The Time is Now: Why supporting migrant women is right for the UK

by Abby Dwommoh | International Organization for Migration
Thursday, 8 March 2018 11:28 GMT

Blue sky and clouds are reflected in the sunglasses of a protester during a demonstration to express solidarity with migrants and to demand the government welcome refugees into Britain, in London, September 12, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Coombs

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Integration is not a one-way street

One-hundred years ago, women were first granted the right to vote in the UK.  That same year, women also won the right to be elected into the UK Parliament.  It was a year that epitomized a new chapter for women’s integration in a story that remains unfinished.

Today, on International Women’s Day, we pay homage to all those who work tirelessly to combat injustices they face based solely on their gender. The UN Migration Agency (IOM), stands with each person who demonstrates the courage and resilience to pave the way for women’s rights and empowerment.

As they did a century ago, women are once again joining voices to foster change today and for future generations.  However, one segment of society is often underrepresented and unheard in this symphony for change: migrant women.

Migrant women face the same disparities all women confront, but may also experience additional challenges. Our gender influences our motivations, approaches and how we balance life through the prescribed boxes of cultural expectations. This factors into how each of us contributes to our family, work, and community. Women also continue to face gender-based violence, harassment and exploitation, especially along migratory routes, signifying deeply-rooted power imbalances that we must all condemn.

Migrant women often must also overcome language barriers, cultural expectations, stereotypes, and knowing how to access resources. The ability to do this can significantly affect a person’s contribution to and integration within a community.

Over the last decade, numerous studies have shown the economic impact of integrated migrants on the British economy.  While methodologies and conclusions varied among the studies, one common theme that has emerged is the net benefit that migrants have had on the British economy.  Over half (52 percent) of the UK’s 8.8 million migrants are women according to IOM’s Migration Data Portal.  The collective force of their potential contribution to our society can only be realised through more active inclusion.

Despite the evidence and potential, migrant women continue to face unique barriers to their full integration into British society.  Anecdotal evidence suggests female migrants, including refugees and survivors of human trafficking, are less likely than their male counterparts to actively engage with employers, government and civil society. Causes may vary, but the extent of integration depends upon societal roles, autonomy in decision-making, social biases from migrant and local populations, and knowledge about information access points.  Consequently, female migrants may experience social isolation and reduced opportunities for language learning, education and employment which simply reinforces the marginalization.

Just as we have seen the potential of British women realized over the last century, the potential of migrant women in the UK is also great. Many migrant women have made significant social impacts, like Melody, a social entrepreneur from Tehran who was named “New European Woman Influencer” by the European Parliament in June 2015.

“School years were the hardest years of my life in England. I was lonely and felt misunderstood. I channelled my energy into the UK community and found a way to make a difference in the country and give back,” she said.

Migrant women like Melody play an essential role in community and family life. For example, women are more likely take on more care-related responsibilities in the family, whether their own or for work.  A recent study found that migrants working in the adult social care sector contribute 4.4 billion pounds to the English economy annually. The vast majority of these social care workers are migrant women.

So why do some migrant women flourish, while others are marginalized? Some argue that it is the level of integration support provided, either through local authorities or the community.  Although some localised integration strategies do exist in the UK, there is currently no national strategy. This reduces the experiences and potential contribution of migrants or refugees to a geographic lottery to access information about education, housing, healthcare or basic services. A national strategy can serve as a guiding principle for local authorities, promote greater engagement and act as a best practices roadmap.

Integration is not a one-way street. It takes active acknowledgement from both local and migrant communities of the similarities, differences, challenges and benefits diversity can bring. National self-awareness can help formulate sound policies that address the distinct advantages and disadvantages gender plays during the integration process.

Integration works best when there is a national space for reciprocal conversations about backgrounds, expectations and goals. By doing this, we can counter migrant marginalization, especially for women, and create equal opportunities to contribute to the economy and the community.  Through our work, IOM supports those strategies that bring a more balanced world for all of us: women, men, children, migrants and non-migrants. Now is the time to act.

Abby Dwommoh is the Public Information Officer and Spokesperson for IOM – the UN Migration Agency in London.  She joined IOM in 2015 in the Turkey office, at the height of the Mediterranean Crisis. Prior to joining IOM, Abby served in the U.S. Foreign Service in Morocco, Nigeria and France.