Reflections on UNMN Listening Sessions on Migration, Covid-19 & Gender

On June 11, Women in Migration Network helped to convene, along with UN Women, the United Nations Network on Migration (UNMN) “listening sessions” on the impact of Covid-19 on migration, through a gender lens – part of a series exploring “mobility in the time of Covid-19”. The sessions provided an important venue for civil society participants worldwide to share critical reports on the impact of the global pandemic. These sessions were followed by a UNMN webinar, on June 18, that included participation of states, civil society and other stakeholders.

Following is a “reflection” on the listening sessions by WIMN. It can be downloaded here and can also viewed on the UNMN website.

Reflections on the Listening Sessions on Migration, Covid-19 and Gender

The two sessions were both rich in information and perspective, largely coming from presenters embedded in a variety of regions and countries and with direct experience and exposure. Very troubling was the consistency of the reports from the global regions: migrant women are facing increased risks, abuse and exploitation during this pandemic, with immediate and long term consequences for themselves and for their families. While as a member of the Women in Migration Network (WIMN), which helped to convene these sessions, I am kept fairly well informed of situations on the ground and at policy levels for migrant women, I was really struck by the intensity of the current situation that in just a few months, has dramatically impacted migrant women – and unfortunately, not for the better.

A few of the themes lifted from these sessions:

  • The problems experienced during this global pandemic by migrant and refugee women, including those internally displaced, predate the pandemic, but have been intensified by the nature of the health crisis, lockdowns, and government policies.
  • Lack of immigration documentation – being irregular – has compounded these problems in ways that go well beyond the “normal” if also critical, experiences of other population sectors, especially for those in vulnerable economic situations. The marginalization of irregular migrants has deepened, with little or no governmental action for remedies or even humanitarian aid.
  • Serving in “essential” roles during the pandemic has exacerbated health risks and rights for migrant women. Perhaps ironically, migrant women have shown that they are “essential” workers in many populations – providing medical care, working in home care, especially with children and the elderly, working throughout the food supply chain, cleaning industries, and more – all areas strongly affected by the virus and/or by the consequences of population lockdowns and mobility limits. Yet, those engaged in such work have traditionally been undervalued, underpaid and exploited and this has not changed, by and large, during this pandemic.
  • The danger of rising racism and xenophobia, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, migrants and refugees – particularly from Asia – have been targets of racist abuse and attacks, accused of spreading the virus. The spread of Covid-19 has also been cited as the basis for stricter border controls, despite health experts’ admonishments that this has little impact on containing the pandemic.

We heard how the pandemic has worsened – dramatically, in many instances – access to labor rights and social protections for migrant women with even more dire conditions for health and safety, especially for those working on temporary visas or who are undocumented. Country lockdowns have severely limited the ability to work and earn wages — and even when there is work, it comes with health risks and labor exploitation. In some countries, domestic workers have been locked in with families, may not be paid, are caring for people with Covid, have no masks or protective gear, nor access to cell phones to report abuses or seek assistance. Others have been forced to work, for example, in the garment and other industries during the lockdown, risking travel to and from work and in the workplace, and spreading contagion to their households.

Still others were released from their jobs – sometimes without pay – but have been stranded, unable to home countries due to lack of transportation and resources, and without status, unable to access relief supports, even if available at all.

Similarly, women farmworkers may have lost their jobs – or if they had work, given the “essential” agricultural production, they work at risk to exposure and are in positions of even greater exploitation.

School closures have affected migrant women workers with school-age children, while young girls risk dropping out of school altogether to help their families.

Many migrant women have been the primary breadwinners for their families, whether their families are with them, or whether they would send remittances to their home countries. These incomes have been lost with an immediate impact. In many families these lost remittances were a lifeline — income that saved families from impoverishment. That support has been removed and may not be re-established for some time.

Across the regions, we also heard that domestic and workplace violence has increased as women have been trapped in more stressful situations. In one area, calls to hotlines on domestic abuse increased by 162%! Increased child abuse has also been reported.

Not surprising, irregular status continues to undermine access to protection, services and rights. Migrant women not getting tested for Covid-19 for fear of detection and deportation, a fear not unfounded in some countries as migration status is registered for testing. Even beyond access to Covid-related testing and health care, the breakdown in health care access also includes support for mental health, for reproductive and maternal health care; in some areas migrant women are even risking home deliveries to avoid contact with public health institutions and risk detention and deportation.

And of course, the global pandemic has occurred in an environment where we have experienced increased racism and xenophobia, the expansion of repressive immigration measures, and now, more border closures. In the U.S., this has a wholesale lockdown against asylum seekers, all the while deporting migrants, including many who are Covid-positive.

The situation has not been without resilience, by migrant and refugee women and allies. We did hear that some countries, there is a growing recognition of the vital roles that migrants, and women in particular, have played in societies – roles that have sometimes been demeaned and often exploited. Care givers, house cleaners, gardeners, farmworkers, health care workers. Foreign-born nurses – over 15% of nurses in the US – work on the frontlines caring for Covid-positive patients in hospitals and in nursing homes. Relief funds, sometimes supported by foundations but more often tapping individual donations, have sprung up to provide much-needed financial support. Food kitchens and free meals have been offered where public sentiment acknowledges that “we are all in this together.” There has been talk of a public “narrative shift” – towards a more positive view of migrants and their roles in the workforce and as members of communities.

In a handful of countries, work permits have been extended, or specific funds have been extended to support irregular migrants as well, during the pandemic. But as the pandemic continues to take hold around the world, disrupting economies, stretching public support systems – where they even exist – a long term economic crisis looms, including national and regional food crises (and we already have food insecurity for many), supply chain upheavals, a severe decline in remittances, and of course, a global climate emergency that has also affected by the pandemic and its consequences. (And no, the temporary clearing of the air with lower carbon emissions hasn’t fixed our climate crisis.)

Despite the troubling and consistent reports during these valuable listening sessions, our knowledge of Covid-19’s impact, with a migration and gender lens, may only be known down the road, and if we now also ramp up reporting access and data collection. This is something that UN Women and many other institutions are urging.

These valuable listening sessions reaffirmed for me the recommendations that have emerged not just now, but over the past years, especially in the process towards the Global Compact for Migration. It will not be enough to include a gender lens in addressing the complex issues of global migration. With the challenge to find and make widely available a vaccine against Covid-19, and continued limits to mobility and a long economic recovery, we are all fearful of the devastating impacts on women in migration. All the more motivation to ramp up our attention to both immediate remedies and long-term solutions.

Migrant and refugee women, including LBTQ women, must be included as stakeholders and change agents. Their experience, vital roles in broad societies and in migrant communities, are critical to ensuring that “recovery” drives us to create a better world without the structural inequalities and injustices that only became more glaring in this global crisis.

  • Catherine Tactaquin, Women in Migration Network

 

WIMN Launches Global Mapping Project on Gender & Migration

Women in Migration Network (WIMN) is partnering with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) to map organizations and experts addressing the intersection of gender and migration through research, advocacy and mobilization. (Abajo, un mensaje en español)

At this critical time for migration — especially in the throes of the global pandemic, this initiative will help to identify key organizations and leaders addressing the rights of women in migration at the local, national, regional and global levels. Importantly, the survey will also help to name allies within other sectors — such as labor, climate change, women’s rights, LGTBIQ rights — with whom to build cross-sectoral alliances. The survey aims to assess how these organizations are responding to the current Covid-19, and how the lives of women in migration are impacted by the pandemic.

The project will map organizations and experts by region (divided into the Americas; Europe; Africa- MENA, Asia and the Pacific), laying the basis for future regional and global organizing within the context of migration governance, women’s rights movement, labor organizing and in other relevant sites of intervention. 

The survey, available in English and in Spanish, will also assess organizations’ practical and strategic needs and priorities. Finally, drawing from the results of the survey and a series of in-depth interviews with key regional stakeholders, the project will produce a report on regional trends and actors on gender and migration.

Organizations wishing to participate in the survey can go to these links:

In English: https://es.surveymonkey.com/r/S29MQ6P

En español: https://es.surveymonkey.com/r/QTVWK39

Thank you for your participation in this project!

If you have any further questions about this project, please contact project coordinator Paola Cyment pcyment@womeninmigration.org

* * * * * *

Mensaje en español:

Una invitación para Participar en el Proyecto de Mapeo Global:

Organizaciones Trabajando por las Mujeres en la Migración

Estamos solicitando tu colaboración para completar esta encuesta ¡No va a tomarte más de 10 minutos! Tu colaboración contribuirá a compilar un Mapeo Global sobre Género y Migración y a conocer cómo las mujeres en la migración están siendo impactadas por el COVID-19.

Por favor, haga click aquí para participar de la encuesta.

Esta es una iniciativa conjunta de la Red de Mujeres en la Migración (WIMN) y la Fundación Ebert Stiftung para mapear organizaciones y expertas que trabajan la temática de género y migración a través de la investigación, la incidencia y la movilización. 

¡Nuestras más sinceras gracias por tu colaboración!

Rohingya Women Fleeing Violence Sold Into Marriage

By Chris Buckley and Ellen Barry

GELUGOR, Malaysia — The young woman had been penned in a camp in the sweltering jungle of southern Thailand for two months when she was offered a deal.

She fled Myanmar this year hoping to reach safety in Malaysia, after anti-Muslim rioters burned her village. But her family could not afford the $1,260 the smugglers demanded to complete the journey.

A stranger was willing to pay for her freedom, the smugglers said, if she agreed to marry him.

“I was allowed to call my parents, and they said that if I was willing, it would be better for all the family,” said the woman, Shahidah Yunus, 22. “I understood what I must do.”

She joined the hundreds of young Rohingya women from Myanmar sold into marriage to Rohingya men already in Malaysia as the price of escaping violence and poverty in their homeland.

While some Rohingya women agree to such marriages to escape imprisonment or worse at the hands of smugglers, others are tricked or coerced. Some are only teenagers.

Their numbers are difficult to gauge, but officials and activists estimate that in recent years hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya women every year have been married off this way, and that their numbers have been increasing.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that a surge of maritime migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar this year brought an increase in “abductions and marriages arranged without the consent of women whose passage was ultimately paid for by prospective husbands.”

“Hundreds, if not thousands, of women and girls have been forced, sold or arranged for marriage via these trafficking corridors since 2012,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group in Bangkok that monitors Rohingya refugees. “For some families, it’s viewed as an imperative, as a survival mechanism.”

“The trafficking gangs are treating this as a rather lucrative business,” he said, adding that for the women and girls, “being sold or forced into marriage is the least-worst outcome, and that’s a problem.”

Ms. Yunus, who now shares a house with her 38-year-old husband and 17 other Rohingyas on Penang Island, Malaysia, said she had little choice after an uncle who had promised to pay for her journey failed to do so.

“I chose to marry my husband because the smugglers needed money to release me,” she said. “We were afraid of rape. It is better to marry a Rohingya man who can take care of us.”

Sharifah Shakirah, a Rohingya refugee in Kuala Lumpur who advises refugees on resettlement, said that many of the women held by smugglers fear that if they do not find husbands quickly, “the traffickers might sell them to do sex work” in Thailand or India.

While such trafficking is not unheard-of, it appears to be deployed more commonly as a threat than an eventuality.

Some women have no say in the matter, according to Mr. Smith of Fortify Rights, which is preparing a report on marriages and human trafficking.

“They don’t care about anything,” one 15-year-old girl said of her traffickers, according to notes provided by Mr. Smith. “If someone pays money, we would have to go to them.”

The young women often undertake the journeys under pressure from parents, anxious to send their daughters to safety and to reduce their domestic burdens, and are lured on by smugglers’ rosy promises about the cost of the voyage and the good life that awaits them in Malaysia, Rohingyas and experts said.

In reality, single women who board smugglers’ ships without the means to pay become merchandise, held in a camp or aboard a ship until someone pays for their release.

If the smugglers know the woman’s family cannot afford the cost, “they will inform other people and say, ‘We have this woman,’ ” Ms. Shakirah said.

The husbands often turn out to be older and poorer than promised. Some women end up trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.

Two years ago, Ambiya Khatu, 21, married a man in Malaysia who paid $1,050 for her release from smugglers in Thailand. “Even though he is too old for me, my mother agreed to the marriage,” she said. “There was nobody to rescue us, so I agreed.”

In Myanmar, formerly Burma, she had hoped to study nursing and work in a hospital. Now she lives in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, caring for her mother, her ill sister and her sister’s baby in a cramped room, while awaiting the return of her husband. He disappeared months ago, saying he was looking for work.

“After being rescued, my husband asked if I wanted to marry him,” Ms. Khatu said, her round, expressive face a palette of conflicted emotions. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to marry me, you can simply pay back my money which I spent on you.’ ”

That was impossible.

“I don’t know the language, so how will I work to pay him?” she said. “Also, we don’t have any relatives here, and I don’t have any legal documentation, so there was no option for me except marriage.”

Her mother, Mabiya Khatu, shook her head and murmured in disapproval. Her own husband was killed in 2012, when rioters swept into their village, leaving the family impoverished, she said. The alternative was her daughters being sold into sexual slavery, she said.

“If I didn’t give my daughter to him, then the traffickers might have sold her into the wrong hands,” the mother said. “Traffickers tried to sell both my daughters, so I got them married, and here she is in safe hands, and able to eat at least.”

The younger Ms. Khatu frowned. “I didn’t like him,” she said, “but I had to like him.”

Rohingya men who paid smugglers for brides were reluctant to discuss how the deals were struck. But a phone call recorded by investigators from Fortify Rights last September between a Rohingya woman held in a camp in Thailand and a Rohingya broker reveals the harsh calculus determining a woman’s fate.

“You have never married yet?” the broker asks, according to a transcript provided by Fortify Rights.

“I have never married,” she says.

The broker says that he knows an eligible man, an elderly Rohingya, willing to pay $780 for the rest of her journey to Malaysia.

“Will you marry?” the broker asks.

“Yes, I will marry, if that is the will of God,” she answers. “We are in a difficult situation. Would you please try to take us in two or three days? We cannot get food, water, clothes, and cannot take a bath.”

After the deal is made, the broker tells a guard in the camp that he needs several more single women for prospective husbands.

“You can see them first,” the guard says. “If you want to take one or two, that is your decision.”

The transactions are not always so clear-cut, however, especially given that Rohingya women come from a culture where arranged marriages are the norm. But in their villages, the women often know the prospective husbands, and they are likely to have more say in the decision.

In some cases, impoverished families arrange marriages in advance to pay for a daughter’s trip.

Some of the women who marry to pay a smuggler’s fare describe it as a choice, but Susan Kneebone, a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia who is studying forced migration and marriage in Southeast Asia, says that these marriages amount to trafficking when violence, threats or misleading promises are used.

“The idea of trafficking is really one of whether there has been an abuse of power,” she said. “These women actually don’t have that much freedom within their own community, I suspect, and that’s all made much worse by the fact that they’re traveling to another country.”

After anti-Muslim violence erupted in Western Myanmar in 2012, most of the refugees were men. But the number of women and children fleeing from Myanmar has risen in the past two years.

One reason is the scarcity of eligible Rohingya men in Myanmar. The shortage has also raised the cost of dowries paid by the brides’ families, said Chris Lewa, a Rohingya rights advocate based in Bangkok. Conversely, she said, the high ratio of Rohingya men to women in Malaysia made men there more willing to pay for a bride’s journey and to forgo a dowry.

This year and last year, she said, “one can safely say that at least 5,000 young women embarked on boats and would have entered in a marriage after arriving in Malaysia.”

For now, the smuggling has been paused by a regional crackdown and the rough weather of the monsoon season. But some Rohingya women are waiting for the trade to resume so they too can flee, even if the price of a ticket is marriage.

Tahera Begum, 18, a Rohingya woman who had fled Myanmar a few months earlier, was staying with her sister-in-law in a makeshift camp in Kutupalong, Bangladesh, waiting to continue her journey to marry a man in Malaysia who was chosen by her brother, also in Malaysia.

She had not seen a picture of the man, but they had spoken to him on the phone several times.

“When I talked to him, he said he had a job, so he had an income,” she said. “I would have been happier if I could stay here, but my brother wanted me to get married in Malaysia.

“If I get the signal from my brother or husband-to-be,” she said, “I will try again.”

Chris Buckley reported from Gelugor, Malaysia, and Ellen Barry from Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Jonah M. Kessel contributed reporting from Kuala Lumpur.

from The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/03/world/asia/rohingya-women-flee-violence-only-to-be-sold-into-marriage.html?_r=1)