For women seeking refuge in Spain, a trail of peril awaits

The stories of women migrants making the desperate Mediterranean crossing to Europe are different from those of the men, marked by a higher level of exploitation and abuse. Lucia Benavides reports from Spain.

On the last leg of her long and perilous journey to Europe, Joy Good was eight months pregnant. Fortunately, she was rescued from a rubber dinghy bobbing off the coast of Spain last August.

The 20-year-old had started her trip to Spain from a small Nigerian village two years earlier. She says life there was tough for a young woman 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 of her parents died when she was young. So, as soon as she gave birth to the child – a girl – Good handed her over to neighbours in the village. Then she headed north, hoping to find better opportunities in Europe.

But the journey proved more difficult than she had anticipated.

‘The police [at the Morocco-Algeria border] would see us and they said they wanted to make love to us,’ said Good, referring to the other women travelling alongside her. ‘They beat everybody. They always beat. They also beat me.’

Good has a difficult time talking about her journey. She often stops to rub her face with her hands, take a deep breath and look at me as if asking when the questions will stop. When she brings up the father of the unborn child – a boy, whom she planned to keep – she says he stayed behind in Morocco.

Good is just one of many women who crossed into Spain last summer, eventually making it to Malaga and applying for asylum. She has qualified for a six-month governmental programme that provides shelter, Spanish classes and other immersion activities.

As Italy closed its ports to NGO vessels carrying migrants, and human rights violations in Libyan detention centers intensified, Spain became the main entry point for migrants crossing into Europe. As of the end of 2018, some 58,525 migrants had crossed into Spain by land and sea – more arrivals than in the last three years combined. The number of arrivals in Spain was almost double that seen in Italy and Greece.

Women make up 10 per cent of those migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration. And their experience differs widely from that of their male counterparts: immigration lawyers say many face sexual abuse and exploitation on the way. Their journeys are often long – it can take months, or even years, to reach European soil – running up costs totalling thousands of euros. As a result, many women resort to sex work en route – one of the few options to make some money quickly.

Survival strategies

‘Women face all kinds of patriarchal violence during their journey. But we have to keep in mind each woman’s agency, the act of deciding what the best strategy for surviving the journey is for her,’ says immigration lawyer Ana María Rosado Caro, who works with the Association for Human Rights of Andalusia, a nonprofit organization made up of volunteers and lawyers. ‘Each woman finds the strategy of survival that works for her, be it by getting a so-called “journey boyfriend”, or something else.’

The term ‘journey boyfriend’ refers to a man who protects a woman along her migration route in exchange for having sexual access to her whenever he wants. Rosado Caro says it’s likely that the father of Good’s child played this role at some point in her journey. Like many other women who crossed into Spain last summer, Good was travelling alone, and this was one way of protecting herself.

‘There’s always the stereotype that almost all sub-Saharan women that arrive are victims of sex trafficking,’ says Rosado Caro, but that’s not always the case. She adds that the process of identifying victims and sex traffickers is much more complex.

While every female migrant has her own individual story, Rosado Caro says she generally sees two types of profiles. There are those who cross under the thumb of mafias, who facilitate the journey from start to finish in exchange for a debt of tens of thousands of euros; and those who cross of their own will, but pay traffickers along the way to reach their destinations.

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

‘They consider you a sex-trafficking victim from the start, without asking you, without observing you, without knowing you,’ says Rosado Caro. ‘If you have children, they could separate you for some time.’

The latest case was in 2017, when one woman from Côte d’Ivoire was separated from her four-year-old son for five months, as Spanish authorities ran various DNA tests to confirm their blood relation. Spanish authorities, who thought she was a victim of sex trafficking, argued that this placed her child in a situation of neglect. There was no legal basis for the separation – and mother and son were eventually reunited. But only after a long and arduous bureaucratic process, during which the child was left in the care of a refugee centre for minors.

A new life, alone

Lola López, immigration commissioner at Barcelona’s City Hall, says things don’t necessarily get easier once migrants reach Europe.

Her department works with the Red Cross and other NGOs to provide housing for the thousands of migrants that arrive in the Catalan capital every year. Between July and October 2018, she says, the city received 3,500 migrants transferred from refugee centres in the south of Spain – where they had arrived by boat.

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

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

‘There are more opportunities for men within the underground economy. It’s easier to build networks and form communities that will help you 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.’