The EU’s much anticipated Gender Equality Strategy for 2020-2025, released on 5 March, is an important step up for the EU on gender equality. But without addressing parallel policy agendas that actively undermine migrants’ opportunities and safety, the strategy risks leaving out millions of people.
Women represented 51.4% of migrants in Europe in 2019. But too often migration policies either ignore women or reduce them to a “vulnerable group”. This ignores the systemic barriers that current migration policies create for women migrating to Europe. Barriers that intersect not only with their gender but also very often with their race, nationality and class.
On the face of it, there is no difference based on gender in criteria for residence and work permits in Europe. But in reality, women are less likely to have access to the support and resources to travel regularly and safely, to get the jobs that would grant them stable work permits and the incomes to bring to their families.
Women who migrate for work are often confined to occupations that are under-regulated, with few rights and protections. A survey of 400 migrant women carrying out domestic work in the Czech Republic revealed that 53% did not have any employment contract. This exposes them to economic hardship, unsafe working conditions and exploitation, with limited options for redress, particularly if they are undocumented.
The employment of migrant women as domestic workers shows how the fight for gender equality will only succeed when it is truly inclusive. It’s because domestic work continues to be undervalued and unpaid that labour protections and the provision of social services are lacking, and that work permit schemes for domestic and care workers are highly restrictive or non-existent. In this context, many migrant women are toiling in highly exploitative conditions and often undergo years of family separation as transnational breadwinners for their families.
Measures that promote autonomy, decent work and equality for migrant women will benefit all women.
When women migrate with their families, they often do so as dependants of spouses. This perpetuates patriarchal models of economic and administrative dependence. It also makes it possible for residence status to become a tool of coercion for an abusive partner, with the constant threat of deportation. This power imbalance is even more acute for undocumented women.
Reporting violence is difficult for any woman. For undocumented women, it is usually unthinkable because of the risk of deportation if they come forward. In many cases, women also risk being turned away from shelters because of their status. A 2012 Amnesty International report found that undocumented women in Belgium faced high barriers to accessing shelters because governmental funding for women’s shelters excluded women with irregular status. Even if local authorities tried to step in to provide shelter, they often did so from their own limited resources.
Gender-based stereotypes also hit migrant men. Many states decide to detain people in return procedures based on simplistic assumptions about who is – and who is not – vulnerable.
Reliable disaggregated data about people in immigration detention is hard to find, but the experience of NGOs shows that it is young men who are disproportionally detained and deported, precisely because they are not viewed as vulnerable, and are perhaps perceived as a threat. A study from 2010 showed that the average immigration detainee is a single, 30 year old man likely to be from West Africa, South Asia or the Middle East.
Authorities sometimes avoid detaining children by allowing them to be with their mothers in the community – while still detaining their fathers. There are also important blind spots in identifying men who are victims of sexual exploitation or trafficking.
In migration management, meaningful individual assessments more gender-responsive migration procedures and decisions, based on the needs and risks a person might face linked to their gender. And replacing immigration detention with community-based methods would itself be an enormous step towards reducing vulnerability, given the inherent harms of the practice.
All too often, a security-oriented agenda in migration policy has traditionally left little room for considerations of equality and rights, particularly for people made invisible by their race or nationality. Any gender strategy that aims at achieving genuine equality – whether at the EU or national level – must address how our migration policies are perpetuating and reinforcing structural discrimination based on gender identity and other characteristics like race, nationality, and sexual orientation.
*In this article, the words “women” and “men” are used as heterogeneous categories encompassing all diversities in relation to sex, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics.