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In a time of global upheaval, from economic catastrophes to devastating civil wars, the issue of immigration is gaining importance the world over. The UN reports that last year, there were an estimated 232 million migrants worldwide, a sharp increase from previous years.

Additionally, the face of migration has morphed. While the typical image of a migrant was once a male worker, in some regions, women now make up more than half the number of immigrants coming into countries. In addition to the harrowing journeys they must make, these women face increased risk of sexual assault, trafficking, exploitation and abuse.

Immigration March in Washington, DC | c/o SEIU
Immigration March in Washington, DC | c/o SEIU

The United States has absorbed the highest number of immigrants in recent years, and thus has a high rate of trafficking and human rights violations in immigrant populations to contend with, especially along the US-Mexican border.

A rarely told story is that of female migrants who endure sexual assault from employers in foreign countries, smugglers across borders and even male migrants travelling with them. Jude Joffe-Block, a reporter working with border and immigration issues, shared with NPR that some migrant women are told to start birth control when travelling. She related the story of 43 year-old Maria Salinas, who attempted to cross the border into the USA, stating:

“Salinas says at first, she was confused why a coyote at the start of the trip would offer her and other women birth control. Later on, it made sense because the coyotes know what they’re going to do in the middle of the desert…Once Salinas started walking with the group, she couldn’t keep up. One of the coyotes said he’d wait for her, but only if he could have sex with her daughter. They refused, and he abandoned them. They only survived because they found Border Patrol.”

Salinas’ situation is not unique, and she escaped the eventual fate of many who cross borders only to be exploited. Isolation, low literacy rates, language barriers, gender bias, poverty, few job opportunities and lack of resources or knowledge of rights contribute to women’s vulnerability.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) estimates that the average age of victims is as young as 20, and they are often forced into labor or servitude by coercion or physical force. The ACLU describes the physically and psychologically abusive tactics used to control women once they arrive in a new country:

“Trafficked victims are often beaten and brutalized, raped and sexually abused. Victims also frequently are deprived of adequate food, shelter and sleep…Traffickers commonly subject their victims to psychological abuse through threats, deprivation and isolation. Traffickers may threaten to kill or harm victims or their family members if they do not do as they are told. Very often traffickers deprive victims of freedom of movement by isolating them in the workplace and cutting off their contact with the outside world.”

Women immigrants have little agency and often limited options in seeking help.  There have been heartening moves to address this, such as the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women act, and agencies established to educate and aid immigrant women. Advocates have begun spreading awareness of the issue, with influential voices like Gloria Steinem chiming in. However, an unacceptable percentage of the immigrant population is still at risk for or currently trapped in slavery and sexual exploitation. Much more attention needs to be paid in ensuring the rights of these women are upheld and that they are provided some form of protection, regardless of their legal status.

To learn more about this issue, you can visit:

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons


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