Understanding the rights of undocumented migrant women in Europe

by Hana Farhat
Friday, 21 April 2023 14:13 GMT

This impact story is part of a series to celebrate the extraordinary pro bono projects undertaken by legal teams to support NGOs and social enterprises with the support of TrustLaw. All projects mentioned in this series are nominated for this year’s TrustLaw Awards. Find out more. 

Undocumented migrant women are a uniquely vulnerable group, finding themselves at the intersection of multiple forms of systemic prejudice and violence. They face discrimination based on their sex, legal status, and race. According to the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, migrant women are more likely to be subjected to physical abuse than the average person. Undocumented migrant women are even more susceptible to abuse, as their legal status renders them unable to contact the police, hospitals, or shelters for help. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified existing discrimination and violence against women and created new outcomes that disproportionately impact migrant women and girls.

The European Network of Migrant Women (ENoMW) is a migrant-women-led platform that advocates for the rights, freedoms, and dignity of migrants, refugees and ethnic minorities of women and girls in Europe. As Anna Zobnina, the strategy and executive director of ENoMW, explains: “Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, through consultations with our members, we realised that several groups of migrant women were at extreme risk of losing their document status.”

Responding to this issue ENoMW reached out to TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters foundation’s global pro bono service, to map the existing, albeit unenforced, legal protections of undocumented migrant women in the EU. The Network was connected to legal teams from Hogan Lovells LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP, Linklaters LLP, Uría Menéndez Abogados and Selma Korichi (independent lawyer). Together, these teams mapped undocumented migrant women's access to fundamental rights at the European Union level and in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Spain, Sweden, and Greece.

The report highlights the provisions that exist to protect the fundamental rights of undocumented migrant women in the legal systems of the EU and Council of Europe, as well as the gaps in legislation which lead to undocumented migrant women suffering abuse. Anna adds, “we hoped to have a concrete tool in our hands to address national and EU authorities to prevent – or at least to call into attention – the tragic impact of COVID and accompanying measures states were taking that could potentially drive thousands of women in Europe into undocumented situations which are ripe with exploitation and abuse.”

Tackling such complex legal issues proved to be a valuable opportunity for the participating lawyers to develop their knowledge. Mareike van Oosting, Hogan Lovell’s Responsible Business Senior Manager EMEA, said: “we were confronted with a problem which poses several challenges for the people affected, the implications of which go far beyond the law.  It required our lawyers to undergo a steep learning curve, expand their horizons and become proficient in solving legal issues they may not have had the opportunity to deal with before. It was a great opportunity for all lawyers involved both in terms of learning about the difficulties faced by undocumented women and about the varying approach in legal systems across the EU.”

Selma Korichi, who researched the France jurisdiction volunteering as an independent lawyer, echoed Mareike: “It was an uplifting experience and has definitely strengthened my skills and taught me a lot about the current protection of migrant women in France, what it lacks, and other details that I hadn’t considered while thinking about this issue.”

Since its launch, the report has informed policy recommendations issued by the ENoMW and is being used to lobby governments and EU authorities to implement better protective laws. These include the right to access healthcare, ensuring victims of human trafficking for sexual exploitation are adequately protected so they can avoid being pushed into prostitution as undocumented migrants, and for member states to fully ratify the Istanbul Convention.

The report has also been used as a base for the Network to inform interventions in two important EU-level policy processes, firstly by using its recommendations to develop a list of amendments and contributions to the European Parliament’s proposal for a new directive proposal on combating violence against women and domestic violence. The recommendations in the report will also add to the amendment of the EU directive on trafficking.

ENoMW has used the report to design a follow-up project and secure funding for it from the European Commission. The project will provide training for legal professionals and create the first database of case law on migrant women’s fundamental rights in Europe (and the world), with the broader aim of supporting strategic human rights litigation.   

in Portugal, the report is translated into Portuguese and launched during the 16 Days against Violence against Women, organised jointly by the Portuguese Platform for Women’s Rights (PpDM) and the Municipality of the City of Lisbon and hosted by the Portuguese High Commission on Migration.

The project is an excellent example of how TrustLaw connects lawyers to projects that can create positive change for people who would otherwise be unable to access legal assistance. Anna explains, “It was the product of several legal firms and individual lawyers coming together to support migrant women, which felt significant, considering that migrant women’s rights, overall, is not an easy or popular subject to address.”

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