Migrant women in informal settlements in Spain

Spotlight Migration and COVID-19: How the lockdown amplifies vulnerabilities.


Image: Informal settlements in Almeria. of Fundacion Cepaim

“I met with workers living in a migrant settlement in conditions that rival the worst I have seen anywhere in the world. They are kilometres away from water, and live without electricity or adequate sanitation”

Statement by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on his visit to Spain.


Spain has had a high number of informal migrant settlements, also referred to as shantytowns, since the 1990s and they are a clear example of the lack of effective respect for and protection of the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their migration status, as enshrined in the Global Compact for Migration [1], and the scope and severity of the living conditions in informal settlements make them one of the most pervasive violations of human rights globally.

According to the ETHOS classification typology, drawn up by FEANTSA in 2007, these settlements are "inadequate housing" for the safety and vital development of their inhabitants. In addition, their location in rural areas or urban peripheries, or separation from urban centres even when they are located there, create a barrier to integration of migrants with the rest of the population.

In Spain, settlements are located in the province of Almeria, the province of Huelva, the Autonomous Community of the Region of Murcia and the Community of Valencia, and in large cities such as Madrid and Barcelona and their metropolitan areas. In spite of settlements being male spaces, inhabited predominantly by migrant men, women are a growing and especially vulnerable group, often living in the intersection of precarious socio-residential situations and risks of gender based violence.

The following is an analysis [2] of the profile and social situation of these women and the impact the COVID-19 health emergency, and its consequences, has had on their material living conditions and how inadequate housing is one of multiple vulnerabilities that amplify each other and are all affected by the pandemic. This short article will look at women in informal settlements in Spain as a case study for the wider issue of how COVID-19 has impacted these often forgotten migrants.

Women in informal settlements

Research by the Cepaim Foundation on the inhabitants of informal settlements in Spain in 2019 engaged participants from four key geographies: the provinces of Almería and Huelva, which are rural settings, and Madrid and Barcelona, both large metropolitan cities. The study, predating the COVID-19 pandemic, showed women to be one of the most vulnerable groups identified and much of that vulnerability was the result of  poor housing conditions (often temporary structures built with recycled materials lacking electricity, water, and sanitation) and the geographic setting, which was often isolated with scarcity of resources and job opportunities outside of the agricultural sector. The migrant women from Sub-Saharan Africa (mostly from Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea and Ghana) living in informal settlements in the Huelva province were the most vulnerable and victims of human rights violations, especially trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation. Undocumented women from Morocco, living in the provinces of Huelva and Almeria with dependant minors in Spain or sometimes in their country of origin, were the second most vulnerable group.

Vulnerability during a global pandemic

The COVID-19 adaptation and prevention measures have exacerbated these women’s risks to their survival. This is particularly the case with regards to: 1) labour, having less opportunities for employment within the informal economy and facing higher risks of infection due to poor prevention measures; 2) housing, living in places that do not meet minimum standards of habitability and hygiene essential to prevent contagion and quarantine in the event of illness; and 3) care work, increasing women’s burden of child care and domestic work due to closures of schools, the absence of social and family networks and men’s failure to share household responsibilities.

The pre-existing vulnerabilities of these women have amplified the impact of the pandemic and its response, often affecting them more. Sub-Saharan women who had been trafficked into sexual exploitation remained the most vulnerable sub-groups after taking the impact of COVID-19 into account and are maybe the most severe example of this dynamic. This continued abuse and violence now also puts them at high risk of contracting the virus.

The undocumented women from Morocco living in the provinces of Huelva and Almeria with dependent children (in Spain and in Morocco), impacted by school closures, were also affected by the pandemic’s effects of travel. Many of them were recruited as seasonal labour in the agricultural sector expected to return to their country of origin, where many have parents and children dependent on them. Farmers recruit this specific profile of female labourer, and even though exploitative labour practices often include the employer controlling women’s ability to leave, the pandemic has left them stranded in Spain without income. The more familiar uncertainty of not knowing how many months they will be forced to stay and work, is replaced in uncertainty about their ability to return to work in the next season or how long they will have to stay in Spain without an income.


The health emergency caused by COVID-19 has added new disease related vulnerabilities to life in informal settlements, yet it has also highlighted how human rights violations and abuses in informal settlements go beyond access to adequate housing, which is often the focus. The intersection of housing, social conditions, health and hygiene, and economic opportunities and mobility can be seen in the case of women in Spanish informal settlements shown here, but these realities exist elsewhere, to similar detriment to migrants.

It is key to ensure that conversations on hygiene in informal settlements for the prevention of COVID-19 are not insular, but are instead holistic, with a clear gender lens that understands the deep inequality that operates with particular virulence in cases of sex trafficking, and in the uneven share of care work, and the high rates of physical, sexual, psychological, and structural gender-based violence.


The need to "develop gender-responsive migration policies to address the particular needs and vulnerabilities of migrant women, girls and boys", as stated in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, paragraph 23 (c) has to include access to adequate housing; and inversely, national or regional governments responsible for housing must recognise this right in a migrant and gender focused manner. [3] To ensure the universal access to adequate housing for migrants in the context of COVID-19 we recommend:

  • Ensuring migrant women living in informal settlements are considered a separate and specifically vulnerable group in COVID-19 focused interventions on preventing the spread of the disease in these settings.
  • Ensuring that policy discussions are multi-sectoral, bringing together key actors from housing, immigration and social welfare to develop coordinated responses that ensure that the various policies and procedures effectively support each other.
  • Investigating migrant women without access to adequate housing (including those who are homeless and those living in informal settlements) to ensure a comprehensive and holistic approach to policy and programme development is evidence based. This is key for ensuring that measures do not exclude women by failing to understand their daily lives.
  • Urging policymakers to develop state protocols for informal settlements, in accordance with human rights, ensuring access to safe drinking water and sanitation [4] and in line with recommendations made by the former Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. These protocols much ensure that women are included and their specific barriers to access services are considered.
  • Including informal settlements in government strategies to reduce homelessness, to avoid an unduly narrow focus on a specific subgroup of people without access to adequate housing.



Diego Pascual López-Carmona, PhD in Sociology – University of Murcia and National Coordinator of the Housing and Residential Exclusion Department in Fundación Cepaim.

Jesús Tolmo García, Coordinator of the Alliances, Advocacy and International Affairs Department in Fundación Cepaim.

Nacho Hernández, Alliances, Advocacy and International Affairs Department in Fundación Cepaim.

Manuela Pérez González,Technical team of intervention in informal settlements in Fundación Cepaim


[1] Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, Paragraph 15 (f) specifies that “The Global Compact is based on international human rights law and upholds the principles of non-regression and non-discrimination. By implementing the Global Compact, we ensure effective respect for and protection and fulfilment of the human rights of all migrants, regardless of their migration status, across all stages of the migration cycle. We also reaffirm the commitment to eliminate all forms of discrimination, including racism, xenophobia and intolerance, against migrants and their families”

[2] This article is based on research carried out by the Cepaim Foundation during 2019, entitled "Breaking down the invisibility of homeless women: profile and social situation of women living in informal settlements in Spain" by López-Carmona, 2019 and an analysis of the information gathered by the organisation through reports drawn up by the technical team involved in the direct intervention in settlements, relating to the work carried out since the outbreak of the health emergency during 2020.

[3] General comment No. 4: The right to adequate housing (art. 11 (1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) expressly provides that the right to adequate housing applies to everyone, paragraph 6, the right to housing should be ensured to all persons irrespective of income or access to economic resources, paragraph 7.

[4] General comment No. 15, The Right to Water (Arts. 11 and 12 of the Covenant) specified that States are obliged “to provide those who do not have sufficient means with the necessary water and water facilities and to prevent any discrimination on internationally prohibited grounds in the provision of water and water services” (para. 15) “whereas the right to water applies to everyone” (para. 16).


This article is part of a series of articles by the Global Coalition on Migration and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on international migration during the COVID-19 pandemic. they analyse the impact of the pandemic on international migrants protection highlighting the various human rights instruments, international law, the global compact and treaties that protect the rights of migrants. The articles focus on various topics such as; gender, labor, regularization,race, xenophobia, security, borders, access to services and detention.

nach oben