Women and Children First

Women and children migrant voices, especially after the pandemic, must be amplified in discussions around the Global Compact, which aims to bring world governments in line with good and safe migration governance.

African children on a rooftop at center founded by a Sudanese family to assist refugees hit by the pandemic in Giza, Egypt, Feb. 24, 2021. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

United Nations organizations and regional experts met for the first time in two years on March 30, 2021 to discuss implementing the Global Compact for Safe Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM)—the Global Compact for short, the first negotiated agreement between governments that covers all dimensions of international migration. 

The joint special online session was held to discuss the specific challenges women and children migrants face, and the obstacles posed by COVID-19.

While the Global Compact was first adopted by the majority of UN member states at a conference held in Marrakesh, Morocco, and formally endorsed by the UN General Assembly in December 2018, a lot of the work of the past year has been delayed due to the onset of the pandemic. 

“This pandemic has proven how fragile some of the policies that we have in place are and how fragile the vulnerabilities faced by too many migrants continue to be,” said Jonathan Prentice, Head of Secretariat at the United Nations Network on Migration at IOM.

The goals of the GCM are multiple. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), it is designed to “determine who enters and stays in their territory and demonstrates commitment to international cooperation on migration”. But it also presents an opportunity to improve member states’ migration policies and strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development. Although a non-binding document—which has, therefore, caused many internal contradictions due to the divergent views and interests of governments and stakeholders—the GCM sets a range of actionable commitments it expects from member states on these issues, including follow-up and review of their home policies.

While Prentice applauded governments for putting in place measures reflected in the GCM to try and address vulnerabilities such as extension of visas, increased access to health services, and a greater recognition of what constitutes essential labor, he pointed out that many migrants have found their vulnerabilities intensified due to COVID-19. A priority, Prentice argued, needs to be placed on including migrants in all aspects of recovery strategies. Those include targeting some of the most vulnerable migrants: women and children.

Ibrahim Aqel of the King Hussein Foundation in Jordan, for example, noted that reproductive health services in many countries were cut or severely limited due to lockdowns and curfews, preventing many from access to basic healthcare. There was also an uptick in sexual and gender-based violence cases. Yet, not many protection services were available. In addition, family reunifications were halted as international travel came to a standstill, which also limited other matters, including refugee resettlement, which saw its lowest numbers in two decades (only 15,425 people resettled in the first nine months of 2020, compared to more than fifty thousand in 2019), and information on where to access essential healthcare in the target language of many migrants and refugees. 

There is also cause for concern that some countries are not including migrants and internally displaced people (IDPs) in their COVID-19 national plans. This has meant that in some countries, migrants, including asylum-seekers and refugees as well as IDPs have been unable to access COVID-19 tests and vaccines. For those who tested positive, not even access to needed healthcare services such as needed in-person care or ventilators was available. This has led to long-term health issues and, unfortunately, death. Nevertheless, there have been many learning moments in the region, COVID-19 notwithstanding. 

For example, while prior meetings included some stakeholders such as government officials and UN representatives, the goal of the GCM is now to include migrants, diasporas, local communities, civil society, academia, the private sector, parliamentarians, trade unions, national human rights institutions, the media, and other relevant stakeholders in migration governance such as women and children. 

More Inclusion For Women and Children

With regard to female migrant workers, program manager at the Tadamon Center-Lebanon, Sara El Khatib, said that there is a need for data and analysis of the current economic situation to be disaggregated by gender. This way, states, organizations, and other stakeholders can receive a more thorough overview of their situation to be able to better cater their services to migrant women and utilize their skills in the labor market. 

In addition, El Khatib believes that ethical recruitment of women even before they leave their countries of origin is much needed, including having contracts in languages they can understand and the assurance that the work to be carried out in the destination country is the same as that agreed upon in the contract. Correct information when they arrive in their destination country is also essential, especially regarding issuing of payments, annual leave, access to legal representation, and the rights of the workers to hold on to their personal documents.    

Women must also not fall through the cracks when it comes to national legislation, she added. Countries must include women in residency and contract laws in order to combat exploitation, such as discrimination and the withholding of salaries. In addition, it is crucial that women have easy access to services like healthcare, especially during COVID-19. 

El Khatib noted that achieving more inclusion for migrant women should include empowering them to organize and be present at negotiations of laws under the Kafala system that directly affects their work and well-being. It also means improving migration policies, and including as well as mainstreaming female migrant workers’ voices.

Protecting migrant children—whether those who travel with their parents to the destination country, or those who are born in the country of destination—is crucial. According to Nourhan Abdel Aziz, former consultant at UNICEF’s Children on the Move and System Strengthening program, the answer in how to apply such protection can be found in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) including SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities. 

This can be implemented through national systems and special procedures that put the child’s best interest first. Equal access to education and healthcare, along with other services, must be guaranteed. Currently, many migrant children in Egypt cannot access the public school system, leaving them to enter private schools which are unaffordable for most, or community schools which are not recognized by the Ministry of Education. In Lebanon, the pandemic has exacerbated problems for refugees in accessing healthcare. In both instances, impediments to accessing essential services put children at risk. 

Moreover, documentation for children is also crucial, especially when it comes to registering a birth. Abdel Aziz added that “without such documentation a child may be rendered stateless, which comes with an entire host of difficult circumstances”. In addition, access to data and credible information must be readily available in order to prohibit the detention of children.

As the global review of the GCM will not take place until May 2022, momentum needs to be maintained. Already, many rounds of regional reviews have taken place. Prentice, while acknowledging the impact COVID-19 has had on the outcome of the GCM, argued that the discussions that have taken place throughout the year may contribute to improving regional and sub-regional migration issues.

This is especially important as the pandemic has magnified many vulnerabilities within migrant communities while also shedding light on areas where regional and international cooperation can better include migrants in policies and national systems. If anything, COVID-19 has shown that caring for the most vulnerable is the only way forward. As Aqel put it, “A better future for the Arab region exists if we can apply a human rights-based approach by including migrants in all of our plans.”

Elena Habersky is the current Project Manager of the “Refugee Entitlements in Egypt Project” at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. She holds an MA in Migration and Refugee Studies from AUC and has spent the past seven years working in the MENA region with urban refugee populations. On Twitter: @bur_ski

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