There are many problems for women who are refugees in Spain

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There are many problems for women who are refugees in Spain


The stories of women migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe are different from those of the men. There is more exploitation and abuse. Lucia Benavides reports from Spain.

On the last part of her long and dangerous journey to Europe, Joy Good was eight months pregnant. She was rescued from a small boat near the coast of Spain in August 2018.

She was 20 years old and started her journey to Spain from a small Nigerian village two years earlier. She says life there was hard for young women like her, especially after her first pregnancy – a result of a rape when she was just 15 years old.

‘I left because I don’t have help,’ said Good. ‘I don’t have anyone.’

Both her parents died when she was young. So, when she gave birth to the child – a girl – Good gave her to neighbours in the village. Then she went north, hoping to find a better life in Europe. But the journey was more difficult than she thought.

‘The police at the Morocco-Algeria border saw us and they said they wanted to make love to us,’ said Good, talking about the other women with her. ‘They beat everybody. They always beat. They also beat me.’

It is difficult for Good to talk about her journey. She says the father of the unborn child – a boy she planned to keep – stayed in Morocco.

Good is one of many women who crossed into Spain in the summer in 2018. They arrived in Malaga and asked for asylum. She has a six-month government programme that gives her somewhere to live, Spanish classes, and other activities.

After Italy closed its ports to NGO ships with migrants, and there were more human rights problems in Libyan detention centres, Spain became the main place where migrants came as they crossed into Europe. By of the end of 2018, about 58,525 migrants had crossed into Spain by land and sea – more than in the last three years together. There were twice as many arrivals in Spain than in Italy and Greece.

The International Organization for Migration says 10 per cent of those migrants are women. And it is different for the women compared with the men. Immigration lawyers say there is sexual abuse and exploitation on the way. Their journeys are often long – months, or even years, to get to Europe and cost thousands of euros. As a result, many women do sex work on the way. It is one of the few ways to make some money quickly.

Ways to survive

‘There are all kinds of patriarchal violence for women during their journey. But we have to think about each woman and the best way for her to survive the journey,’ says immigration lawyer Ana María Rosado Caro. She works with the Association for Human Rights of Andalusia, an organization of volunteers and lawyers. ‘Each woman finds the way to survive that works for her, sometimes it is getting a “journey boyfriend”, or something else.’

‘a journey boyfriend’ means a man who protects a woman in exchange for sex. Rosado Caro says it’s likely that the father of Good’s child was a journey boyfriend. Like many other women who crossed into Spain in the summer of 2018, Good was alone, and a journey boyfriend was one way of protecting herself.

‘People often think most sub-Saharan women that arrive are victims of sex trafficking,’ says Rosado Caro, but that’s not always true. She says it is difficult to identify victims and sex traffickers.

Every female migrant has her story but Rosado Caro says she generally sees two types. There are those who cross under the control of mafias, who make the journey possible for tens of thousands of euros; and those who cross alone, but pay traffickers along the way.

But the idea that all female migrants are sex-trafficking victims has resulted in situations where sub-Saharan women were separated from their children at the border.

‘They think you are a sex-trafficking victim from the start and they do not ask you,’ says Rosado Caro. ‘If you have children, they could separate you for some time.’

The latest example was in 2017, when one woman from Côte d’Ivoire was separated from her four-year-old son for five months. Spanish authorities did DNA tests to confirm they were mother and son. Spanish authorities thought she was a victim of sex trafficking and said her child was in danger. There was no legal reason for the separation and mother and son were together again in the end. But only after a long and difficult time when the child was in a refugee centre for minors.

A new life, alone

Lola López is immigration commissioner at Barcelona’s City Hall. She says things are not always easier after migrants arrive in Europe.

She works with the Red Cross and other NGOs to find housing for the thousands of migrants that arrive in Barcelona every year. Between July and October 2018, she says, the city received 3,500 migrants from refugee centres in the south of Spain, where they arrived by boat.

‘With women, what we try to do is find sex-trafficking victims. If we find them, there’s a programme that takes care of them and puts them in safe places,’ López says.

She says it’s much harder for women to build new lives in a new country. When they are in Spain, they don’t have the support of family and friends, which they had back home.

‘There are more opportunities for men in the underground economy. It’s easier for them to make contacts that will help them do things like find housing,’ says López. ‘But women are much more alone. Their communities are much smaller.’


Photo: Carlos Gill/Sopa Images/Getty

Work opportunities for undocumented migrants are scarce – and more so for women. Many end up getting jobs in domestic work or setting up stands alongside the so-called manteros, sub-Saharan African men selling souvenirs and off-brand merchandise on blankets. The women, in turn, sell jewellery or offer to braid people’s hair; they are by far outnumbered by male sellers.

A large percentage of women, however, choose to make their money through sex work. Much like during their journey north, female migrants living in Europe often find that it is the fastest and easiest way to make up the debt they accumulated during their crossing.

‘If you need to survive, you’ll survive however you can,’ says López. ‘If there are no possible legal migrating processes, they’ll find other ways.’

Rosado Caro says Europe is in need of more safe and legal migration channels for African migrants fleeing poverty and violence. In most cases, a national from an African country needs a visa to set foot on European soil – and often those visas are not granted in the first place. This leads people to take drastic measures, says Rosado Caro, like risking their lives in the Mediterranean Sea crossings.

‘There’s a structural and symbolic violence that comes about because of immigration laws. The law that we have in Spain, for example, makes it virtually impossible to enter in a legal way,’ says Rosado Caro. ‘The European Union has an immigration policy that’s based on racism and xenophobia. If they take away men’s humanity, for women it’s even more so.’

The moment Good set foot in Malaga, she was taken straight to a hospital. It’s protocol for all female migrants who arrive in Spain pregnant; other women and children are taken to apartments run by the Red Cross or refugee centres where NGOs provide humanitarian aid.

Good was taken to a centre run by the nonprofit Spanish Commission for Refugees. When I spoke to her – two weeks after her arrival – she told me she didn’t know anyone in Spain and hadn’t yet made any friends. While she waits to find out whether the Spanish government will grant her asylum, she’s taking Spanish classes and finding ways to make money. She can braid hair for the time being, she says, until there’s a better opportunity.

She says she’s happy to be in Spain, and that she plans to make it work in the Mediterranean country – as opposed to continuing her journey north to France or Germany, like a lot of other migrants.

‘I feel good,’ Good told me. ‘It was a very long journey; it was not easy. But, at last, God made everything possible. So everything was successful.’


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)