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Dead, Battered, Missing: Women migrants sacrificed in Euro-Mediterranean policies

To commemorate World Refugee Day, celebrated each year on June 20th, AWID spoke to Yasmine Flitti, Director of Finance and Administration with Comede (Committee for the Health of Exiles)[1] and Hélène Rama Niang Diagne, President and Founder of FECSDA (Women Education Culture Health and Development in Africa)[2], to learn more about the issues and challenges of migration in the Mediterranean region from a feminist perspective.

Refugees and asylum seekers are protected under the 1951 Geneva Convention and State signatories to the convention have a commitment to provide protection to those fleeing persecution and violence.

The distinction between refugees and migrants[3] is in the reasons motivating their departure. “Broadly speaking, a refugee is forced to flee to preserve their life, security and sometimes their families, while migrants choose to leave for a more promising future. Until fairly recently, this difference was quite clear in the minds of the people. But the perception of refugees has evolved, with the spread of the myth of the ‘fake refugee/ asylum seeker’ accused of cheating the asylum system to obtain residency, and there is a climate of suspicion in which asylum seekers must prove the validity of their story” according to Yasmine Flitti. Because economic and political conditions are hard to separate, and because social narratives around the motivations of migrants are constructed over time, the category of migrant is arbitrary. Flitti adds, “it is difficult to say why men, women and children leave: war, political oppression, social reasons, family reasons, misery, a personal impasse, desperation. Whether chosen or imposed, exile is never an easy decision. It involves having to give up many things and make many sacrifices.”

Over the past two years there has been an alarming increase in the number of recorded missing or murdered migrants in the Mediterranean – 3,500 in 2014 and 1,776 during the first four months of 2015, averaging one death every two hours. The number of missing or murdered migrants reported between January and April 2015 is thirty times greater than during the same period in 2014.

The politics behind the crisis

In 2014, the number of missing persons or deaths in the Mediterranean already constituted over 75% of the total number of missing or dead migrants globally. Flitti underscores that “the situation has been extremely worrying for years, but what is very concerning today is a pseudo media-political driven Europe, inept to propose a solution other than clamping down on security in the face of hundreds of people’s deaths. Europe is experimenting with its failing migration policy each day, closing borders, through accords with southern countries, aimed at impeding men and women from the southern shores of the Mediterranean from entering. Europe continues to spend exorbitant amounts of money on ultra-modern military equipment targeted at impeding people from reaching these shores, when what is needed are sustainable humane and political solutions.”

European States have played a key role in this crisis, “By organizing media campaigns announcing massive unprecedented and unending immigration, and by supporting a culture of fear to justify their murderous policies, they have failed to propose any viable political, economic or humane solutions.”  While human trafficking from Africa to Europe is a problem, “By launching military operations against human traffickers,[4] European States are offering us an analysis that fails to recognize the closing of legal channels for entering Europe and creating rights-free zones that favor the influx of mafia networks, which is well understood as something that needs to be combatted with force,” explains Flitti. These policies that impede the population flow between the Mediterranean shores are contrary to Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that stipulates everyone has the right to freedom of movement.

Flitti highlights that the current humanitarian crisis is equally explained by the political situation of the countries on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, created largely, among other reasons, by political turmoil in Libya, and the possible connections with religious fundamentalists in the Sahel region, particularly in Mali, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, which favor the creation of vast rights-free zones for the free exchange of war and arms. “This violent terrain is where migrants risk their lives in an attempt to make the trek leading them to Europe.” Niang Diagne says, “the causes are rooted in an exacerbated systemic capitalist crisis, strongly marked by multi-sector crises, like energy, food, social, financial, identity and cultural crises. This crisis is opening the door to all kinds of fundamentalism and turbulence, amplifying causes of instability, especially among the most vulnerable countries, like those in Africa. It is also blocking any development efforts and creates conditions in which predatory forces have access to control of the natural resources and riches of southern countries.”  

Shedding light on the challenges faced by migrant women

If the media seems to have extensively covered the crisis, the coverage has focused primarily on men. “Women are largely invisible; they appear on the contours of an image of a makeshift boat, with or without children, but less in number than the men. Even knowing that the European migration flux is largely feminized, we have little information on women’s migration across the Mediterranean. This to me reflects what little is made of the situation of migrant women in particular” says Flitti.      

Migrant women face a number of challenges based on their gender and race. “Residency insecurity, discrimination, social status, xenophobia – the hardships are many for those who have their papers, and even more so for those who do not. Whether fleeing from patriarchal violence (family, domestic, traditional) or, to a country where they can live their sexual orientation freely; exiled women face countless forms of discrimination during the course of their “integration journey.”

And once the precarious administrative process and obstacles to obtaining the right to asylum, or to residency are over, when entering the workforce, these women largely find themselves in caretaking roles (childcare, patient care, elder care, maintenance/cleaning); and education level has little to do with employment as diplomas they have earned in their country of origin are rarely recognized. Niang Diagne adds that migrant women are victims of “all the challenges associated with their status, living conditions, roles and responsibilities as women,” including marginalization, violence and abuse against women and girls and the violation of their bodily and moral rights.                 

Flitti points out that in France, the increase in extreme right thinking within the context of the economic crisis, and the increase in unemployment, perpetuates stigma against foreigners in general, but more specifically against women, exploiting the issue of migration for political ends. Moreover, the focus of the general debate on secularism, present for many years, but accentuated following the January 2015 attacks[5], has instrumentalized the cause of migrant women. “In the fight against the veil, which is only the tip of the iceberg, veiled women are excluded and a community entirely stigmatized. And so, this is a complicated debate within a larger context of discrimination against foreign women on the basis of gender and ‘race.’”

Because of the abuse of migrant rights, feminist associations and migrant solidarity associations have created common spaces that consider the triple oppression against migrant women based on gender, race and migrant status exerted. The collective Action et Droits des Femmes Exilées et Migrantes, ADFM (Action and Rights of Exiled and Migrant Women) analyses French State legislation and practices in terms of asylum and the right to residency from a feminist perspective. Other associations have developed programs for frontline support, access to rights and the fight against discrimination for and with migrant women. Flitti points out that the objective is to act with migrant women to legitimize their role in society, to find their voice, contributions and knowledge through an emancipation approach in solidarity and with respect. But the work of associations has become difficult due to eviction policies that justify police violence against migrants, and the activists that accompany them; and limited access to information and awareness channels. Despite this, popular mobilizing has recently taken place in France and other countries across Europe (Italy, Greece and Belgium, among others) and Africa to bring attention to migrant living conditions and deaths. But Niang Diagne concludes “popular mobilizing alone is not enough. It would require movements at all levels to get decision-makers to act.”

[1] Comede is an organization aimed at supporting the health of exiles and defending their rights in France.
[2] FECSDA works toward gender equality in accessing political, economic, social and cultural rights and the development of children, young women and women by cultivating positive values from within and outside of Africa toward social transformation and endogenous sustainable development.  
[3] There is no existing legal definition related to migrants.
[4] On 18th May 2015 the EU Council decided to put into effect a naval military operation, EU Navfor Med, “to break the business model of smugglers and traffickers of people in the Mediterranean”. This military action would have serious consequences for migrants now faced with multiple risks as well as possibly increase instability in Libya. 
[5] The January 2015 attacks in France correspond to a series of terrorist attacks exerted over three days (7-9 January 2015) against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the polices and a kosher supermarket. Twenty people died following these attacks (including three terrorists) and a dozen others were injured.