Post by Gabriella SanchezGabriella is a research fellow at the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute. Her work examines the criminalization of mobility practices along borders, and while currently in Italy she calls the US-Mexico border home. She tweets as @_gesanchez.

Over the last two weeks, three specific stories about women and migration kept popping-up on my Twitter feed. Re-tweeted consistently by colleagues were a New York Times report over the sexual violence faced by migrant women in transit from Mexico into the United States, gruesome images on the treatment of migrants being held in detention centers in Libya –consistently labeled in Europe as a case of ‘slavery’ following a sensationalistic and graphic CNN report several months ago – and an Al-Jazeera report on women from Niger who following the EU-crackdown on smuggling facilitators and having worked themselves in what is depicted as the once profitable world of smuggling find themselves again submerged in a precarious livelihood.

All three stories matter, for they are indeed reflective of the widespread concerns among European and American audiences over the perceived challenges women from the global south face in the context of migration. Unfortunately, they also constitute yet another round of repetitive, palatable stories reducing women’s experiences to sex, suffering and redemption.   

Is there room for more complex stories to emerge? 

Mural of women sitting in waiting (Photo: Gabriella Sanchez)

Looking at all three pieces reminded me of the rich ethnographic work of Wendy Vogt, Noelle Brigden, Lupe Flores, Bina D’Costa and Soledad Alvarez Velasco on the intimate, personal, complex nature of the experiences of women and migration. My own work documents both the experiences of women who have been convicted of migrant smuggling in the US and those who in the context of their migratory journeys perform smuggling-related tasks. Despite smuggling’s visibility in the border and immigration control discourse coming from the White House, empirical work on its actors is scant. Fortunately, the United States is one of the few countries in the world that makes its data on smuggling convictions available, and which shows that out of the 2,400 people who on average are convicted for smuggling offenses at the federal level each year, about 25 percent (that is, approximately 600 of them) are women.

Why have the experiences of women remained largely invisible on the way we talk about migrant smuggling? The answer may be connected to the dominant narratives counter-smuggling enforcement is dependent upon worldwide –and the stories we tell ourselves. Smuggling tends to be monolithically described as an illicit industry in which men from the global south organized in vast criminal networks extract financial profits from a seemingly unstoppable number of desperate people. Within this framework references to women are limited to the kind that portrays them as victims of smugglers’ sexual impulses or as conniving partners or even heads of dark smuggling gangs.

The forms of violence migrant women face in the course of their journeys must not be ignored and have in fact been documented extensively. Yet to attribute them solely to ‘smugglers’ or organized crime masks the vast range of actors –including the state –playing a role in the execution of such violence. Furthermore, the focus on sexual violence often leads to the fetishization of the bodies of migrant women of color, obscuring the very strategies they deploy for their protection and that of those who travel with them, and the relationships that they may forge along the way for survival, company and care. Also, conceiving the facilitation of irregular migration solely as under the control of an organized criminal element hides the many actors who facilitate mobility (friends, family members, ordinary people, seasonal or incidental passeurs acting with no criminal intention) and the ways in which they have become increasingly criminalized in the United States and beyond.   

The examination of women’s experiences with smuggling facilitators but also as facilitators themselves reduces the need to rely on the victim/predator binary often present in smuggling narratives. It reveals complex, if certainly often unequal interactions that vary in context, duration and nature. In other words, data reflect the tasks women perform in smuggling are key to their survival and that of other people in transit and in so often involve not just violence, but also the deployment of forms of care in economic and socially-precarious settings.

Who are the women in smuggling?

While the following must not be interpreted as reflective of the experiences of all women who participate in smuggling, there a few generalizations that I can make on the basis of my research and the women’s data. Their ages vary widely – I have interviewed women between the ages of 14 and 64. While the statistics from the US Sentencing Commission indicate the number of US citizens convicted of smuggling at the federal level is increasing, with counted exceptions, most women I have interviewed have been undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America. Few spoke English. Their formal education ranged from a few years of elementary school to having completed trade school courses in their countries of origin. Those who were convicted of smuggling had lived in communities on the American side of the US Mexico border anywhere between 5 and 35 years. All were employed –in addition to performing smuggling tasks—in low-wage sectors, working as fast-food cooks, maids, nannies and janitors. Two were hairdressers. The vast majority had US born children.

Women’s entry into criminal markets has often been explained as dependent upon their romantic involvement with men in positions of leadership or power. Testimonies of women convicted for smuggling revealed that while that was occasionally the case, their participation was most often the result of social obligations towards friends or family members who already participated in smuggling activities. Other women reported having independently approached people known to be involved in smuggling seeking for an employment opportunity.

The circles the women interacted with were comprised of people like themselves living in communities along the US migrant trail. The undocumented status of most meant their mobility was also restricted to their immediate area. There was no indication that any of the women had ties to transnational criminal organizations. Some did report interactions with other men and women involved in drug trafficking activities, yet the nature of such encounters varied widely. It ranged from warnings against the use of specific routes to having to pay fees or piso for the right to travel through them, and from sharing food and water while in route to running into each other at schools, churches, markets and parties. In short, and despite what is often showcased in international media, there was no conclusive evidence of structural convergence between migrant smuggling and any other crimes. 

What are women’s experiences in smuggling like?

Many women perform smuggling-related tasks in the context of their migratory journeys. Some were offered discounts on their smuggling fees or improved travel conditions for themselves and/or those they traveled with (their children, spouses) in exchange for work. Among the tasks women consistently performed were cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and elderly migrants. Many of the women who had a history of living in the US often reported being compensated for assisting recently-arrived migrants secure medical attention, clothing, furniture, information on schools, housing and employment. Others housed migrants during specific segments of their journeys, and on occasion enlisted the assistance of other women, especially when hosting several migrants simultaneously.

While it is likely that the fear of stigma might have prevented the disclosure of these cases, none of the women I have interviewed to this date has reported having experienced sexual assault. All of them however endured often heinous forms of sexual intimidation and harassment at the hands of male smuggling facilitators, other migrants in transit, and state officials in both Mexico and the United States. But they also found and developed ways to resist and challenge these incidents both by themselves and with the help of other women and men. Several acknowledged having willingly forged close and in some cases intimate relationships during their journeys with smuggling facilitators and other migrants for protection and expedited transit, but did not characterize them as forced interactions or as constituting sexual assault. 

What lies ahead?

The roles and motivations of women who perform smuggling-related tasks in the United States are varied and complex. Yet their backgrounds are primarily the same: they are low-income residents of marginalized communities, who are often undocumented migrants with limited mechanisms for social or economic mobility. Their experiences also show counter-smuggling strategies have scant impact on transnational organized crime but rather target low-income, often communities and people who rely on smuggling facilitation as an income generating tool. In short, operations chasing the myth of organized crime most often have scant if any impact on the overall smuggling market, the more predatory of its forms and their often dangerous ramifications.

Exploring the implications of smuggling’s practices and enforcement on women opens doors to the possibility of creating improved mechanisms for the administration of justice and for victims’ access to protection. Enforcement practices but also sensationalist stories that perpetuate the myths surrounding the smuggling market on the other hand just allow for the continued victimization—virtual and visual –of people who have been intentionally silenced for too long.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Sanchez, G. (2019) The Experiences of Women on the Migration Pathway – And the Stories We Tell Ourselves. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2019/03/experiences-women (Accessed [date])