The Overlooked Issue of Sexual Violence Within Spain’s Migrant Community

Mercado Central in Valencia, Spain.
Mercado Central in Valencia, Spain.

The European Migrant Crisis

In recent times, “immigration” has become a buzzword of sorts within international politics and current events, conjuring up images and situations that may or may not align with the reality of migrant crises. Europe’s refugee crisis, although waning since its start in 2015, is still a pressing issue today, particularly in the Mediterranean. In mainstream media, discussions of migration to Europe are often accompanied by horrifying images of overcrowded boats or the casualties that resulted from the dangerous journey. While these examples are one side of the extreme difficulties that migrants have to face in order to travel to Europe, there is a lesser-known, more insidious issue within the process – that of sexual violence.

The Issue of Sexual Violence 

With an especially large influx of immigrants coming from Africa and the Middle East to the southern areas in Europe, violations of women’s safety and rights are a common and recurrent issue. According to the International Organization for Migration, around ten percent of migrants making the journey into Europe are women, and immigration experts claim that nearly all of those women were victims of sexual abuse during their journey. As Spain and other European countries have tightened their restrictions on immigration from African countries – with Spain previously being well-known as a relatively migrant-friendly country – most refugees and migrants end up risking their lives fleeing to Europe by boat. 

The initial process of migrating to Europe often includes an exchange of thousands of dollars in order to secure a place on a boat that is often dangerously overcrowded, lacking basic supplies, and subject to harsh weather conditions. Migrants will also sometimes enlist the help of people who organize these trips, known as Spanish “mafia” members. These mafia members promise resources and an easy journey, which nearly always turn out to be false assurances. In return for their travels, these women often find themselves owing tens of thousands of dollars to the mafia members. 

However, the price of crossing is not solely financial. Placing their lives and savings into the hands of these mafia members makes it so that abuse and coercion are commonplace within the mafia-migrant relationship, particularly towards women. A common pattern has emerged amongst women who migrated from sub-Saharan countries such as  Nigeria, Guinea and Ivory Coast. In order to make it through the journey, many women enter into a relationship with a mafia member. That mafia member becomes the woman’s “journey husband.” These journey husbands say they will protect the woman from other men but only in exchange for his own unlimited access to that woman. In some cases, however, journey husbands take on the blatant role of sex traffickers. Sex trafficking mafias have resulted in women sometimes arriving in Europe pregnant or with infants that were conceived during the trip – oftentimes because of rape. 

Male Sexual Violence within the Migration Process

Sexual violence is a global issue, with statistics showing that immigrant women are more prone to being victims of such crimes. However, despite the prevalence of sexual violence among migrant women, there is also a growing problem of sexual violence against migrant men as well. In 2018, Médicins Sans Frontiéres – known in English as Doctors Without Borders – noted that the number of requests for care for male sexual abuse survivors skyrocketed between 2017 and 2018, jumping from just 3% of rescued males to 33%. After interviews with over fifty male refugees traveling across the Mediterranean to Europe, the Women’s Refugee Commission found that such sexual violence against men was not uncommon and often happened at borders and checkpoints. According to these accounts, such types of abuse are expected in the North African country of Libya and the exit points for migrants within that country. Sometimes acts of sexual violence were even videotaped or sent to family members along with ransom requests. 

Policy Recommendations

        Further publicizing these acts of violence against men may help draw attention to the issue as a whole – hopefully bringing light to the need for more services catering to both male and female survivors. While Spain is more welcoming to migrants, other EU countries do far from the same. The Women’s Refugee Commission is advocating for less lenient countries such as Italy, to change their deportation policy. In countries such as Libya, when refugees are sent back to their home country they are even more vulnerable to sexual violence. The Commission has also asked for increased support from the UN for organizations offering support to survivors of said sexual violence c. 

Germany is making a more proactive effort in this area by implementing separate housing for pregnant women and victims, but even these steps are difficult to enforce due to an overwhelming number of migrants and the concurrent lack of resources to deal with such a large population. Even with these restraints, programs should be implemented in Spain and other EU countries in order to battle such a widespread and insidious problem. Sexual violence is not only damaging at the moment, but often leaves victims with serious and lasting mental, emotional, and psychological harm – which only serves to aggravate concurrent struggles of a group who is predisposed to such difficulties.  

Making information about existing resources more readily available is the first step in tackling this issue. While doing so would directly help immigrants and refugees, it would also help to draw attention to the problem itself. Both the media and public opinion are extremely influential in Spain and other European countries, and any method of further publicizing the issue of sexual violence and existing resources could help to bolster the effort to create more resources and improve what is already being done. While migrant-focused organizations in Spain like CEAR and Caritas emphasize their role in providing resources centered around food, housing, education, medical services, and psychological counseling, there is a blatant lack of specified resources for migrants who are victims of sexual violence.