Roma refugees from Kosovo
© UNHCR, B. Szandelszky, 2006
Palestinian refugee women
© UNHCR, 2006
© Netzwerk Migration in Europa e.V.
Since 1990, female immigrants in Europe have outnumbered their male counterparts. The states of the European Union are the main destination countries for immigrant women from countries of the former Soviet Union and from various Latin American and African states.
Due to the so-called feminization of migration in the European Union, political attention has been drawn in recent years to migrant women, with emphasis on two negative aspects: the low labour market participation and the growing phenomenon of trafficking. Furthermore, migration trends in Europe are being influenced by marriage migration, including arranged marriages and the increasing number of internet and mail-order brides. There are nearly 1,000 marriage agencies in the Russian Federation that assist women in finding a foreign husband, some of them acting as women traffickers. Research has failed to pay enough attention to the diversity of women’s skills and the socio-economic backgrounds in the migration process.
The concept of “migrant women” refers to a wide range of different circumstances. It may apply to women of various generations of immigration and different forms of legal status (legally resident, undocumented migrants or refugees). The reasons for leaving their home countries are multiple: For some of them, the key factor is family while for others various economic factors play the key role. Among migrant women there is a growing number of skilled and highly skilled women and young women who migrate for educational purposes. It is particularly the highly skilled women who are neglected in public debate and in research.
As the perspective of migrant women is often ignored by the European debates and policies relating to immigration, it is the impact of EU immigration/integration policies on the lives of migrant women that needs to be analysed. Despite the gender mainstreaming aspects, issues related to gender and ethnic minorities tend to be covered by separate policies instead of being addressed by an integrated approach.
Family reunification used to be the main possibility for women to be legally admitted to the EU. With the growing number of immigrants this has changed in recent years. An increasing number of women, in some countries more than 50% of all admitted immigrants, are now migrating in their own right as labour migrants, students and researchers. Although women`s migration has been associated with dependence and the breadwinner model, in more recent years there has been an increase in women migrating alone and practising long-distance parenting.
Many obstacles to the empowerment of migrant women in the host country derive from the legal status they hold when arriving in the EU. The main obstacle relates to the dependency created by their status, with migrant women being dependent on their husband in case of family reunification, for example. In principle, there are measures like the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (entered into force in 2003) that might legally contribute to improving the situation of migrant women and their families and help to establish minimum standards of women’s rights protection and gender equality. While the Migrant Worker Convention has been adopted by sending countries it has not been adopted by any of the receiving countries so far.
There is particularly one key sector of integration – the labour market and the related employment opportunities – where migrant women face double discrimination based both on their gender and their ethnic origin.
Isabelle Carles, researcher from the Study Group on Gender and Migration at the University of Brussels, suggests two most important areas to be addressed in order to empower migrant women.
Measures promoting the access to labour market and education as well as the improvement of working conditions: The economic empowerment of migrant women is essential to improving their situation. Third-country female nationals are discriminated against in the workforce when compared to European women. While the employment rate among European women is 68%, it amounts to 44% among non-European women. Among non-European women we find an unemployment rate of 19% compared to only 10% among European women.
When it comes to employment, an important precondition is, in the first place, that women who have come to the country of residence under the family reunification process must be granted the individual right to enter the labour market. Secondly, labour market information and job offers must be made accessible, e.g. through publications targeting migrant women.
Migrant women are often treated as cheap and flexible employees and are strongly concentrated in a few female-dominated occupations: domestic work, helping in restaurants and hotels, clothing companies, assembly lines in manufacturing plants. These jobs are often characterized by unstable working conditions. Access to employment and prospects for longer-term security and professional advancement are often limited due to discriminatory practises.
Education and vocational training are needed in order to reduce these obvious inequalities. Recently arrived migrant women must have access to education and, if needed, to secondary and further vocational training to acquire new skills so that they are not restricted to low paid jobs. The diplomas and qualifications, training and professional experience of skilled and highly skilled women have to be recognised in order to ensure the participation of immigrant women in the labour market. Capacity building is needed for migrant women who want to set up their own businesses as an alternative to unemployment. Finally, migrant girls have to be encouraged to access third-level education.
Strengthening the participation of migrant women in democratic life and protection of basic human rights: Knowledge and awareness about social rights is one important precondition of social inclusion. Women should learn about their rights and have access to migrant and civil society organisations at the local level. They should be encouraged to establish contacts to local NGOs, which will help them to identify their specific needs and work at grassroots level to develop their skills. To strengthen the voices of migrant women and provide counselling and lobbying for migrants’ rights it is necessary to financially support and promote migrant women’s associations on a transnational and European level.
From a human rights perspective, protection begins with effectively informing women about their rights and about the rights that are being infringed. Information should be targeted to women and men in order to ensure that they know about their rights, about basic democratic values and issues of non-discrimination. Due to their vulnerable situation, migrant women must be informed on health care and services and, in particular, on the prevention of all forms of domestic violence.
As undocumented migrants do not have any legal status, there are no official statistics on the number of undocumented migrants living in the EU. According to estimates, there are between 200,000 and 500,000 trafficked women working in the sex sectors in the European Union. Trafficked women come from all over the world but mostly from Eastern European Countries. Turkey and the Balkans have become the largest markets for women trafficked from the former Soviet states.
Many undocumented migrant women are in a precarious situation and their basic rights are being denied. They are an extremely vulnerable group. They face multiple challenges in Europe in accessing health care, fair working conditions and housing, which results in exclusion and exploitation. On the one side, undocumented migrants are criminalized and marginalized, on the other side they are used as cheap labour force and often exploited. They run a high risk of falling victim to sexual and other abuses both in the host countries and during detention and deportation.
Though undocumented migrants have rights recognized in international human rights treaties these rights are systematically abused. Undocumented migrant women predominantly work in sectors of the shadow economy which are hardly regulated and characterized by exploitative wages. They suffer from difficult working conditions. Often undocumented women do not receive any wage or receive less than was agreed upon. If they suffer work-related accidents, the absence of legal status makes it difficult to get workers´compensation. If they are deported due to their irregular residence status, they have little chances to claim lost wages.
The demand of cheap labour in the service sector and the demand for domestic workers in particular is growing in the EU as a result of increasing women´s employment and the ageing population. Therefore, it is indispensable that pan-European NGOs such as PICUM and Respect lobby for minimum standards and their enforcement and that they fight for the social rights of undocumented migrants.
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