Babies who survive being born on vessels in the Mediterranean Sea have plenty to celebrate.
Babies who survive being born on vessels in the Mediterranean Sea have plenty to celebrate.

It is not an ideal way to bring a child into the world. But for babies born on the Mediterranean Sea, their journey is just beginning.

It can be very dangerous traveling to a foreign land as a migrant or refugee. But pregnant women and their babies face much greater challenges. As well, pregnant women are usually not treated any differently to other asylum seekers or refugees undertaking such a journey. For example, the cramped and frightening conditions on a boat traveling to Europe can be particularly difficult.

"There were a lot of people in the rubber boat, we were all packed together...the pain was awful," Stephanie, a Nigerian woman who gave birth on an aid boat told the French news agency AFP.

According to the news agency, AFP, nearly 80,000 women have arrived on Italian shores since 2014. Thirty-five babies have been born on Mediterranean rescue vessels in recent years, and many of the pregnant women who board the vessels are well advanced in pregnancy.

"I've met many women who were raped. Often they have to sell their bodies in order to get a place on the boat," Marina Kojima, a midwife who spent several months on the Aquarius rescue ship which is run by SOS Mediterranee and Doctors without Borders (MSF), told AFP. 

Giulia Marinig helped three women on the Dattilo migrant rescue ship deliver their babies over a 48 hour period.

"I was working on autopilot. Just trying to do my best for the patients. We didn't sleep for two days," Marinig told AFP. 

Surviving the legal ordeal

For the mothers and babies who survive the ordeal of a birth at sea, there are usually efforts to make sure they never forget the humanitarian assistance they received aboard the vessels. Stephanie named her daughter Francesca after Pope Francis, and a child who was born on the Aquarius in 2016 was named after the ship's captain.

But the tributes go both ways. A baby born on the Aquarius in 2017 was the inspiration for France's song at this year's Eurovision entry. That baby was named Mercy.

However, a big challenge for babies born at sea is determining a child's nationality. What nationality, or nationalities, the child is given comes down to where exactly the child was born, the nationality of the vessel on which the baby was born, and the nationalities of the baby's parents.

There are two international treaties that are relied on. The first treaty, the UN Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, states in Article 1:   

Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraphs 1 (b) and 2 of this Article, a child born in wedlock in the territory of a Contracting State, whose mother has the nationality of that State, shall acquire at birth that nationality if it otherwise would be stateless. 
UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, Article 1.

The second treaty, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states in Article 91:

"Every State shall fix the conditions for the grant of its nationality to ships, for the registration of ships in its territory, and for the right to fly its flag. Ships have the nationality of the State whose flag they are entitled to fly. There must exist a genuine link between the State and the ship."

And in Article 94:

"Every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag."

Despite these and other international maritime laws, it can be very difficult for these babies to obtain citizenship of the vessels on which they were born. Some nations do not have jus soli, or citizenship that is given due to being born on a country's territory. This includes Italy and Greece, common landing spots for migrants and refugees traveling across the Mediterranean.

But although it is difficult to acquire citizenship in this way, there are some cases where this has happened. Three babies born on the Aquarius in 2016 were taken to centers in Italy where the parents received legal aid, courses in Italian and accomodation. A baby that was born on a German ship in August 2015 stayed with her Somali mother who was granted asylum in Germany. 


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