By Michelle Hough
The Atlantic Ocean is a graveyard. I was reminded of this during the Mass to close the first day of the Female Face of Migration conference when we were asked to pray for all the migrants who had drowned in it.
Every year hundreds, possibly thousands of immigrants die trying to cross the seas from West Africa to Europe – not just the Atlantic, which was just 30 metres from where we were attending Mass – but also the Mediterranean. Most of us aren’t really aware of this and these people remain anonymous – barely a blip on the international news.
One of the thematic areas of our conference is “safer channels of migration”. For women, the dangers aren’t “just” about drowning or dying of thirst in the North African desert, but also about rape and attacks, trafficking and exploitation.
Women and girls are big business in many parts of the world. Fr Gabriele Bentoglio, Under-Secretary for the Pontifical Council of Migrants, and one of the speakers at the opening of the conference, said that prostitution is the third most profitable illegal business in the world. This means female migrants risk falling into modern-day slavery rather than finding the security they seek.
Lesley-Anne Knight, Secretary General at Caritas Internationalis said at the conference opening: “On the one hand, migration can contribute to the gender equality and empowerment of women, providing them with the income and status, autonomy, freedom and self-esteem that employment brings. On the other hand, they are vulnerable to exploitation and easy targets for traffickers. They are lured into forced prostitution, sweat shops and inhumane domestic work, with promises of a more prosperous life abroad.”
But it shouldn’t have to be this way. Lesley-Anne Knight went on to explain how important women can be in development and in the lives of others: “Women and girls are not only most vulnerable to poverty, they are also a vital part of the solution to alleviating and eradicating it. Their role at the heart of family, community and society makes them powerful players in all aspects of life.”
Caritas members in many countries try to protect migrants by making them aware of the risks before leaving, by helping them along the way and also when they arrive in their new country or when they go back to their old one.
We work in over 200 countries, so we have a global presence which means we can make a difference to the lives of migrants. However, changes need to be made at a higher level, governments need to talk and develop better migration policies. Experts from all over the world – both from our member organisations and also from other bodies – were discussing what the steps should be taken to improve awareness and the effectiveness of legislation yesterday afternoon. How can migrants be safer and have more chance of success?
“It would become a source of hope and development if the fact of human mobility were acknowledged and countries of origin could benefit from it. This would imply policies that would open legal channels for migration, facilitate voluntary return and above all ensure that migrants’ rights are protected,” said Archbishop Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, President of Caritas Africa at the conference yesterday.
Before the conference got underway yesterday, we played the “passport game”. All of the colleagues from countries as diverse as Peru, Mauritania, the Philippines and Lichtenstein went through the process of getting a Universal Passport and putting a paint spot on a map of where they were from. The idea was to show how we’re part of one world and one human family.
“The concept of family is especially important in considering migration because despite the financial contribution that migrants can make towards development, they are not merely an economic resource; migrants are wives and husbands, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers.
“Their development therefore has to be about more than material wealth. It has to be an integral human development, based on a complete understanding of the human person,” said Lesley-Anne.
I suppose it’s about understanding that the same ocean we swim in on our holidays, is the same ocean that someone’s daughter, son, sister or brother has died in while trying to reach a better life and hoping to have the same chances that we have.