border officers working for Frontex and the good people from NGOs, but in reality they often work hand in hand.’’
At the same time, against the tragedy of death is the sudden, joyous intrusion of birth. Grotti declares “You have muscular soldiers crying holding little babies saying ‘finally we have some life to save us from this death’. That’s why working on this subject is nice because it raises such strong emotions. In these peripheries, in Sicily and Greece, they have to deal with dead bodies all the time and suddenly a baby comes along. They have a strong healing power, which I didn’t expect because I didn’t find that in South America. It is touching that these people have this strong attachment to helping women give birth.”
Straddling grand themes of life, death and the tenacity of the human body, Grotti’s research touches on some of the most elemental aspects of Europe’s migration crisis. Its impact extends far beyond the European peripheries in which it is based.