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Who’s responsible for violence against migrant women?

Migrant women are vulnerable to violence at all stages of their journey due to gendered inequalities and relations of domination. Current EU policies restricting migration exacerbate their vulnerability.

One of hundreds of migrants arriving in Salerno in May, 2015. Michele Amoruso/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

EU leaders have been quick to blame the current migrant “crisis” in the Mediterranean on smugglers/traffickers, and plans have been put in place to try and break up smuggling/trafficking networks that supposedly threaten migrants’ security. However, when we examine migrants’ experiences more closely it becomes apparent that the EU’s increasingly restrictive policies of migration control constitute one of their main sources of insecurity. These cut down on legal avenues for migration, thereby forcing migrants to increasingly employ smugglers and to attempt evermore circuitous routes to reach Europe. These insecurities can be particularly severe for women migrants, as gendered relations of power create different forms of violence and vulnerability for women. These gendered relations of power often play out in various forms of violence, the perpetrators of which include fellow migrants (in some cases members of a woman’s close family or travelling companions), traffickers/smugglers, or police and state agents. These multiple forms of violence are the result of gendered inequalities of power that may already exist, but which are magnified and reinforced through migration. Policies that attempt to restrict migration do little or nothing to control this violence, and in many instances directly contribute to or intensify it.

Research on many different regions of the world have highlighted the interconnections between gender, migration, violence, and insecurity. Different push and pull factors, migration control regimes, as well as the social and economic conditions found in the countries of origin, transit and destination create varying types of insecurity and violence for men and women. This variation depends greatly on the social and economic positions of the different actors and the relations of power that exist between them. The sexual division of labour in both the origin and destination countries, the presence or absence of spatial restrictions to public space and mobility for women, and the effects of a restructured and globalised capitalist economy are all factors that help explain gendered variations in migration. On top of these location-specific issues, gendered inequalities in the sexual distribution of wealth is a global factor that pushes many women to migrate in order to ensure survival for themselves and their families.

Economic insecurity is often coupled with other forms of insecurity, including gendered forms of violence. Some women migrate to escape the threat of forced marriage or female genital mutilation, while others are victims of domestic violence, sexual violence or rape, or persecution on the grounds of their sexual orientation. The prevalence of sexual violence against women is all too evident in the various conflicts taking place around the world today, giving women another reason to try and leave their countries of residence. All of these factors, as well as many others, influence a woman’s decision when she contemplates whether or not to leave her country and for the relative safety of Europe.

Gendered forms of persecution, such as the threat of forced marriage or female genital mutilation, or sexual violence during war, have now been recognised by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) as falling within the scope of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Women fleeing such forms of persecution should therefore be eligible for refugee protection, but although EU states have seen an increase in asylum-claims based on gender-related forms of persecution, many women migrants just arriving are still unaware of the possibility of making an asylum claim. This can be attributed to a more general non-recognition of gender-related violence, which is often normalised as part of a patriarchal regimes and internalised by its victims. Political authorities and international organisations present within countries of transit and destination also fail to provide adequate information to these women on their rights to claim asylum. Furthermore, even those women who do manage to make an asylum claim based on gender-related persecution face major obstacles when proving the credibility of their claim.

Violence is a feature of women’s journeys as much as it is a cause of migration, as the decision of a woman to enter public space in order to migrate is often times read by others as an ‘invitation’ for sexual relations. The frequency with which such (mis)understandings occur has, in many ways, ‘normalised’ the sexual violence that occurs against migrant women—for many it has become just a “part of the journey”. Attempting to guard against this by travelling with a male partner doesn’t necessarily guarantee security because he himself might a source of violence or exploitation. When this turns out to be the case, many women feel compelled to stay with him for fear of attracting a worse alternative by travelling alone.

‘Paying’ smugglers with sex has also become normalised. Sometimes this is consensual, such as when women with little financial capital choose to exchange sexual relations for help in reaching Europe, however at other times sexual relationships between women migrants and smugglers are forced. Many women seem to accept the possibility that they may be forced to engage in sexual relationships with smugglers, fellow migrants, or border guards in order to survive and to reach their destination as an almost inevitable part of their journeys. Police violence against women migrants has been reported in states like Libya or Morocco, as well as in the detention centres in EU member states. The criminalisation of migrants and the EU’s current emphasis on preventing migrants from reaching Europe have both serve to legitimate such violence both in transit countries and the EU.

The causes of women’s migration are complex and involve factors relating to economic, physical, and social insecurities. These causes of migration are unlikely to disappear in the near future. Describing these gendered insecurities of migration does not in any way imply that the women involved are mere ‘victims’, as they have clearly developed many strategies for dealing with the insecurities they face. However, these survival strategies should not be seen as alternatives to state and international protection of these women’s rights. In the long-term, the only way to improve these women’s security is through a genuine commitment to providing safe and legal routes for migration and/or claiming asylum.

About the author

Jane Freedman is a Professor at the Université Paris 8, and member of the Centre de recherches sociologiques et politiques de Paris (CRESPPA). She has researched and published widely on gender and migration.


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