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Is the Global Compact for Migration truly doing justice to gender?

The Global Compact for Migration is supposed to put gender concerns front and centre, but as the negotiations draw to a close it is clear that this has not happened.

@Kata U/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd)

Since April 2017 the United Nations has been working to reach a new international consensus on migration that would support its positive aspects while lessening its accompanying risks. This agreement would be split across two different documents – the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – with both planned to be complete by December 2018.

These compacts seek to offer an innovative response to a global policy agenda item, in part by applying a human rights-based and gender-responsive lens to the issue of migration. This is both welcome and laudable. However, as the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration enters its last phase of intergovernmental negotiations, with one final round of talks scheduled for 9-13 July, it is important to emphasise that there is still a long way to go to crafting a truly gender-responsive agreement.

What does the compact say about gender?

One of the ten principles guiding the objectives and actionable commitments of the draft compact is that policy and programming should be gender responsive. This principle was under-developed in the zero draft but has been strengthened significantly in the revised drafts, the latest published on 28 May. The aim is to ensure that migrants’ human rights are respected, that their specific needs are properly addressed, and that they are empowered as agents of change. All commitments should furthermore promote gender equality and have the empowerment of women and girls at heart.

A gender-responsive approach is a step up from simply being gender-sensitive, as it must promote changes that lead toward gender equality and equity. Gender-responsive policy-making and programming considers the specific needs of women, men, girls and boys that are not only rooted in biological/sex differences but also in socio-cultural gender differences. Since gender intersects with race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, faith, age, (dis)ability, migrant status, etc., individual needs are not all the same.

Consequently, a commitment to equality implies that legislation and policy will work to ensure that all women and men, girls and boys enjoy the same rights and opportunities despite their differing needs. In the context of migration, transformative actions must enhance equal access to mobility, employment, security and protection regardless of gender while reducing unfair and discriminatory barriers that prevent access for certain groups. This includes challenging stereotypes related to masculinity and femininity, harmful norms, and practices that nourish discrimination and marginalisation.1

A commitment to equality implies that legislation and policy will work to ensure that all women and men, girls and boys enjoy the same rights and opportunities despite their differing needs.

Even though gender-responsiveness is a guiding principle of the compact, it is granted more importance in some commitments that in others. The draft as it stands now is biased towards advocating gender-responsiveness in commitments aimed at changing the comportment of migrants. Thus, gender equality and gender-responsive policy and programming are invoked as means to reducing the ‘need’ for international migration and to enticing migrants to use only legal pathways to migration.

Very few of the commitments focusing on how states conduct border control, deal with irregular migrants, and manage migration invoke the importance of gender-responsiveness specifically. A general call for reviewing how policies and practices may create, exacerbate or increase gender-specific vulnerabilities for migrants was added to the first revised draft, but this reminder may not result in the mainstreaming of gender-responsiveness if it is not repeatedly and specifically invoked in each of the relevant commitments. Since then, thankfully, a more imaginative approach has begun to form that strategically supports migration policies and practices that increase equity in migration. This approach can be strengthened further.

Data for evidence-based policies

The draft compact calls for the creation of a robust evidence base. Surprisingly, the development of what this actually means has not gone beyond the collection of basic statistical data on migrant stocks and flows disaggregated by sex, age, and migration status. This is wholly inadequate from a gender-responsive lens as such data cannot illuminate how migration affects the social relations, power hierarchies and inequalities that enable some people and constrain others. Nor can they gauge how policies and programmes to support or deter migration affect migrants and their home communities. Different types of data are needed.

Qualitative research that unpicks gender dynamics and gender specific needs where migrants live, along migration routes, and in home communities is essential. By adopting a wider focus of migration-related data, the emphasis will not solely be on the migrant but also on the socio-economic and transformative effects of migration in migrants’ home communities. Migration is an integral part of processes of social change that not only affect the migrants themselves but also those with whom they interact. Gender-sensitive data on migration must be gathered with a wide-angle lens that can see, at the very least, what it means to be a migrant, an employee, a family member, a manager of remittances, and a beneficiary back home.

However, improved data are not enough. UN Women’s global monitoring report on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) shows that gender-sensitive data can only instigate change if gender-responsive policies and programmes are developed, resources are mobilised to finance implementation, and accountability is strengthened. The Global Compact for Migration does not have this transformative edge yet.

Curtailing international migration

Despite its understanding of migration as a source of prosperity, innovation and sustainable development throughout history, the draft compact nevertheless promotes the idea that sustainable development and peace will reduce the need to migrate. The commitments to this end are divided between concerns about development, displacement and humanitarian response. These are all areas in which gender inequality has an adverse impact on certain groups of women and girls, yet a gender-responsive approach guides only a few commitments. Tellingly, one area where gender-responsiveness is notably strong is in a list of interventions that may help curtail migration. Taken together, these signals suggest that the draft compact assumes that empowered women and girls will remain in their home countries.

Data on stocks and flows cannot illuminate how migration affects the social relations, power hierarchies and inequalities that enable some people and constrain others.

Research demonstrates that the nexus between migration and development is not one of simple causality. Enduring poverty and marginalisation rework gender and generational dynamics and sometimes this can cause new practices to develop. In West Africa, for example, senior women increasingly bear responsibility for food security. This has led to a gradual diminution of male power that allows many more women to migrate than in previous times. In turn, it has created a follow-on dynamic in which younger women and adolescent girls travel to support their mothers and to some extent also their fathers.2 Norms sketching out the distribution of responsibilities between spouses, and men’s liberties to court other women, allow both married and unmarried migrant women to help with the upkeep of their families.

Women’s contribution to their natal household nourishes gradual empowerment as their social standing in their families change. Young women also gain some control over the fruits of their labour that they did not have in the past. Inevitably these changes are not only intergenerational, they also have enduring impact on the relationships among young people, impacting on their choices of intimate partners. Other processes of change further reinforce these on-going transformations, such as schooling and the introduction to other ways of living through the media. All of these have widened the options and horizons that young people pursue. Sustainable development may decrease the need for young people to support their families materially but not their interest in gaining a different status in society. Being able to control more of their income may even increase previously marginalised groups’ participation in international migration.

Different pathways for migration

With a mandate to regulate international migration, the compact predictably emphasises the creation of legal pathways for migration and the adverse effects of irregular migration. However, the dichotomy between regular and irregular pathways is neither helpful for understanding risks and vulnerabilities nor for grasping the broader effects of contemporary legal pathways.

Evidence from guest worker schemes, trainee and intern programmes, and other forms of targeted programmes in East Asia up through the 1990s and 2000s reveals that vulnerability can be built into legal pathways to migration. The admission of migrant workers on selective visas – visas that are short term, for a narrow range of usually poor-quality jobs, and limited by quotas – does not necessarily lead to a reduction in the exploitation of migrant workers. In some cases, states waive labour legislation or shrink migrants’ exit options by locking part of their wages into savings accounts as a condition for obtaining a work visa. In other cases, temporary schemes have opened the door for a proliferation of migration industries serving employers and the state, and for bribery that favours state officials.3 Data show that regardless of gender and age, migrant workers frequently solve such problems by shifting employment, even if this moves them into irregularity as well. That is a cost many are willing to pay. They do not “fall into this position” (Objective 7i) but embrace it to actively resist exploitation.

The draft compact commits to resolve some of these problems by promoting visas that are portable; by reviewing national labour laws, employment policies and programmes; and by engaging with relevant stakeholders. These are important initiatives but they need to be designed, implemented and evaluated with gender equality front and centre to meet the commitment to gender-responsiveness.

Safe, orderly and regular migration

The vision of safe, orderly and regular migration in the compact is the antithesis of irregular migration. Thus, certain facilitators of migration – notably smugglers and ‘traffickers’ – are so strongly assumed to have exploitative and illegal intent that they have no place within a safe, orderly and regular migration framework. Recruitment agents occupy a more ambivalent position. On the one hand, they are seen as vital sources of knowledge in foreign labour markets and, on the other hand, as sources of increased costs and vulnerability to migrants. The draft compact aims to prevent the latter. However, the boundaries between the different categories of facilitators are not clear-cut; some facilitators assist in both regular and irregular migration, and authorities often sustain normative and gendered perceptions of who the victims and perpetrators are. As a result, women are frequently seen as victims of ‘trafficking’ and young men as perpetrators who are using smugglers to cross borders illegally. Yet, the commitments are proposed as gender neutral.

There is ample evidence that all types of facilitators can play a positive role in the journeys of migrants depending on the exact context. While not all recruiters act in the best interest of migrants, there is evidence from research in Southeast Asia and North Africa that many attempt to do so. Importantly, the context in which they operate is different depending on the gender of the migrant. For Indonesian women, recruiters have been found to facilitate domestic work in Singapore without upfront payment. They do this by creating a debt relationship between the employer and the employee, in which recruiters operate as guarantors. Employers thus pay the flight and visa fees against an agreement of being reimbursed by wage reductions for six to eight months. Men who go through recruiters, meanwhile, must usually pay fees and airfares upfront, often through borrowing money. These different types of debt relations often work to restrict the freedom of male and female migrants in different ways,4 and when things go wrong the recruitment agency is often one of the few actors to whom the migrant can turn for help. In some settings, recruiters have been known to help recuperate confiscated passports and withheld wages, for example, while in others they have covered costs of airfares initially paid by the employer. 5

Ample evidence from border zones around the world further show that migration facilitation is not the sole province of organised crime. While many migrants are indeed subject to extortion or deceit along their journeys, this evidence highlights the diversity of actors operating along the border as well as the moral aspects involved in facilitating international migration and work. Some assist undocumented border crossings out of solidarity and a concern for migrants’ well-being; others do so almost as casual workers to tide over income gaps. All motivations are situated within settings of gendered structural marginalisation pertaining to migrant status, the ability to find work and persistent stereotypes about race and gender.

A gender-responsive approach to policies and programmes aimed at creating safe pathways to regular migration must have integrated, multi-sectoral strategies for implementing gender equality targets, as well as for creating equity across labour market, immigration, health and welfare policy and practice. It must also consider plausible exit options for both male and female migrants that maintain their status as migrants, so that migrants retain the ability to help themselves without leaping out of the pan and into the fire.

  1. UN Women 2018. Turning promises into action: gender equality in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. New York: UN Women, http://www.unwomen.org/sdg-report.

    WHO 2009. _Integrating gender into HIV/AIDS programmes in the health sector: tool to improve responsiveness to women's needs, _Geneva, World Health Organization, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK143049/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK143049.pdf

  2. Buchbinder, L. 2013. After trafficking: Togolese girls’ orientations to life in a West African city. Cultural Dynamics, 25, 141-164.

    Darkwah, A. K., Awumbila, M. & Teye, J. K. 2016. Of local places and local people: Understanding migration in peripheral capitalist outposts. Brighton: Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium.

    Jacquemin, M. Y. 2009. "Petites nièces" et "petites bonnes" à Abidjan. Les mutations de la domesticité juvénile. Travail, genre et sociétés, 53-74.

    Lesclingand, M. & Hertrich, V. 2017. Quand les filles donnent le ton. Migrations adolescentes au Mali. Population, 72, 63-93.

    Thorsen, D. & Jacquemin, M. 2015. Temporalités, savoir-faire et modes d’action des enfants travailleurs migrants au sein de la parenté élargie en Afrique de l'Ouest. Canadian Journal of African Studies/ La Revue canadienne des études africaines, 49, 285-299.

    Whitehead, A. 2002. Tracking livelihood change: Theoretical, methodological and empirical perspectives from north-east Ghana. Journal of Southern African Studies, 28, 575-598.

  3. Spaan, E. & Hillmann, F. 2013. Migrations trajectories and the migration industry. Theoretical reflections and empirical examples from Asia. In: Gammeltoft-Hansen, T. & Sørensen, N. N. (eds.) The migration industry and the commercialization of international migration. London and New York: Routledge.

    Surak, K. 2013. The migration industry and developmental states in East Asia. In: Gammeltoft-Hansen, T. & Sørensen, N. N. (eds.) The migration industry and the commercialization of international migration. London and New York: Routledge.

  4. Khoo, C. Y., Platt, M. & Yeoh, B. S. A. 2017. Who Migrates? Tracking Gendered Access to Migration Within Households “In Flux” Across Time. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 15, 326-343.

    Platt, M., Baey, G., Yeoh, B. S. A., Khoo, C. Y. & Lam, T. 2017. Debt, precarity and gender: male and female temporary labour migrants in Singapore. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 43, 119-136.

  5. Goh, C., Wee, K. & Yeoh, B. S. A. 2016. Who’s holding the bomb? Debt-financed migration in Singapore’s domestic work industry. Brighton: Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium. ↩︎


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