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Celebrating female refugees and migrants as “women who move”

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E. Tendayi Achiume, UCLA assistant professor of law and UN rapporteur. (Photo: Yuri Sakakibara/ UCLA.)

At the UCLA celebration of International Women's Day 2018, E. Tendayi Achiume discussed female refugees and migrants from the Global South as women who exert their agency to improve their lives.

These people are… responding to a global economic system that is predicated on labor migration from different parts of the world.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, March 26, 2018 — In honor of International Women’s Day 2018, E. Tendayi Achiume spoke at the UCLA Faculty Center on March 15, 2018 about the challenges and contributions of women migrants and refugees, whom she described as “women who move.”

An initiative of Vice Provost Cindy Fan and Associate Vice Provost Gail Kligman, the well-attended event was hosted by the UCLA International Institute and cosponsored by UCLA’s Academic Personnel Office, Center for World Health and Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh delivered opening remarks and the celebration concluded with a lively reception.

Achiume is assistant professor at UCLA School of Law, where her research focuses on human rights law, international migration and international refugee law. In September 2017, she was named UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related tolerance. She is the first woman appointed to the position.

The legal scholar began her remarks by paying tribute to the many women — many unknown to her — who had preceded her and helped create the conditions that enabled Achiume to be appointed a UN rapporteur and teach law at UCLA. In particular, she highlighted a West African woman working at the UN who insisted that she apply for the rapporteur position, as well as her many colleagues at UCLA Law and its Critical Race Studies Program.

Women migrants contribute to the well-being of sending and receiving countries

Women who move and transcend borders are using their agency to achieve a better life for themselves and their children, asserted Achiume. Among the countries with the largest female emigrant populations — including Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand — the majority are domestic workers, she said. According to a 2018 UN report, she noted, 86 percent of the Sri Lankan female emigrants are engaged in domestic labor.

Migrant female domestic workers contribute significant unrecognized welfare benefits to the countries where they work, including the provision of child and elder care, making it possible for women citizens to work. In addition, these female migrants make crucial welfare contributions to the countries from which they migrate. Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East, for example, remit close to 77 percent of their incomes to their home country, related Achiume.

Those monies, she said, “tend to be used for education, for health, for food, for housing and for clothing. This is not necessarily the case of remittances [made by] men,” she continued, “so there is a gendered-impact of how [women’s remittances are] used.

“According to one estimate [from a 2010 study],” she added, “each Sri Lankan migrant woman, on average, supports a family of five in her home country, which totals about 4 million people — or 20 percent of the country's population. The impact is just spectacular.”

International migration law and policy render agency a life-and-death issue

Using intersectional analysis,* Achiume observed that the vast majority of women refugees and economic migrants come from and migrate within the Global South. The UN has documented that 84 percent of all refugees are situated in the Global South. These women of color face an international legal framework that is not conducive to exerting their agency to improve their lives, given the intersecting challenges of racism, structural economic disadvantage and patriarchy that they face.

Italian navy boats rescue asylum seekers in the Mediterranean Sea, 2014.
(Photo: LetsAllStayCalmHere via Flickr, cropped; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

“International law and policy on migration have not traditionally been written by or for women, and definitely not for women of color,” remarked the speaker. In fact, she insisted, "the international governance of migration across borders actually undermines the agency of women who choose to move across [them].” In many cases, she pointed out, they risk their lives to do so — particularly women who are socially, economically and politically marginalized.

“Europe, like most of the first world,” remarked Achiume, “is powered by an economic system that is predicated on illegal migration — so these people are not moving for reasons that are entirely internal… they are responding to a global economic system that is predicated on labor migration from different parts of the world.

“But there's no legal protection for this labor migration on which economies all over the world rely,” she observed, “so even unauthorized migration... should be understood as part of the plan, in some ways, for funding the economies that we have [in the Global North].”

Women of color, particularly African women who migrate to Europe, said Achiume, “experience all sorts extremes — trafficking and sexual exploitation both in Africa and in Europe…, the risk of being sold into modern-day slavery, extortion and rape by border guards and smugglers.

“And for black women who are traveling on their own,” she continued, “the mere fact of being a woman traveling on her own means that everybody on the migrant journey, including other migrants, presume [she is] a prostitute.” She argued that the risk of enslavement is, moreover, racially differentiated, with African migrants and refugees most at risk. (Here Achiume referred to a November 2017 CNN video of slave markets in Libya, which shows migrants being sold for as little as $300.)

Achiume drew particular attention to the tragedy of 26 young Nigerian girls and women who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in November 2017. Many were wearing two sets of clothing, which she claimed is common among people held in migration detention facilities in Libya. The names of only two of the young girls were known at the time of their burial by Italian authorities. Both were pregnant, which Achiume suspected was the result of sexual violence along the migrant route.

Women of color who cross borders face life-threatening challenges, Achiume reflected, yet their fate receives less attention and compassion from global media than other migrants and refugees. “Think of the response to the death of these Nigerian girls in comparison to the image of Ayland Kurdi, the Syrian refugee boy who also died in very unfortunate and terrible circumstances, but [whose death] mobilized the kind of humanitarian response that was entirely absent when these 26 young girls were found,” she said.

“I think that this speaks powerfully to the difference in treatment — even in terms of dead bodies — when you think about black girls and women in comparison to other categories [of migrants and refugees],” she remarked.

Honoring the contributions of women migrants

Achiume lauded the achievements of women who have transcended borders, among whom she counted her own grandmother. In a touching account, she related how her grandmother overcame numerous challenges to obtain an education, become a registered nurse, build birthing clinics and train midwives in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. She later migrated to the United Kingdom, where differing licensing standards made elder care her only option in the health care field.

Although her grandmother took the same pride in elder care work as she did in her nursing experience in Africa, Achiume noted that registered nurses are not usually used for elder care. She found her grandmother’s story especially striking in terms of the movement it encompassed — not simply geographic movement, but also social and political movement.

The sheer determination required for her grandmother to obtain an education alone was impressive. “She talked about waking up at 1 a.m., going to farm in [her father's] fields between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., going home, bathing, and then walking an hour and half to get to school so she could be there by 7 a.m.,” she said.

“When I look at where her life started and everywhere she has been… I can't help but celebrate women who move,” concluded Achiume.

*According to the UN, “The idea of intersectionality seeks to capture both the structural and dynamic consequences of the interaction between two or more forms of discrimination or systems of subordination. It specifically addresses the manner in which racism, patriarchy, economic disadvantages and other discriminatory systems contribute to create layers of inequality that structures the relative positions of women and men, races and other groups.” (See UN video.)

All photos of Professor Achiume by Yuri Sakakibara/ UCLA.