Reasons Why Women Migrate: Snapshots from Switzerland

In 2015, over one million irregular migrants and refugees arrived in Europe after surviving dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea – 55% of them were women and children. Once they reached land, many of them endured harsh conditions travelling by land.

For many, migration is a chance to fully realize their human rights. For women and girls in particular, who tend to face more restrictions due to their gender, it can offer education and career opportunities resulting in a more empowered life. Migration can also allow women and girls to free themselves from cultural barriers that would otherwise hinder their human potential.

Some of these migrant women - largely coming from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia - are finding themselves in Switzerland. They represent an increasing number of women from developing regions that are migrating independently.

Women tend to migrate to countries where they can enjoy greater freedom and rights. These are the human stories of Nour, Nenet and Hamda, whose voices represent women and girls, half of the world’s migrant population, who dream with the fulfilment of their women’s rights.

Nour. Photo: IOM/Amanda Nero 2016

“Every woman in Syria is like me. They like and protect each other,” notes Nour (27) from Douma, Syria, who has requested asylum in Switzerland.

Few would ever believe that, due to her apparent fragility, Nour fled alone from the war in Syria. But that is exactly what she did. The young architect, who has publicly expressed her political views, survived a chemical bomb attack that took her father’s life and resulted in her lung illness. From Damascus, where she was studying, Nour provided her family food and medicine for as long as she could.

“I tried to go back to Douma, where my family is, but after the government closed the road, I wasn’t allowed anymore to travel to my home town. So I paid a man to take me to Lebanon, from where I took a train to Turkey. There I faced many problems for being on my own,” she explains.

She lived in Turkey for four months in the house of a Turkish family, but despite having learned the language, she didn’t succeed in finding a job. Determined to join her uncle in Switzerland, she risked her life at sea by making the long and dangerous journey to Europe.

“I talked to many men who bring people by river boats but I couldn’t come to trust any of them. I was afraid because I was on my own. Eventually I came on one boat and that was a completely different kind of fear. In Douma, I suffered from chemical bombs and plane attacks but coming with the boat was different,” Nour recounts.

Now in Switzerland, she believes in a brighter future.

“It’s so quiet here! I was tired of the bombs and crashes, everything. And people are just like in my country where everyone is as friendly. My dream is to pursue a master’s degree in architecture. I want to work here and after the war ends in Syria, I will go back and rebuild my country.”

Nenet. Photo: IOM/Amanda Nero 2016

“I couldn’t speak freely,” says Nenet* who was sent to prison five times for simply doing her work. The 33-year-old journalist was charged with the crimes of taking photos, wearing makeup and having strands of her hair uncovered. With her life at risk, she boarded a plane to Europe and is now living in a centre for refugees in Switzerland.

“Five years ago I was arrested for the first time. I saw the president and took a picture. A man asked me what was I doing and I said: ‘I am working!’ I spent eight days in prison for that,” explains Nenet.

In her country**, journalists like Nenet are frequently warned or summoned if perceived as critical of the government. After the arrest of a close friend, Nenet concluded that her country was no longer safe for her.

“Once I was put in jail for six hours because I went to a party. In my country, everything can be perceived as a problem. But this is not important, the main issue for me was that I couldn’t speak freely,” stresses Nenet.

Having just started her French classes at the refugee centre, Nenet dreams of the day she will work as a journalist in Switzerland and continue defending human rights in her country.

A year on the road

Around the world, forced marriages, intimate partner violence, rape and other forms of gender-based violence put the lives of many women and girls at risk. Hamda (20) fled home fearing that she would be married off without her consent. Originally from Somalia, she travelled for a year by land and sea to Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Iran and Italy to arrive at last in Switzerland.

“When I was leaving, my father was afraid for me because this man wanted to marry me. I don’t know him and he is old. But he told my father: if I don’t marry this girl, I will kill you. My father was afraid, and so was my mother, but what could I do? I like to live in my country, I miss my family very much but I had to leave,” she says.

Along her journey, Hamda survived thirst, hunger and tiredness. On the way, she saw seven people die. She herself faced some of the poorest and most appalling conditions.

“When I arrived in Switzerland, I couldn’t call my parents because I was very ill. I called only when I was fully aware of my situation here. I told my mother ‘I married a man from Somalia’ and she said: that’s good because you can’t be alone,” Hamda explains.

Hamda was alone on the road for a year; 365 long days that could have defeated her hopes and dreams. Instead, she succeeded not only in achieving freedom and safety but in choosing the person with whom she wants to spend her life.

“I am happy, very happy now,” she keeps saying, with a look of contentment etched on her face.

Now planning to study and find a job in office management, Hamda believes her journey has just begun.


* Not her real name

** Country not mentioned deliberately