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International Migrants Day 2013

Louise Allain, 18th December 2013

"There are 232 million people living outside their country of birth, including myself." Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General

The term 'migrant' is often misrepresented in today's society, with bad press creating images of furtive individuals shinning over fences and skulking around town centres. The facts are somewhat different.

Today is International Migrants Day, and a day to make us aware of the hardships of those who are forced to leave their homelands because of conflict, economic hardship or natural disasters. "There are 232 million people living outside their country of birth, including myself." writes UN Secretary-General Bank Ki-moon for Migrants Day. What is also rarely discussed is the fact that almost half of all migrants world wide are women.

Women migrate primarily for reasons affecting their family; they marry and move to be with a spouse, they have children and find that local educational standards are inadequate, they move to find work in more developed areas such as non-skilled factory work, or domestic care.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) believe that it is important to use today to reiterate the need to discourage hierarchical segmentation of migrants, and that human rights should be assured for all, regardless of issues over visa and border regulations.

"Migrants do not want charity, just the fair chance to exercise their rights and to live and work, free of the very discrimination and abuse that often prompted their movement in the first place." (Sue Le Mesurier, Head of the Migration Unit at IFRC)

Another myth is that deportation of migrants helps to level off overcrowding and increase lack of employment; this is misleading because for a country such as Central America for any primary earner who is relocated to say Brazil, it will leave behind them a number of partners and spouses, mostly women, who then need to deal with lost wages and decreased standards of living. So there is then a reprisal of poverty for the same social group.

The more hidden dimension to women migrants is the reality of them having to leave loved ones behind to seek work and fund their families and relatives. So often women are the sole source for stabilising families and providing the necessary financial support. "Since feminine work has been historically unseen, most of what migrant women contribute is neither reflected in the national wealth nor is it given value by society." (Ana Elena Obando, Association for Women's Rights in Development)

It is not just the economic factors that make migrant women at a disadvantage but naturally if they are migrating through unknown geographical areas and possibly having to reside in more feral parts of a new territory they are immediately open to the threat of violence or worse, sexual abuse for favours from those who manipulate their status at border crossings or passport controls.

There are many accounts of women who have come to work in domestic employment, as nannies or home carers in the UK, being persecuted by employers' husbands, who then threaten to send them back home if they divulge their mistreatment. The fact that their visas are usually not flexible to change employer, means the woman is left in a desperate bind. Abuse or poverty?

What is of concern is that the government did not implement the Convention 189 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Geneva, on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. This International Labour Document helped to eliminate many of the anomalies that domestic workers are exposed to.

More worrying is that on 6 April 2012, the UK Government removed the basic rights of migrant domestic workers, including most importantly - the right to change employer. Only a year after the Labour Party's election victory in 1997, legislation was prioritised to give extra rights to thousands of domestic workers, but under a new points-based system the Home Office plans to reverse this policy.

So what is the future for our women migrants across Asia, America and Europe; the hope is with much more witness on social media sites and with the young writing passionate internet blogs about their experiences, maybe 2014's International Migrants Day may see a small reversal in devaluing these brave mothers and sisters and daughters who strive, like all of us, to seek a better quality of life.