How gender shapes women’s experiences of searching for missing migrant relatives

 Smoke and Broken Mirrors, Salam Shokor, 2021

When people go missing on migration journeys, their disappearance has reverberating effects on anyone who loves or depends on them. Some of the implications of such a loss can be exacerbated due to long-standing forms of gender-based inequalities. 

“I was five months pregnant while he was moving to South Africa. Then I gave birth after four months; he left Ethiopia. You see.... I don’t know how I am going to raise these kids. I sold everything we had to search for information and to make international calls to his friends, relatives and sometimes to the brokersNow the moneylenders are asking me to pay back as per agreement or they will take the land. Yet, I can’t pay their money and the interest. The debt is increasing every year. Initially, we thought that my husband would pay back the money we have taken [once] he arrived in South Africa.” (Woman whose husband went missing on his migration journey to South Africa).

In 2020, IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (IOM GMDAC) carried out research in Ethiopia, Spain, the United Kingdom (UK) and Zimbabwe with the aim of learning how people with missing migrant relatives cope with the absence of their loved ones while actively seeking answers, and how they could be better supported in their efforts by governments and other actors. A key finding from the research is that gender shapes people’s experiences of searching for and coping with the absence of a loved one lost during migration, alongside ethnic identity, racialization, citizenship/immigration status, class, sexuality, ability, language or religion. 


Women’s experiences of the search 

Conversations with families in the four countries revealed how gender perceptions can create barriers and challenges for people carrying out the search, which consistently places women at a disadvantage.

For example, decisions on when, where and how to search for missing relatives are often shaped by gender norms. Gendered and stereotyped perceptions of women as overly emotional, sensitive or fragile often limit their access to information and their level of decision-making concerning the search. Within families and communities, men often take decisions to restrict the amount of information concerning the search that is shared with women, in an attempt to “reduce their suffering” or to “protect them”. This does not only hinder communication, but often results in women’s perspectives, needs and priorities being dismissed. Omar [2] for instance, who has been searching for his older brother who went missing on his journey to Spain, told us: “There are times when I need to hold back information from my mother to protect her. […Because] she cries often, on important holidays she remembers him a lot.” 

Women also told us how they faced limited or restricted access to social spaces where they could conduct a search, as these were often spaces dominated by men. This issue was evident in Munish’s reflections on the search for her brother, who went missing on his journey to the UK: “We have an association and sometimes I want to go there to ask people. But being a woman, it is not that easy because it is mostly men who attend the meetings. […] Women are not banned from attending the meetings, but it is complicated. […] It is frowned upon in the community to mix with men that way, so no woman really does it.”

Women’s experiences with socio-economic precarity also affect their involvement in search processes. Many women we spoke with held unstable and low-paid jobs, often had insecure migration status and faced socio-economic hardships, which limited their ability to search for missing loved ones. Besides the unavailability of time to participate in searches as a result of work, caregiving or household duties, this precarity also increased their proximity to sexual and gender-based violence. Some women shared experiences of sexual harassment and demands for sex in exchange for assistance with their search. Habibi, a Pakistani woman in the UK who is searching for her mother and three siblings, was sexually assaulted by men who had promised to help her with her search: “[…] He said he could help me with the search. He invited me to his flat so that we could use his computer to send messages. And that’s how it happened. Both him and a friend of his.” 

Women were also disproportionally impacted by the financial costs of searching for their missing loved ones, repatriating their remains, and repaying the debt from their loved one’s journey. A woman whose husband went missing on his migration journey to South Africa told us: “I was left on my own with kids to feed. I was left alone with the debts we acquired to pay for his travel […]. I want to feed my children. I want to send them [to] school. But how can I do all these alone?” 

Besides the emotional toll on loved ones, not having legal proof of disappearance or death can have terrible consequences when it comes to obtaining state support or custody of children (and can even be a barrier to reunification with family members in other countries), re-marrying and accessing inheritance or property, given traditions and customs that privilege men. A woman in Ethiopia, whose husband has not been heard from after migrating, told us: “I can’t talk about property or inherit the land before I get proof of the death of my husband. According to the tradition, his brothers control the land. I can’t go to the courts and get into a fight with his relatives.”  

Women (and particularly those with missing husbands) may face social stigma connected to the absence of their relatives. In Ethiopia, the death or disappearance of a husband is often blamed on the “bad luck” of his wife who stayed behind. In the UK, women reported facing social pressures to remain faithful to their missing partners, but also criticism if they remained single or on their own for too long, particularly if they were still in their reproductive years. Men with missing wives did not report experiencing this same social pressure. 

“It is very difficult for me as a single mother. It is five years now [of] people telling me every day to forget him and find a new man before it is too late for me to have more children,” explained Emeka, whose husband went missing on his migration journey to the UK. 

A need for more intersectional and gender-sensitive support for families of missing migrants 

There is no doubt that the impacts of deaths or disappearances in the context of migration increase the vulnerability and challenges already faced by those missing them. However, among the people interviewed for this research, men were the majority of those who were reported as dead or missing, which meant that women often carried out the search while also conducting other social obligations. This research demonstrated how women are actually turning to each other for help, creating informal collaborative networks and advocating for the rights of the missing.

But they can’t do it alone. There is a need for more intersectional and gender-sensitive support from states, international organizations, and NGOs to help people search for their missing migrant loved ones and to manage the longer-term impacts of the loss. 

[1] Kate Dearden and Marta Sánchez Dionis work as a Project Officers at IOM’s Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) on the Missing Migrants Project

[2] We used pseudonyms to protect the privacy of the families.

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