How a Spanish project keeps migrant mothers away from trafficking networks

A project in southern Spain shelters migrant mothers and aims to provide them with tools to start their new lives in Europe in a secure way.

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This article is by Mar Segura and is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local’s training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.

Fatima decided to leave her country when she was 23. She did not see any kind of future in the Ivory Coast, her home country, so, together with her four-year-old son, they travelled more than 4,000 kilometres to get to Morocco with a final destination of France in mind. Once in Morocco, Fatima tried to raise enough money to pay for the precarious boat crossing to Europe, which can cost up to €3,000 per person.

For Fatima, however, finding a job in Morocco was not easy; the unemployment rate for young adults like her is 42.8 percent in urban areas, according to the Moroccan Haut Commissariat au Plan.

Already really far from home and without the means to earn enough money, she was determined to do whatever it took to reach Europe.

Many women in this situation get offers from men who say that they can pay for their journeys. But it won’t be for free: they will have to return the money at some point. Being in debt is the first step in falling into human trafficking networks, in which women are forced to pay the money back through sexual exploitation or forced labour.

The arrival in Europe often feels like a relief to migrants who come from Africa: here they think their rights will be respected. Yet, women and children are very likely to fall into human trafficking networks, even when they have reached European territory. Factors such as the irregular administrative situation, travel organised by third parties, and a remarkable degree of suffering increase their vulnerability to becoming victims of these networks.

In fact, a total of 13,879 people were identified as being at risk of sexual trafficking in 2015 in Spain, according to the Spanish Ministry of Interior. Most of them were migrant women with an irregular status, who feed the world’s second largest source of illicit criminal income, as stated by UNICEF.

In order to stop these abuses, in April 2018 the EMET Arcoiris foundation, an independent organisation, joined up with other associations to launch the Ödos Project.

„The project was born aiming to help migrant women and their children. We want to make a social impact, make this especially vulnerable collective of people visible and create good practices that can be replicated elsewhere,“ says Teresa Girón, head of the project.

The lack of resources focused on migrant mothers and their children was another reason for creating the project. Ninety percent of migrants arriving in Spain by sea are young men travelling alone, so general aid is designed for them and does not cover the specific needs of women and children.

A temporary new home

When Fatima first arrived in Spain with her son, a team from the Ödos Project welcomed her and a fellow Ivorian and invited her to stay at the Ödos Centre for a few months.

The centre is a big house located in the middle of an olive grove in the province of Córdoba, Andalucía, and it is where the first phase of the project takes place. There, up to 35 women, pregnant or with children, spend three to four months recovering from their hard journey.

„Before coming here, we lived in the forest for some time,“ says Fatima, referring to the forest in Nador in Morocco, where many migrants hide until those who lead their route decide that is time to jump into the boats that will take them to Spain.

„Violence in migration routes has increased during the last years, people are now facing more extreme conditions than before. Therefore, when they arrive, they are completely exhausted,“ says María del Mar García Navarro, doctor in Migration Studies and professor at Pablo Olavide University. She has also worked with the Red Cross and other migrant resources for 15 years. García was involved with the Ödos Project from the beginning, and now collaborates with them occasionally.

Fatima does not regret her decision to stay at the centre. „They calmed me down a lot during my first days here,“ she says. „We do everything together, we have Spanish lessons, and we also play sports like football and basketball.“

During their time at Ödos, mothers also receive psychological and legal counselling. They can attend workshops on how to seek asylum and learn the importance of getting all their documents in order to become visible to the system. Professionals stress to women the importance of making themselves and their children visible; if they are not, authorities cannot guarantee that their rights will be respected.

„Some of the women we have assisted have been granted refugee status,“ Teresa Girón says. However, asylum procedures are lengthy and slow, so the project has not yet had time to see long-term results.

The people staying at Ödos are usually young, between 19 and 25 years old, and 80 percent of them come from the Ivory Coast or Guinea Conakry. „Most of them have received little to no schooling, so many cannot read and write. Forced marriages, gender-based violence or female genital mutilation are some of the abuses they have suffered in their home countries, and also the reasons that push them to seek a better life. We have more women with daughters than with sons at the centre, and that is not by chance: they want their daughters to grow up here to avoid going through those same experiences,“ Girón explains.

When Fatima thinks about the differences between her son’s childhood and hers, she does not even know where to start. „I couldn’t go to school because my family didn’t want me to. Here my son is going to school, and he really likes it. It’s amazing how fast he has learned Spanish, so much faster than I have,“ she says while laughing.

But the language barrier in Spain is one of the main reasons that makes her want to move to France eventually. „Here people have been nice to me, and they have helped me a lot. But in the future I want to go to France and get a job, I think it will be easier there because I speak the language,“ she hopes.

That means she won’t be taking part in the second phase of the project, which consists of integrating in the Spanish society. Ödos works with other associations that offer migrant mothers opportunities to create a life in Spain, such as schools for their children, Spanish lessons and professional training for women.

Providing mothers and children with a safe space

One of the main things Fatima has learned at the centre is to reject violence. „Where I grew up, it is common to beat kids when they do something wrong and men also beat their wives really often. But when I got here, they told us that violence is not acceptable“.

When the children arrive they get enrolled in the local school in Montilla’s (the nearest town to the Odos Centre), and giving them access to education and providing them with a safe space is key, María del Mar García points out. „Raising children in a healthy educational context, where they are treated well, is essential. It is very important to help them denormalise violence, since they have been witness to so much of it during their journey,“ she says.

Another decisive element of the project’s success is its individualised approach to each woman’s problems. „Listening to their needs and suggestions, trying to advise them and to accompany them on their journey,“ are some pillars García mentions that can make a significant intervention in migrant mothers‘ lives.

However, this personalised treatment also means that the centre cannot host a lot of people. Girón regrets that sometimes they have rejected women’s requests to stay at the centre. „We know we have very few places, but if we were to increase them, the quality of care would not be the same,“ she says. The ideal solution would be to open more centres like Ödos throughout the country, but the lack of funding prevents this from happening.

First steps to end a social scourge

Even if the Ödos Project is a good idea and, like Fatima, other women claim that it has helped them, María del Mar García points out that it does not prevent them completely from being trafficked.

„During their time at the centre, professionals can try to make them see that they are strong and intelligent women with many possibilities. But we do not know what happens to them when they leave,“ the doctor says.

For that reason, the project wants to start a third phase, which will consist of keeping in touch with women to evaluate how Ödos can help them in the long term. „By now, we have kept in touch with many of them because we built really strong ties during their stay, but we would like to do it in a more formal way,“ adds Girón.

Tackling human trafficking won’t be simple: economical, geopolitical, social and cultural factors are involved in it. Still, there are some measures that could be taken in order to end this social scourge that causes suffering to thousands, if not millions, of people every year.

„Raising awareness among the population about the abuses behind prostitution would be a good starting point. If there was no demand for prostitution there would be no supply,“ says García, referring to sex trafficking networks. Spain is the third country in the world and the first in the EU in terms of prostitution, according to a study from the United Nations. The data shows that a lot of work still needs to be done in terms of consciousness.

„Human trafficking is still an invisible problem. A serious political will on the part of the European institutions, which should really function as guarantors of Human Rights, would already make a change,“ states Girón. Both experts agree that social inequalities in African countries and extreme poverty are two of the elements that throw people into human trafficking. The latest United Nations Development Programme report targets Sub-Saharan countries as the poorest countries, and also the ones with fewer years of schooling and more child labour.

Like Fatima, every year more women try to escape poverty and abuses. Even if they know the path won’t be easy, they embark on dangerous journeys, full of hope and enthusiasm to offer their children a bright future. And yet, they encounter endless obstacles just for doing something as human as seeking a better life.

Mar Segura is a journalist and student in Spain. 

-Mar Segura

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