The women and girl migrants who disappear, and the feminist policies that could save them

Immigration policies are largely based on the experience of the male migrant, Alice Driver explains from Mexico and Central America, as she explores what a feminist approach to immigration might look like. 

By: /
March 6, 2018
A Cuban migrant woman sits at a shelter in La Cruz, Costa Rica, November 27, 2015. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

“A lot of the girls do not make it to Europe. They disappear on the way.”            – Anna Zobnina, the European Network of Migrant Women

Disappearance is an absence that manifests itself, much like violence, in starkly gendered terms.

When unaccompanied migrants cross borders, the only sex-disaggregated data that exists records who arrives. Disappeared migrant girls — victims of global trafficking rings who often end up as domestic and sexual slaves — seldom reach the promised land, a place where they hope they will be allowed to educate themselves, to access health care and to live a life free of violence.

In policy terms, it is hard to address disappearance, but that is one key issue a feminist immigration policy would need to tackle, and it would involve ensuring that countries have policies in place to identify and prevent the human trafficking and prostitution of unaccompanied migrant girls.

“When you start doing sex-disaggregated data with unaccompanied minors you will see that the overwhelming majority are boys, on paper. The ratio is nine boys for one girl,” says Anna Zobnina, the strategy and policy coordinator at the European Network of Migrant Women, who has been studying the intersection of gender and migration for the past 12 years. “Whenever we have such imbalance we normally ask questions,” she added. UNHCR data for Greece from February, for example, reflects that 96 percent of unaccompanied child migrants were boys.

The data, according to Zobnina’s research, is not accurate. Unaccompanied migrant girls don’t get counted if they are placed in the custody of families.

In my own research in Mexico, I have found that human traffickers pose as parents of the unaccompanied minors they are trafficking, which helps them move unaccompanied minors with fewer questions from officials. Another issue related to the accuracy of the data is that girls who are trafficked into prostitution are often coached or forced to declare that they are 18 or older. In addition, a girl’s age is often incorrectly assessed because individuals who assess age might have few qualifications or little experience doing so.

As Zobnina points out, “even if we assume that they are all recorded correctly as unaccompanied minors, there is still a large disparity between the number we observe in final destinations like Germany, Sweden and Italy and places of entry in Europe.” When she conducts research, for example, she says she often sees similar numbers of boys and girls fleeing a country. “I am in Lebanon right now, and women and girls constitute 70 percent of refugees here. In Turkey and Jordan, Morocco and Libya, there are lots of girls as well. The questions is: where are they when they reach Europe, or do they reach Europe at all?”

In practical terms, data that reflects that more boys are migrating guides policy. The problem is that migration research and immigration policy, in many countries, although defined as gender-neutral, still assumes the boy or the man as the model migrant story and experience.

As Zobnina discussed with me, “a lot of policies, a lot of analytical work is done really from the perspective of a man.” With many world leaders calling for a gender lens on policy, immigration policies across the globe could take into account the many experiences of unaccompanied migrant girls. 

A different set of challenges

Any feminist immigration policy needs to consider the root causes of displacement for women and girls, which are often linked to issues like war and natural resource management, including mining, which itself is often tied to conflict.

For example, Canadian mining companies have a long history of establishing mines on Indigenous territory in Latin America, at times without consulting those communities or reinvesting the profits in providing education or jobs. This means that even though Canada has declared its immigration and trade policies to be progressive, and has a new development strategy entitled the “Feminist International Assistance Policy,” it has yet to really analyze, for example, how the actions of Canadian mining companies have impoverished and displaced populations in Latin America.  

"When a woman denounces the crime of which she has been a victim, she is always criminalized."

While Zobnina’s research on migration focuses on Europe, my own is firmly grounded in the reality of migrant women and girls in Latin America. In interviewing migrant women and girls in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador over the past year, I have found that most of those interviewed at some point have been victims of human trafficking and sold into prostitution or used to pack drugs for cartels.

Mavi Cruz Reyes, the communications lead for the Fray Matías de Córdova Center for Human Rights in Tapachula, Mexico, explained to me last year the difficulty that these women face in accessing justice when they are victims of human trafficking. “In Central America and in Mexico, when a woman denounces the crime of which she has been a victim, she is always criminalized as if it were [her] fault,” she said.  

Women who do escape trafficking face a system that is more likely to punish them instead of their traffickers. Those who don’t escape their captors disappear, in the sense that their experiences and testimony remain unrecorded, and thus they have no influence over immigration policies. The disappearance of women and girls is seemingly impossible to measure, but it points to the need for more focus on understanding the diversity of migrant experience and gathering sex-disaggregated data.

Karla Avelar, the founder of Comcavis Trans, an NGO based in El Salvador that defends the rights of transgender people, discussed with me earlier this year how “a detailed analysis of sex and sexuality in its relation to gender could help to understand the centrality of heteronormativity in the relations between migration, the functioning of power and the construction of the social order.” In practical terms, a true feminist immigration policy, for example, should take into account the experiences of trans migrants.

To explain further, an understanding of what happens to trans women when they cross the US border is instructive. Trans women are often held in men’s detention centres, where they often are subjected to sexual violence.

Marfil Estrella Pérez Mendoza, a 25-year-old from El Salvador, survived two assassination attempts perpetrated against her because she is a trans woman. I interviewed Pérez Mendoza in El Salvador last August and then accompanied her by bus from San Salvador to Tapachula, as she set off to the United States to request asylum — a move that she believed would save her life. She is currently being held in a men’s detention centre in California. As it stands, US immigration policy doesn’t acknowledge the violence that trans women will likely experience in a male detention centre, which means Pérez Mendoza faces heightened risks. 

A call to better define and prevent violence

Last June, I interviewed Ana Lucía Lagunes Gasca, who oversees educational initiatives for migrants at Fray Matías in Tapachula. She explained how the reasons many women and girls migrate are related to a broader interpretation than policy allows of human rights violations. 

For women and girls, she said, migration is a way of coping with the limitations of education and healthcare systems. For migrant women and girls, their chances of receiving asylum are often determined by whether or not they have experienced physical violence or been threatened with death. However, the seemingly invisible violence of being denied an education or access to healthcare is not considered.

The violence that affects [women] — that affects us — is diverse, and above all we have also detected many cases of violence related to the subject of health,” said Cruz Reyes of Fray Matías. “For example, sometimes they have no access to services, or sometimes when there is access, there are cases of negligence, abuse or discrimination.”

Unfortunately immigration policies rarely take into account this type of violence against women. Zobnina points out that for women, “it’s not just that they have to flee — they are also making very pragmatic decisions and they are thinking about their daughters and the future of their daughters, about the choices that they are going to have in life. They are thinking, ‘Do I want my daughter to be subject to forced marriage or not?’”

Zobnina suggests that to define feminist immigration policies, we must first reexamine how we define violence against women and girls.

US migrant
A migrant and her daughter prepare to take a bus after being released from a detention centre in McAllen, Texas, US, May 9, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Violence is not only experienced at home and along the migrant trail — it is also often a part of the migrant experience once women reach the country where they wish to live. For example, in 2017, the Trump administration in three cases tried to deny undocumented minors from accessing their legal right to an abortion. The administration was ultimately unsuccessful, but cases of negligence and abuse of women in detention centres are widespread, especially sexual assault on the part of the authorities in charge of protecting migrants.

Martha Balaguera, a visiting fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego, discussed with me how apart from unjust punishment, people in detention may face deadly medical neglect. “At the Otay-Mesa detention centre, women were exposed to noxious chemicals and some of them were released as a result last November,” Balaguera said. In addition, she pointed out that in 2017 Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an organization that has been working with vulnerable migrants for 15 years, documented cases of medical neglect that may have caused miscarriages.

“Detention is not only costly for those detained, but a significant budgetary burden for society,” argued Balaguera. She pointed out that many people are unaware that the US has a detention bed mandate policy, established by Congress in 2009, that requires that 34,000 beds be in use.

Changing the culture of abuse found in so many detention centres would require providing extensive sexual harassment training, enforcing sexual harassment policies, and hiring more women to work in detention centres.

Services offered to migrant women and girls, such as sexual violence counselling, and gender sensitivity courses for those who work in migration cost money, of course. As Zobnina argues, “this ‘extra’ effort to help women and girls requires extra budget, extra training, extra commitment and extra women [to do] these jobs, because most of the time, once you have a woman who is aware in structures of power, things start changing.” 

Measuring a woman’s worth

Women must be involved in all levels of immigration policy from research to implementation, because until they are, issues related to women and girls will continue to be defined and compared to the standard — the male experience. And in that case, women and girls will always lose, because services for them will be considered “extra” rather than essential.

"This ‘extra’ effort to help women and girls requires extra budget, extra training, extra commitment."

“There are a lot of accommodation centres specifically for young males,” Zobnina says. “A lot of them are run by charitable organizations, while some of them are state facilities. Whereas for girls, because there are less girls that manage to cross the border and arrive at their destination, it is almost like, ‘why would we invest and create a special shelter when there are just too few of them?’”

Another issue that often influences immigration policies is the issue of defining individuals in terms of economic value. Many countries, the US and Canada included, want highly skilled migrants and make it easier for them to become legal citizens. However, women migrating from poorer countries often have fewer skills and lower levels of literacy and education than men, which puts them at a disadvantage in a system that defines them in terms of perceived profitability.

The story of Aracely Orozco, 46, from Las Pilas de San Marcos, Guatemala, provides an example of how valuing education levels in the immigration process discriminates against women and girls. Orozco, who has three brothers and a fourth-grade education, recounted to me last June that when she was a young girl her parents told her, “We don’t have enough money for your education.” They made her stay home and care for the house while still sending her brothers to school until they graduated from high school. If immigration policies do not recognize the structural discrimination that disproportionately affects women, then achieving equality in terms of the treatment of migrants is not possible.

The migrant women and girls who don’t disappear — the ones who make it to their destination — often face patriarchal policies that also endanger their wellbeing. Often it is assumed that it is best to place such girls with families, but if the families aren’t properly vetted, the result can be sexual abuse. As Zobnina explains, “our members deal with cases like this — ‘here is a five-year-old girl and she was raped.’ We don’t have specialized services for such girls. And then it falls on the shoulders of members of our organization and you know, we are not a rape crisis centre.” The state, she said, often assumes that as long as a girl is with a family, it is good for her.

Creating feminist immigration policies first and foremost requires women to be involved at all levels of research and decision-making. It also requires a commitment to recognizing the complexity of life for migrant women and girls.

Countries like Canada and Sweden remain at the vanguard of feminist immigration policy simply because they have publicly declared their intent to support the economic empowerment of women and to work to create conditions of equality for all migrants. However, as Zobnina points out, “we know that discrimination starts even before we are born, with sex-selective abortions. It is about understanding patriarchal violence on the body and psyche of a female from the moment we are born — or before — until the day we die.”

In other words, girls don’t just disappear along the migrant trail — they disappear before they are even born, and the systemic roots of such a fact have implications for policy making, whether that of immigration or otherwise.

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