by Berta Güell, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) and Sònia Parella, Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)
As any other social phenomenon, migration is not gender neutral. This is true also when it comes to migration narratives. Stories entail more or less explicit gender biases which influence the ways in which reality is defined and perceived.
For example, a very common portrayal of immigration in the media of Mediterranean countries (and not only) is associated with black sub-Saharan men arriving by sea in dinghies or – in the case of Spain – attempting to jump the fence of Ceuta and Melilla, the Spanish possessions in North Africa.
This kind of images is deeply embedded in European citizens’ imaginary and reinforces a feeling of threat to the nation State, either in terms of security or cultural values. In turn, this visual narrative is accompanied by concepts such as ‘invasion’ or ‘organised crime’, where migrants are depicted either as villains that pose a danger or as victims without agency who need protection. Either way, this narrative does not always correlate with facts. In the case of Spain, for instance, statistics show that the great majority of migrants arrive by plane and there is an estimated higher rate of irregularity among women (21%) than among men (17%).
Moreover, a less sensationalist look at migration would unveil that migrants hold different skills and backgrounds (which are often not recognised or fruitfully used), as well as various motivations to migrate (political, economic, social, environmental or gender-related). Reducing migrants to a series of racialised and gendered stereotypes produces biased narratives. And narratives prove to have greater power than facts.
Narratives often contain moral elements that not only describe the “what”, but what it ought to be. This does not only affect public perceptions. It also triggers social and policy responses that conform to those narratives.
How narratives are created in the media, policy and societal spheres and what impacts they have in the society and in policymaking is the main concern of the project “BRIDGES: Assessing the production and impact of migration narratives”, funded by the European Commission. The project carried out research in 6 European countries (France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and the UK).
One goal of the BRIDGES project has been to produce guidelines on how to include the gender perspective in the analysis of migration narratives, whose purpose is to provide critical thoughts on the gendered representations of migrant people in different spheres and the consequences that they may entail.
Why is it important to bring in the gender dimension in the analysis of migration? Research shows that gendered roles, relations and inequalities exert considerable influence in the decision process of who migrates, why and how, as well as in the experience of migration during the whole cycle. In transit, women (as well as minors and sexual minorities) are more exposed to several forms of violence by other migrants, smugglers or law enforcement agents. In destination, entry status is more likely to penalise female migrants over male migrants, because of gender gaps in access to employment and related residence rights. In addition, women may have different experiences than men because they are frequently segregated into traditional ‘female’ occupations, such as jobs in the hospitality, domestic and personal care sectors, and sex work. In this regard, the intersectional nature of the lived experiences of migrant women affects their opportunities and constraints. Finally, patriarchal gender ideology also marks the return patterns of migrant women. Qualitative research on female women who return home shows how the motivations for return are often linked to tensions with the family members left behind. For example, providing for the well-being of children is mixed with guilty feelings of abandonment.
Moreover, migration changes women’s status in complex and, sometimes, contradictory ways. On the one hand, migration can strengthen traditional roles and inequalities and expose women to new vulnerabilities resulting from precarious legal status, exclusion, and isolation. On the other, migration can act as a catalyst that promotes greater equality by disrupting conventional gender roles and modifying traditional work/family arrangements. It might confer status to women and create new settings where gender relations can be renegotiated and reconfigured.
Mainstream narratives on migration address this complexity with simplistic and reductionist categories. In fact, there are two common patterns in the representation of migrants in the media. One is to make the voices and experiences of female migrants and refugees invisible. The other is to overemphasise their role as victims in a homogeneous way, which denies each individual’s specificity and agency. Scholarly research points out how narratives in the media represent them as victims of their own cultures and traditions, depict hem as ignorant, poorly educated, and subject to patriarchy, especially when they come from Arab or Muslim-majority countries.
Results from the BRIDGES project highlights that in this context, being a victim, a villain or a hero depends not so much on the facts, but on the interpretation of these facts, where the same labels can be used interchangeably by opposing stances.
For example, the representation of Ukrainian refugees (mainly female with children, and Christian) as the ‘true refugees’ who deserve protection is often put in contrast with the economic migrants from outside Europe (mostly male with no children, and Muslim). In this case, it emerges a cultural baggage that seems to be still powerful in Europe, where the traditional feminine roles of care and motherhood define the essence of women. By the same token, men who seek humanitarian protection are either implicitly or explicitly labelled as ‘cowards’, since they are expected to stay in their country and fight.
What is the impact of these narratives? A narrative whose dominant frame revolves around the idea of threat can facilitate support for the adoption of assimilationist policies and measures restricting migration flows. On the other hand, the depiction of certain female refugees as ‘true refugees’ may contribute to more tolerance and the adoption of policies that facilitate their entry. This type of acceptance may also facilitate their integration (e.g., access to employment, housing, health care). However, this positive action could be used to justify the retrenchment of rights of other categories of refugees or migrants, especially in a context of limited resources for public expenditure.
The relationship between media, social and political narratives, and the adoption of policies is complex and can operate in different ways. Whatever form this relationship takes, it remains crucial to unveil critically how gendered migration narratives are constructed and the consequences these narratives may have in the society and in policymaking.