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Covid Impact Series: Migrant Women (France)


Léa Cros is a Master’s student from Toulouse, France studying Human Rights, Management
of International Crises and International Relations. She is particularly interested in the gender perspective within security, peace and transition processes, and her research has focused on women’s groups in peacebuilding in Liberia or Nepal. She joined WILPF in March 2020 is currently involved in
the group focusing on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.
She is also very interested in Human Rights and the question related to Migration. She works with the French organisation “Amicale du Nid” helping migrant female sex workers applying for asylum and writing advocacy papers on the subject of Human Trafficking and sex workers’ rights.

Migrant Women (France)

Léa Cros

The COVID-19 pandemic involved containment policies and quarantine measures adopted in many parts of the world. This helped to stop the spread of Covid-19 but resulted in restrictions on movement, closure of many services and worsening socio-economic conditions. Confinement and other movement-restricting measures contributed to an increase of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) which was picked up by several media outlets and was especially highlighted by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights of the United Nations (OHCHR),  which underlined that the impact of GBV was more substantial on vulnerable people such as migrant women. Organizations like UN Women helped raise awareness about these inequalities and encouraged a response from a gender and intersectional perspective, allowing identification of these inequalities and appropriate protection and assistance to vulnerable populations.


According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a ‘Migrant’ can be defined as “An umbrella term, not defined under international law, reflecting the common lay understanding of a person who moves away from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a variety of reasons. The term includes a number of well-defined legal categories of people, such as migrant workers; persons whose particular types of movements are legally-defined, such as smuggled migrants; as well as those whose status or means of movement are not specifically defined under international law, such as international students.”

In this article, the term  ‘migrant’ includes the women who moved away from their usual residence temporarily or permanently, including women who have a residence permit, who are refugees [1] or asylum seekers, and women who are in transit through border regions or settlement camps, potentially without legal documentation.

Migrant female workers are more vulnerable

The impact of the employment crisis under Covid-19 disproportionately affects less-protected population groups, such as women (especially BAME women) and migrants, thus jeopardizing their job security and livelihoods. According to the IOM World Migration Report 2020, around 74% of migrant women work in the service industry including as domestic workers. In many cases, they experienced vulnerability due to lockdown. As significant portions of their income are allocated in remittances to support their families in their countries of origin, the pandemic, and the consequent mobility and travel restrictions, jeopardized their income, thus compromising not only their livelihoods but those of their families.

In a study lead by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on “Gender Proposal for Latin America and the Caribbean for a Response and Recovery with Gender Equality“, the organization indicated that during a health pandemic crisis involving restriction for the mobility of people, migrant women, especially in the domestic work sector and irregular migrants, become fully dependent on their employers as they can be removed from social protection services. Indeed, women migrant workers are disproportionately represented in precarious, informal and low-paid jobs, including domestic work, and lack adequate social protection.

The stigmatizing idea that migrants are vectors of Covid-19 just because of their migrant status, makes them the target of threats. In the specific case of migrant women, this discrimination can have consequences such as the lack of adequate care in medical centres and other healthcare settings that are directly related female health (such as sexual and reproductive care, or legal and psychosocial support following GBV). For instance, many migrant workers face exclusion from Covid-19-related health and social services in their host countries, as well as stigma and discrimination, particularly when undocumented.  Undocumented women are denied health care and are rounded up for detention and deportation, which discourages them from attending such care even if in need.

Overexposure to health risks

The limited ability of some migrant women to access personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and hand sanitizer, as well as the greater tendency to live in overcrowded conditions, leaves this population less prepared to face the virus, indicates the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), migrant women in situations of transit are more exposed to contracting the virus, less equipped to prevent it and have less healthcare access to ensure their recovery.

Moreover, female migrant workers are especially vulnerable because they are often concentrated in the sectors of the economy with high levels of informal or unprotected work, characterised by low wages and the lack of social protection. UN Women estimated that 8.5 million women are migrant domestic workers and affirmed that its part of one of the most vulnerable migrant worker groups, as they are subject to poor working conditions, long and often unlimited working hours, frequently with insecure and exploitative contracts and limited to no social protection.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), migrant workers are often key workers who carry out essential jobs in healthcare, transport, services, construction, and agriculture and food processing. The ILO further estimates that 11 million migrant women are in domestic work, particularly in home-care settings. These front line workers have often had to face greater risks to their health and safety as the pandemic progressed. The ILO highlights that domestic workers, especially women, became more vulnerable to violence and attacks in their working environment. They were cut off from family, trade and suffer from violence and abuse.  The ILO study also found that workers who were confined with their employers were subject to greater abuse. For instance, an ILO-UN Women study showed that 50% of employers in destinations for ASEAN migrant workers do not allow domestic workers to access their mobile phones.

Insecurity related to Human Exploitation

Undocumented migrant women are more exposed to the risks of human exploitation such as trafficking.[2] From the garment industry, agriculture and farming, to manufacturing and domestic work, millions of women who were living in precarious conditions before the pandemic have lost their wages and find themselves in a position of higher vulnerability. These sectors are identified as the main landing occupations for victims of human trafficking where lower production costs, as well as less control by the authorities, foster a system of exploitation. Undocumented migrants and seasonal workers are also faced with more unstable working and living conditions, resulting in greater vulnerability to falling prey to criminal networks. Other sectors, such as the sex industry and domestic work are drenched in workers’ exploitation, exposing them to health hazards including Covid-19.

For trafficking victims in lockdown, Covid-19 measures may worsen their already desperate situation. Mobility and quarantine restrictions force many women to isolate themselves with their abusers or potential abusers. Existing GBV is exacerbated by labour and migration uncertainty, as well as social distancing. For many migrant women who do not have sufficient support networks in transit and destination countries, isolation with their aggressor is a danger. According to the UNODC report on Covid-19 response, the increased levels of domestic violence reported in many countries is a worrying indicator for the living conditions of many trafficking victims, that is those in domestic servitude or sex slavery, disproportionately affect women and girls. Furthermore, lockdown and movement restrictions reinforce the isolation of victims and reduce the chance to identify and remove them from such exploitative situations.

Lastly, the preoccupation of states with the spread of Coronavirus further renders people in vulnerable situations invisible, all the more so as NGOs and Government agencies working in connection with these issues can no longer operate normally. Identification of victims and subsequent referral to social protection schemes may therefore become more challenging. For example, victims who have been provided with temporary immigration documents or time-limited services linked to their status as victims of trafficking might not be able to renew them easily. The situation can worsen if borders are closed and planned repatriations cannot take place, while residence permits and related access to healthcare and social benefits have already expired.

Insecurity for sex-workers

Faced with the Coronavirus, the precariousness of sex work has increased particularly affecting the many female sex workers who live and work without legal documentation. Sex workers often come from groups that are already economically and socially marginalized.

Most of them are foreigners, most often under the control of a procurer (i.e. pimp) or an organized crime network who are the real beneficiaries of the profits from prostitution, and their great precariousness is further aggravated by the containment measures. Usually, with few resources, they have even less today and are therefore at greater risk of violence. Most people who work in the paid sex trade are not documented and don’t have access to state aid intended for self-employed or unemployed people, or other schemes such as income support available in many countries. Thus, sex workers, who are forced to work in the informal economy, find themselves excluded from emergency assistance available to other workers further marginalizing them and exposing them to the risk of lack of healthcare assistance and homelessness.

Migrant women, even more fragile in times of epidemics in France

In an opinion column in the newspaper “Libération“, three University academics, Smaïn Laacher, Sihem Habchi and Jean-François Corty, exposed the vulnerability of migrant women in France, who have the possibility of reception and access to the healthcare system restricted. The health emergency leaves entire populations unprotected, unable to gain entry into France and medical care facilities. Hundreds of migrant women without social or material protection are facing health degradation and multiple forms of violence. They are victims including social, sexual, psychological and administrative violence. The increase in violence against women during confinement is real. But what meaning does the word confinement have on people who do not necessarily have a roof over their heads or a safe place to live? In this context, the climate of fear leads them to avoid or (self)exclude from public spaces. Fear of police controls and ignorance of how institutions function put them at the mercy of predators, who will prolong their ordeals in France. Many of them, especially amongst those without legal status, are single women or pregnant women without a spouse. In recent years, the iniquitous decision to restrict access to the healthcare system for migrants has proven to be catastrophic and we can see the tangible repercussions in today’s emergency, with the urgent need to contain the pandemic, especially while the solidarity networks can’t work as efficiently as usual.

[1] “Persons recognized as refugees, by a State or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on the basis of objective criteria related to the circumstances in their country of origin, which justify a presumption that they meet the criteria of the applicable refugee definition.” Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Master Glossary of Terms (2006) p. 17.

[2] Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a grave violation of human rights. Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad. Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims. UNODC, as guardian of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and the Protocols thereto, assists States in their efforts to implement the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (Trafficking in Persons Protocol).

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