Migration in the UN – the World’s Hot Potato

April 4, 2013

4 Apr, 2013


This year’s 46th session of the UN Commission on Population and Development took place between 21 and 26th April 2013 and reviewed the theme “New trends in migration: demographic aspects”. Negotiations on the Resolution from this meeting were a unique opportunity for Sexual and Reproductive Health & Rights (SRHR) NGOs and organizations working on migrants’ rights to come together and collaborate. Even though the inter-linkages between migration and sexual and reproductive health and rights is logical- currently women and girls consist over a half of world’s migrants, and while they share the full spectrum of protection issues faced by all migrants, they have special protection needs related to gender discrimination in the delivery of services, as well as against sexual and physical abuse- governments questioned their relationship over and over again at last week’s meeting. There are also concerns from the migrant rights communities, that the 1994 Cairo Conference, which shifted population policies from fertility reduction to a reproductive health and rights framework, did not prioritize migration discussions equally within the UN system. The ICPD Programme of Action placed the sexual and reproductive health within the framework of human rights. Migration in the same document was positioned as an economic and development factor, serving as a tool for the neoliberal economic system, whereby the receiving countries from the Global North benefited from cheap migrant labour, while sending countries from the Global South benefitted from the remittances (money sent back home) from nationals working abroad.

Consequences of the neoliberal economic system for women migrants

Throughout the past three decades, governments that introduced neoliberal reforms, such as cuts on social services, assumed women would come in to fill the gap. The current neoliberal economic model in place in Mexico, which includes the consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement, has increased women’s mobility within and across the country’s borders, due to agricultural trade liberalization, among others. Mexico, as well as the United States, have benefitted economically from women migrating, particularly in terms of the care economy, which is predominately female and contributes to the accumulation of global capital wealth.

There are more than 10 million Mexicans that reside in the United States (representing 46% of this country’s migrant population), and hundreds of thousands cross the border every year.  Mexican women migrate because they do not have salaried jobs or social security; to reunite with their family members, often parents, husbands, sons and daughters; and because they are fleeing violence in their homes that puts theirs and their children’s lives at risk.

South-South migration

The current migratory routes are not just from the Global South to the Global North. Migration within the South is also on the rise. According to a UNHCR report in 2011 on asylum trends, 80% of the world’s refugees are received and hosted by developing countries. This is clearly unbalanced, and there is a common misperception that because northern countries receive the most asylum claims, that they receive the most refugees, whereas in reality they provide refuge for a small minority. The vast majority of refugees stay in their regions of displacement. For example, Nigeria is a receiving country for migrants, especially young girls, coming from Benin, Niger or Togo, to work as domestic workers. Lots of them complain about mistreatment by their employers or intermediaries who arrange their jobs for them. Women, often minors, are subjected to mandatory testing for HIV, STIs, pregnancy and when found HIV positive or pregnant they are sent back home without any support. Also the working conditions are in many instances unacceptable, employees are treated like slaves and are subjected to sexual violence. For example, there is no regulation in the domestic service sector in terms of working hours, wages, and leave. They are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, and may be bound to their employer because the visa is tied to their work permit, or because their employer has taken their documents. According to the ILO, 83% of domestic workers worldwide are women.

In Namibia, lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people migrate from smaller towns to cities because of rejection from family members and to seek a better future for themselves.  The same happens in countries of Central and Eastern Europe where homophobia and trans-phobia are especially felt in rural areas.

What’s SRHR got to do with it?

At the CPD negotiations, sexual and reproductive health and rights and migration, instead of being thought through integrally were often traded against one another. The reality for women is not either-or, however. Female migrants need accessible and good quality reproductive and sexual health services without discrimination, violence or coercion, irrespective of their migration status. Adolescents girls urgently need comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) which would help them avoid unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, sexual abuse, coercion and exploitation as well as give them the skills to ask for support in denouncing violations and demanding justice. Often, female migrants are more vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection due to the sexual violence they often face.

Women who move abroad in search of work, better living conditions or to flee violence, become dependent on and are at risk of being sexually abused by smugglers, employers, spouses/partners, even law enforcement or border officers. For example, women who migrate to the US are often raped and beaten by the people they themselves are paying to take them across. Some are forcibly disappeared and even murdered in the process. Migrant women do not have access to safety or any protection.

Women who stay home while their partners go abroad to get a job are also in many settings at risk of exploitation or violence. Others can be trafficked and forced into sex work and subjected to violent treatment. For example, Nigerian women often go abroad in search of economic opportunities to Europe, where the only available option for many is sex work and where some are coerced into the sex trade under the guise of another job offer.

The legal status of a large group of women depends on that of their spouses. The phenomenon of “mail-order brides” is well known in many parts of the world – which means that women are brought to a country to be married, and if they suffer from domestic violence they are not able to report it or seek help, fearing this might lead to deportation. Most of those women at some point need access to sexual and reproductive healthcare or require assistance to defend their rights.

Moreover, studies show that migrant women do not use birth control as often as residents, due to lack of health insurance, cost, and lack of access contraceptive commodities (particularly in refugee/ displacement camps). They often recur to unsafe abortions, avoid STI screenings, and suffer from infections which lead to high rates of cervical cancer. In Ireland, and other countries with restrictive, anti-choice legislation, women are forced to travel for safe abortion services. Migrant women who cannot obtain re-entry visas are at a high risk of resorting to unsafe abortion.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) Issues and Migration

A whole new and growing group of migrants are people seeking asylum in other countries to escape violence and discrimination because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Sexuality human rights defenders fight tirelessly for the recognition of the rights of these communities in Africa, and are migrating to other countries where they can feel safe to be themselves and also receive all the social protection they are entitled to as human beings. Lots of people migrate to be able to start a family and enjoy social protection. Some leave their countries of origin because they risk death. For many people of diverse sexual orientations, however, they wish to stay in their countries and live a life free from stigma and discrimination.

Analysis of the Negotiations

RESURJ members were at the CPD to convince governments to treat the issues that women and young people who are migrants face, with the seriousness they deserve. In order to guarantee women’s human rights, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that all migrants rights are respected, and that they receive all of the health and education services and livelihood opportunities that they need, regardless of their migration status.

The governments of Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, Uruguay, Ghana, the United States and Zambia were supportive of language that would protect the human rights of migrant women and young people, and ensure their access to sexual and reproductive rights and health services and sexuality education, regardless of their migration status, including those of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities. Unfortunately, the Africa Group (led by Nigeria and Cameroon) as well as Egypt, Qatar, and the Holy See, opposed these references throughout. The European Union was very reluctant to agreeing to anything that would provide access to social services for undocumented migrants, defying the concept of inalienable human rights. In the end, the Chair’s Text did provide for a balanced text. The final Resolution does acknowledge the vulnerability that migrants face in accessing health care, and calls upon governments to provide them with sexual and reproductive health services, information and education, including emergency contraception and safe abortion in cases of sexual violence.

OP29. Recognizes that migrants and displaced persons in many parts of the world have limited access to health care, including for sexual and reproductive health, and face specific threats to their reproductive health and rights, and calls upon Governments to provide services that are particularly sensitive to the needs of individual women and adolescents and responsive to their often powerless situation, with particular attention to those who are victims of sexual violence;

OP30. Further calls upon Member States to intensify efforts to provide migrants with access to health and social services, including sexual and reproductive health services, information and education, as well as services to prevent violence, including sexual violence, and address the consequences by providing, inter alia, emergency contraception, safe abortion in circumstances where such services are not against the law, and to services for the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS and other communicable or non-communicable diseases, and for the care and support of persons living with these conditions;

Although this year the final resolution does not recognize previously agreed language on comprehensive education on human sexuality for adolescents and young people nor does it recognize the violence and discrimination that people of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities face, the discussions within governments on sexuality issues are advancing every year as more and more governments support their international recognition.

RESURJ looks forward to engaging throughout the year in preparation for next year’s Commission on Population and Development, where the 20year review of the ICPD Programme of Action will take place. We look forward to advancing all women’s sexual and reproductive rights, and to holding governments accountable to meeting their international commitments.