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Assault at Sea: A Migration Crisis

*Trigger Warning: this article mentions rape and sexual assault throughout*

We are currently in the middle of a global migration crisis. Approximately 65 million people have left their homes to embark on a dangerous journey across borders trying to find a safe place to continue their lives. The biggest migration shift since the Second World War. A large majority of these people are making their way to two major migration points – across the Mediterranean to Europe or the Mexican-US border.

Many are refugees who have fled the threat of danger and death. A further 150 million are economic migrants looking for career opportunities so they can have a better quality of life and provide for their families. You may have become acclimatised to the shocking images of families washed ashore after making the journey to Europe in a dingy boat. Yet there is another threat linked to migration that has not generated a media furore – sexual assault.

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According to Amnesty International, in 2016 80% of women were sexually assaulted during their migration journey. A shocking 20% increase since 2016. Why such a sudden spike? Every day more and more young girls have no choice but to flee their homes in countries such as Guatemala or El Salvador, where gender oppression has become so severe that in some cases young women are lured into violent gangs and are likely to be killed. Rather than being granted refuge and support at the Mexican border, there are reports that women have been sexually abused by officials after a long journey to ‘freedom’.

Sexual assault has become normalised in the migration process for women. At every stage of their journey, women face the danger of being forced to sell their bodies for access to transport, alongside the threat of abuse by border guards and fellow refugees. One way or another these women are experiencing trauma they will not forget. Rape has become such common practice that women are encouraged to take contraceptives before they migrate in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. It has become part of right-wing political rhetoric in the Global North, publicised by politicians such as Donald Trump, to deem young migrant men to be potential criminals and rapists. This rhetoric is hiding the reality of violence against women committed by border officials.

One woman opened up to Amnesty International and described how groups of rowdy border guards would drink into the night and select women to rape. Another woman shares that she has not been able to properly sleep since being raped at the Mexican border, despite being safe in her bed, her rapist visits her every time she closes her eyes.

For those women who have not experience assault on the journey, other dangers still await them. Many women are forced to exchange sex for vital travel documents, passports or transport. But, if they aren’t willing to endure the harsh realities of migration there is an alternative path for young women – child marriage. The threat of sexual assault has led many families to secure a husband who can offer financial security and protection for their daughter. Whilst child marriage may seem like a safer option to young girl’s families, entering into a partnership on these terms can result in exploitation and, sometimes, abuse.

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Melvin, a 36-year-old mother travelling from Guatemala to the US shared her story with The New York Times, detailing how she was imprisoned in a smuggler’s home in the border town of McAllen in 2014. Branded as ‘Nueva Carne or ‘new meat’ as the women entered the smuggler’s house, Melvin was locked away and one by one men took turns raping her. She and other women were drugged and raped over a period of four weeks. Melvin had only initially become acquainted with these men as they promised her safe travel to the US. Melvin described being seen as almost subhuman by the smugglers, merely pieces of meat ready for the taking.

Unlike the stars of Hollywood, The New York Time highlighted that Melvin cannot seek justice against her attackers or have her case projected across international platforms – these women “live in the shadows of the Metoo movement”. There are thousands of stories similar to that of Melvin’s, but, unfortunately, the majority of sexual assault cases go unreported as many women do not feel confident reporting border guards who threaten them with expulsion. If a woman does report her experience, it is likely to get lost in the vast machine of bureaucracy. Major migration points have millions of migrants passing through them every year and sadly do not have the time or resources to investigate every case of sexual assault. These women are often made to be outcasts of society, they have nowhere to call home and no one who truly cares about them or their experiences. As a result, migrant women do not receive any support for their trauma, they do not receive justice and the public are unaware these events ever took place.

Since the beginning of the migration crisis photographs have been plastered over social media and major news outlets of the inhumane conditions of border camps as well as dead children washed ashore, but where is the outcry for young girls and women forced to sell their bodies? Documentary crews follow unaccompanied migrant teens, yet there is no mention of the shocking realities of rape. Perhaps this topic has been so silent due to the difficulty to measure the true numbers of those affected. Or maybe the normalisation of sexual violence towards women has become so ingrained in our societies that these women’s experiences weren’t seen as a story worth hearing. Their voices must not be silenced, now is the time for action.

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Every person reading this can make a small difference, however, the power for real change lies in the hands of politicians and governing bodies. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t donate to international aid organisations such as Amnesty International who can provide relief, but you should also consider pressuring your government to improve the conditions at border camps. Emphasise the need for governments to enforce separate sex toilets, shower and sleeping facilities, as well as therapy offered to those who have experienced trauma. Call out the failures of European, UK, U.S and Australian border policies, which alienate refugees and migrants. Draw attention to international institutions like the EU, which have turned their back on refugees, continuously making their journey to Europe more dangerous and leaving migrants trapped in dangerous countries or border camps. Write letters to the foreign secretary, organise marches, share the stories of migrant women and encourage those around you to take action. Until governments in Europe and the U.S take responsibility for their inhumane treatment of refugees and migrants, only then will migration be safer for women.

Charities that support refugee women:

Refugee Women Connect – https://www.refugeewomenconnect.org.uk/

Amnesty International – https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

Refugee Women – https://www.refugeewomen.co.uk/donate/

Care International – https://www.careinternational.org.uk/take-action-refugee-women

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