Increasingly on their own, women migrants face special dangers

Farah Anwar Pandith, U.S. State Department special representative to Muslim communities, speaks at the conference on women and migration sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in Rome May 24. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Increasing numbers of women are migrating alone, a situation that makes them vulnerable to violence and exploitation, but one that often shows their courage and commitment to making a better life for their families, said speakers at a conference in Rome.

About 214 million people live outside their country of origin, and half of all migrants are women, said Miguel Diaz, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, which sponsored a panel discussion about migration and women May 24.

The global economic crisis has increased the danger that migrant women and children will fall prey to traffickers as they flee violence and poverty, seeking a better life for themselves and their families, the ambassador said.

Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, said in the experience of the Catholic Church, its ministers and aid agencies, women who have been forced to migrate, “despite everything that has happened to them in their lives, respond to their situation with remarkable courage, resourcefulness and creativity.”

“They believe wholeheartedly that the future offers change and possibilities,” he said.

At the same time, the cardinal said, women migrants need special protection. They may be the targets of ethnically motivated rape during times of civil strife; their safety often isn’t ensured even in refugee camps; and many become the head of their household in a land where they do not speak the language or understand the culture.

Martina Liebsch, policy director for Caritas Internationalis, told conference participants that strong myths are believed by both migrants and people in the countries they hope to enter.

Migrants, she said, “often believe in the myth of a better life somewhere else, in developed countries, whereas in fact they often end up undocumented, doing precarious work, with little or no access to rights.”

The people who make the most money out of migration — traffickers and smugglers — “exploit this myth and the dreams.” She said a police officer told a recent Vatican conference that “it is easier nowadays to traffic a person than to traffic drugs or weapons.”

People in the world’s richer countries “have their own myth — that they are being invaded by migrants,” she said. But, in fact, research has demonstrated there is more migration in the developing world because most migrants want to stay as close as possible to their homelands. [More]