Undocumented Migrant Women

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In Europe, undocumented women face legal and structural barriers to access essential services such as accommodation, health, education and workplace protection

Gender-based violence in Europe’s fight against irregular migration

Gender-based discrimination augments migrant women’s susceptibility to violence and when combined with an irregular status, contributes to a worrying culture of impunity within the EU.          

Described as the most pervasive yet least recognised human rights abuse in the world, violence against women is a manifestation of gender-based inequality and discrimination. While the EU and many of its member states have prioritised the reduction of violence against women, the systematic abuse facing undocumented women caught up in the Europe’s ‘fight against irregular migration’ is often ignored by policy makers, the media, and even women’s shelters and services.

Estimates of up to 3.8 million undocumented migrants currently reside in the EU, a growing number of whom are female. Gender inequalities place women at a structural disadvantage in all stages of the migration process. Migrant women have few opportunities for regular, secure and independent migration, the channels that do exist frequently tend to limit their agency and autonomy. So while migration can mark positive experience for some women, the policies governing entry, work and residence to the EU disadvantage a large number of women and increase the potential for unchecked abuse.

In particular, female migrants in low-wage, highly feminised employment sectors as well as those seeking protection from gender-based violence face huge uncertainties when arriving to the EU. The reduced paths available for women to enter the EU may increase their reliance on scrupulous intermediary agents. Upon arrival, those seeking international protection on gender-related grounds frequently have their asylum claims refused,[1] while those migrating for economic or family reasons find their immigration status is dependent on the good will of an employer or spouse. Despite the injustices which often lead to their irregular status, inflexible policies often deny a ‘route-back’ and migrant women may be left, without resources or support, to live a shadowed existence of heightened vulnerability.

In Europe, undocumented women face legal and structural barriers to access essential services such as accommodation, health, education and workplace protection. Across the EU, they risk deportation if they contact the police, are denied access to women’s refuges, and are unable to obtain financial assistance granted to victims of violence.

The obligation of local police to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence is superseded in many instances by their duty to denounce those without a valid residence permit to the immigration authorities. NGOs working at grass roots level report numerous examples in which undocumented women who report violence are subsequently arrested, detained and then deported alongside their abusive partner. With nowhere to turn for help, undocumented women remain disproportionately vulnerable to systematic and underdressed violence.

A wide range of public health issues result from gender-based violence including physical, mental, sexual, reproductive and maternal health problems.[2] Yet despite priority needs in this area, the basic entitlements taken for granted in Europe are systematically denied to undocumented women residing here. There are significant legislative and practical barriers preventing undocumented women’s access to essential medical services and support programmes, and yet their needs and experiences are rarely addressed in debates on this issue.

The detection practices existing in many EU member states means that undocumented women often avoid contact with the authorities at all costs and rarely access sexual and reproductive health services.[3]  Consequently, these women are giving birth at home alone, or putting their lives at risk to obtain unsafe abortions as they lack entitlements or are too fearful to avail of treatment in hospitals and from doctors’ clinics. Those suffering abuse and health-related crisis often have no idea of what their rights are, and may face serious repercussions if they contact the police or seek assistance.                

The fear of detection among undocumented women has hugely negative social, economic and public health consequences as the victims become intimidated by police, medical professionals and public servants, as they are of their abusers. Current policies inadvertently limit vulnerable women’s ability to access justice as the right to seek an effective remedy is increasingly linked to immigration status. There is an urgent need to prevent migrant women from falling into an irregular status and furthermore, to improve respect for their fundamental rights and bring all perpetrators of gender-based violence to justice.

PICUM’s seminal report ‘Strategies to End Double Violence Against Undocumented Women’ highlights the urgent need to ensure rights and justice for all female victims of violence without discrimination of any kind.[4] Identifying the need to place victims’ protection needs ahead of their immigration status, this report highlights the efforts of civil society, law enforcement personnel, legislators and policymakers in guaranteeing a non-discriminatory approach to victims’ rights in Europe.

Currently being transposed by national authorities in 27 European Countries, the EU Victims’ Directive holds the potential to bring about significant improvements in national laws and policies. By obliging member states to ensure these rights to all victims of crime irrespective of

residence status, this Directive holds the potential to become one of the most significant legislative tools at EU level to address impunity for crimes waged against undocumented migrants. How well this tool will support undocumented victims in practice will most certainly depend on the strategic efforts of the migrants’ rights and women’s rights movements in raising awareness about this issue and building strong alliances to bring about change.[5]


[1] Refugee Council, ‘The Vulnerable Women’s Project Refugee and Asylum Seeking Women Affected by Rape or Sexual Violence’, Refugee Council: London, 2009, available online at: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk

[2]  Recent research completed in Switzerland shows that undocumented women had more unintended pregnancies, use preventative measures less frequently, delayed prenatal care more, and were exposed to more violence during pregnancy. Hans Wolff et al, ‘Undocumented migrants lack access to pregnancy care and prevention’, BMC Public Health 2008, 8:93.

[3] PICUM, ‘Access to Health Care for Undocumented Migrants in Europe’, PICUM: Brussels, 2007. Available online at: http://picum.org/en/publications/reports/

[4] PICUM, ‘Strategies to End Double Violence Against Undocumented Women’, PICUM: Brussels, 2011, available at: http://picum.org/en/publications/reports/  

[5] To support civil society organisations and advocates to engage with the transposition process, PICUM has produced an information sheet providing a clear overview regarding the obligations the Directive places on EU member states and some ideas regarding how they may seek to influence this process. http://picum.org/picum.org/uploads/file_/Victims%20Directive%20Info%20Sheet-%20FINAL.pdf