Editor’s Note: The following essay is by Gema Fernández, managing attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide, urging readers to consider the plight of migrant mothers this Mother’s Day.
As the U.S. begins to emerge from its pandemic nightmare, many Americans are looking forward to seeing — and maybe hugging — their mothers for the first time in over a year as they prepare to celebrate Mother’s Day. But around the world and in the U.S., far too many mothers and families have little to celebrate, as they face the hardships of migration, violence and forced separations.
In the United States, children and infants have been ripped from the arms of migrant families crossing the Southern U.S. border, with hundreds of these children still disconnected from their parents and relatives years later. State-sanctioned violations of migrant women’s and families’ rights are not unique to the U.S., or even this hemisphere.
Oumo, a woman from the Ivory Coast, was separated from her four-year-old son when she was en-route to Europe. She and her son each made it to the south of Spain — a major entry point for thousands of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions — but after arriving in separate motorized rafts (the son with his aunt), the Spanish authorities first separated the boy from his aunt under the pretense of “protecting him” because they suspected that she was potentially a victim of trafficking, which she wasn’t. Having learned this, Oumo tried to get in touch with her son, but the authorities blocked her. They kept mother and son apart.
They placed the boy in a center for minors in Melilla, a Spanish enclave in northern Africa and denied Oumo access to him, even by telephone. Despite having completed all the possible procedures, such as carrying out DNA analysis and providing documentation and photographs that demonstrated that the boy was her child, child protective services did not respond or take any action to reunite them, seriously violating their rights and causing irreparable harm.
By filing a case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in November 2017 seeking emergency measures, mother and son were reunited after authorities kept them apart for more than six months. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. We have identified many more cases of migrant women separated from their children by the Spanish government.
Women who are brought into Europe as victims of trafficking face additional layers of discrimination and scrutiny, both as foreigners and becausgauthorities mistrust them simply because they were trafficked.
All over Europe, women trafficking survivors are looking for their children. These women lost contact with their kids not only because of decisions made by the traffickers, but also often because of discriminatory and harmful policies enforced by the child protection systems of European countries. By sharing their stories, we hope to shed light on the situations of exploitation and control of women and their children living in Spain, France, Germany and Denmark, with particular attention to the administrative and legal realities related to their identification and protection.
Authorities are used to focusing on border and migration control and crime prosecution, rather than on safeguarding the rights of the mothers and their children. That punitive approach is behind child-separation policies at the U.S. border.
Migrant mothers around the world risk everything to protect their families, only to be persecuted. Let’s celebrate all mothers by taking action to protect migrant families. Let’s envision policy centered on human rights, rather than crime-and-punishment border control tactics.
Gema Fernández is a managing attorney at Women’s Link Worldwide, specializing in international human rights law and gender.