UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has stated that for those on the move the COVID-19 outbreak is not only a global health crisis, but are also protection and socio-economic crises. When looking at women in migration an argument for a fourth crises should be made: a crisis of inequality. As many health systems and economies rely on migrant women’s labour in care and domestic work, the pandemic and the policy interventions to fight it have dramatically exacerbated inequalities, especially for women in migration.
The additional layer of exclusion for migrants in situations of vulnerability, especially women, resulting from the pandemic and the response has increased the gap between citizens or permanent residents and those without this status. This has also affected other intersecting inequalities, including, race, sexual orientation, disability and other diversity grounds. The focus in this article is on women on the move with insecure migration status.
There are several ways in which women in migration have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and how gender inequalities and migrant discrimination have been exacerbated, bearing in mind that there are specific regional dimensions.
Lockdowns, border closures and heightened policing have trapped women in migration with perpetrators of Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) who are often using COVID-19 as a means of coercive control, isolating them and their children. Discrimination against migrants in service provision and women’s inability to access them when they are available due to lockdowns has meant that women have been unable to get help, report violence, or access shelters, justice and other basic services. COVID-19 has driven SGBV against migrant women to a crisis-point and has been a harsh reminder of the life and death implications for women in migration trapped in abusive relationships and the importance of networks and support services.
Migrant women are not only unable to access key services due to lockdowns and curfews. In many countries, migrants are explicitly excluded from mainstream public services and support packages (where they exist). This often includes access to health services with only 42% of migrants in a multi-region report believing they would be able to access healthcare if they had coronavirus symptoms. This exclusion of migrants affects migrant women specifically, for example blocking access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and maternal health services. The exacerbation of this specific inequality is not only a matter of human rights but also of public health.
Migrant women’s overrepresentation in the informal sector with low skilled, low paid and precarious jobs has meant that they are taking the brunt of unemployment and have lower rates in employment reengagement due to enhanced care responsibilities and increased discrimination. Due to the layoffs, there is a risk that their work permits will not be renewed, resulting in risk of deportation. There has also been an increased risk of abuse and exploitation by employers aware of the precarity of migrant women’s situation. At the same time, many migrant and refugee women have been working as “essential workers” (including agricultural workers) with increased risks to their health due to a lack of protective equipment and their inability to fully access social protection and other human and labour rights. The resultant increase in homelessness, lack of basic food and toiletries (including basic dignity kits for women) have also become a major issue. Food insecurity and a risk of malnutrition are key concerns for women in migration and their children, having been excluded by most responses. Even though NGOs and informal networks (including women and migrant’s organisations) have rolled out foodbanks and other schemes, they are a Band-Aid for what is a significant systemic problem.
The loss of jobs and livelihoods of migrant women has not only left them to struggle, but many families in countries of origin, who have been dependant on their remittances, have lost their economic “lifeline”. Many women have wanted or have been forced to return to their countries of origin losing their social security and earnings. This is creating a “domino effect” affecting not only many families but even the GDPs of entire countries. The reliance of economies on the labour of migrant women workers at risk of exploitation and with little access to rights and services, highlighted by the global pandemic, provides an opportunity to re-think circular migration and the role of migrant workers unable to access their rights.
The closures of schools in almost all countries in the world has also exacerbated inequalities faced by migrant girls. Their often-precarious access to education, role in domestic labour when out of school and limited resources have disproportionately excluded them from remote learning. They are also less likely to return to school when and as they reopen.
COVID-19’s escalation of inequalities experienced by migrant women also includes a socio-political shift towards anti-migrant policies and racist and xenophobic attitudes. Several countries are using the pandemic as an excuse for border closures and stricter border policies, including the detention and deportation of women and children without appropriate health measures, such as testing, being in place. There has also been an erosion of the right to seek asylum with many states such as the United States and the United Kingdom amongst others, citing health concerns to justify restrictions to the right to seek asylum. Refugees and migrants are drifting in boats not allowed to disembark, while others are being forced to return without consideration for the right to non-refoulment such as the case of Malaysia, amongst others.
In tandem with anti-migrant policies, those deported without testing or isolation face discrimination and stigmatisation, often coinciding with gendered attitudes, branding women who have returned or have been forced to return as COVID-19 carriers in their own communities. Simultaneously, there has been a worrying reduction of civic space for migrant women to organise and be able to claim their rights.
In addition to migrant women, further inequality and discrimination is also faced by LGBTQ+ migrants. This group is often entirely absent in measures which often operate on simple gender binaries placing non-binary migrants at additional risk during lockdowns, detentions and deportations. This was evident in “gender quarantines” in Latin America, where governments implemented mobility restrictions that only allowed people of a certain gender to leave the house on a given day, immediately placing non-binary people in a situation of greater risk and vulnerability in the face of State coercion.
As Brazilian feminist activist Sonia Correa has argued, similarly to other health crises such as the syphilis and the HIV/AIDS crisis, the COVID-19 response has led to blame, stigmatisation and violence against “others” who are portrayed as the vector of the disease, usually perceived as aliens to the local population. Therefore, women in migration have been framed as groups that should be controlled, placing them at greater risk when these discourses and narratives are used to tackle an infection.
The above-mentioned crisis of inequality is arguably the result of these overlapping narratives. Racist and xenophobic narratives increasingly portray people on the move as a “threat” to public health, for example, in the cases of Malaysia and Singapore. In turn, previously problematic measures to secure and militarise borders are readily sanctioned in the name of protecting “public health”, where some lives are worth more than others. This narrative is also based on a racialised and sexualised discourse that contributes to further crystallise the status quo of the sex/gender order. Such structural matrixis grounded in the sexual division of labor and gendered power inequalities, leaving women in migration to be treated as a disposable population.
However, the public health and pandemic discourse of death or “necropolitics” has also been challenged by a narrative of life embodied by the many big and small daily fights that women in migration are carrying out by deploying innovative survival strategies, many of them based on solidarity and collective struggles jointly with other segregated groups. Some of these stories have scaled up to global campaigns such as “Regularization Now!/Status for all!” or the call for a #FeministBailout.
To counteract the inequality crisis faced by women in migration during the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects it is important to ensure their presence and recognition in efforts dealing with the other three crises mentioned in the introduction. Some ways of achieving this include:
Carolina Gottardo is a migrant woman who has worked on human rights issues for more than 20 years in different regions of the world. She specialises on migration, asylum and gender. Carolina is currently the director of Jesuit Refugee Service Australia. She has ample advocacy experience with governments and the UN System. She has served on different boards in London, Bangkok, Brussels, Bogota and Sydney.
Paola Cyment is an independent consultant with expertise in migration, gender, human rights and development, with a 15-year experience in international cooperation and project management. She has worked in different positions in national and international NGOs conducting research, advocacy, institutional development and project management.
This article is part of a series of articles by the Global Coalition on Migrationand 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.
Dr. Cäcilie Schildberg
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