Project: Gendered Dynamics of International Labour Migration

Key findings and recommendations across all four countries can be found in the projects story here. This article focusses on the findings and recommendations specific to Kurdistan-Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey.

About the project

This research seeks to advance a gender-sensitive understanding of the interaction between economic and socio-cultural drivers of labour migrations and the experiences of work and living  in different cities: Erbil in Kurdistan-Iraq; Beirut in Lebanon; Islamabad in Pakistan; and Istanbul in Turkey. While migration remains a key issue globally, relatively little work has been done on gender migrations in the Global South, and what has been done has largely focussed on domestic and care work.

The project addresses this gap by interviewing approximately 25 women and NGO workers in each city, designed to go beyond domestic work by looking at a range of labour sectors where women play active roles. In doing so, this research contributes to a better understanding of the global circulation of gendered labour that is occurring, the drivers of this movement, women’s rights and agency, and how migrant women use urban spaces within these contexts.

Key findings Kurdistan-Iraq:

  • Migrant women work in a variety of sectors and have a range of skills. Many work in household work, hospitality, education (international schools, university), beauty, NGOs, and business and have migrated from North America, Europe, Africa, South Asia and neighbouring countries in the Middle-East. South-South migration includes both highly educated and skilled women (Iran, Pakistan, South Africa, Syria), as well as less skilled waitresses and domestic workers (Ghana, Indonesia).
  • There are very different regulations of work. Service workers are regulated under the kafala system with a guarantor, while skilled workers have contracts with their employers. Refugees from neighbouring countries have the right to work granted by the KRI government. Among migrant domestic workers, salaries vary according to nationality with Filipinas receiving the most and African women the least. However, in general the women are satisfied with their income.
  • There is a lack of overall protection for service workers. Regulation No 2 on Foreign Workers has not been updated since its inception in 2015, and does not take into account new issues such as Covid-19. Its impact varies according to type of work with many professionals in education and NGOs able to work online but leaving those in hospitality without work or income. Migrant domestic workers continue work but are often expected to do so even if ill. Professionals know their contract and how to raise issues; whereas some service workers have not received their contracts or know how to challenge their working conditions.
  • Sexual Harassment is a major challenge.  Many of the women complain about sexual harassment on public transport, especially taxis, and other public spaces, limiting their mobility and safety across the city.

Key findings: Lebanon

  • Women move to Lebanon to improve their life conditions. In relation to the migrant domestic workers, the migrant women show agency in their decision to migrate, motivated by a strong desire to change their lives. The choice of Lebanon as a destination is, to a great extent, pre-determined by the market of the recruitment agencies under the kafala system.
  • Economic factors strongly influence migration. The main, self-reported driver for leaving home is that of finding either their first employment or a new one with a higher income. Poverty and restricted life prospects can be considered the main drivers of migration for migrant domestic workers. Being able to make, send and save money is a source of empowerment and pride, which appears to set a reassuring temporal limit to their stay in Lebanon, while also making their life conditions there more acceptable.
  • Most women viewed their stay in Lebanon as temporary. The women are at a stage where they perceive their experience in Lebanon as temporary, as is typical of circular migration. Due to this, they do not seem to be on any pathways to integration in Lebanon. Many declared that they do not go to public spaces, have no social life and attend no social event, whereas they spend their little free time on their phone, watching television and talking to their families back home. The use of technology as a virtual place of freedom and empowerment emerges as an important phenomenon requiring further investigation.
  • Agency, empowerment, and hope play key roles in women’s experiences with migration and marginalisation. The coping strategies of the four undocumented Syrian women, which includes two refugee transwomen, consist in the choices, actions, and narratives that can mitigate the hardships of their situations as undocumented migrants – for example, being able to make, save and send money to their family gives them a sense of empowerment. Plans for future migration endeavours are also signs of an orientation towards change. Further, one NGO practitioner provides a reading of hope when suggesting that the growing number of MDWs falling out of the exploitative kafala system might be the start of a bottom-up, freelancers-based alternative system to the kafala
  • Support-seeking remains challenging for women in migration contexts, particularly women who face intersecting forms of marginalisation. The case of the two refugee transwomen is important when looking at the dynamics of support-seeking. The support of the third sector is not considered very helpful by the participants. Nonetheless, seeking support is an important action of self-protection and coping with difficulties. The experiences of these women disclose also questions around the reputation of Lebanon as a country of freedom in contrast with a country where discrimination against different types of minority groups is instead widespread.
  • Lebanon’s triple crisis (the economy, the Beirut port explosion, and Covid-19) has a disproportionate effect on migrant women. The NGO practitioners describe the impact of the triple crises on migrant domestic workers, as well as on undocumented migrants from Syria, as far more significant and devastating than the migrant women describe, who mainly suffer from increased isolation and reduced income. Echoing what has been mentioned above, the practitioners describe a scenario where the women are fired, not paid, and abandoned in front of their embassies. Many want to return home, face increased discrimination, hostility and sexual violence.
  • Covid-19 has led to increases in gender-based violence. Looking at the wider migrant population, including the even more vulnerable undocumented migrant workers, the NGOs’ participants indicate that gender-based violence and the violation of sexual and reproductive health rights has considerably increased, whereas in-person support has become impossible.

Key findings: Pakistan

There are no comprehensive figures on gendered labour migration to the country. The majority of participants consist of highly skilled and educated migrant women of diverse nationalities who migrated from the Philippines, Canada, China, Korea, Uganda, Germany, Egypt, and Somalia. They work in formal sectors, i.e., teaching and as development professionals in international NGOs/UN agencies and have come to Pakistan for different reasons: family reunification, marriage, independent work and for education and professional opportunities. A significant proportion, mainly from the Philippines, work as live ins in the domestic care sector.  Afghan participants work in the semi-skilled sector as self-employed workers in the service industry, such as beauty salons and carpet-weaving. A few research participants work independently as business owners or in service industries.

  • Lack of official documents creates daily challenges. Many migrant workers detail instances of obstacles that they encountered in their daily life because they are not in possession of the national ID card.
  • The women have relatively high levels of mobility. Despite the diversity of life and work experiences, including the type of accommodation and living arrangements, most women say that they move around the city freely, using cars or taxis, that they go to restaurants, malls, and markets. For migrant domestic workers their process of acquainting with the host country and ‘going out’ to public spaces is filtered by the family they live with, and, to a certain extent, necessarily hampered by their home-based work.
  • Migrant women have multi-faceted agency in these contexts. The agency of the migrant women in this study can be grasped in all the realms of drivers and processes of migration, the experiences of discrimination at home, their living and working and moving around in Islamabad city, as well as seen as connected to the past, the present and the future as envisaged by the migrant women. Their coping strategies consist in making choices, taking actions, and creating narratives that can mitigate the hardships of their situation in different realms, from the domestic to the workplace.
  • The impact of Covid-19 has varied according to the type of work migrant women undertake. This ranges from the possibility of loss or severe reduction of income for those with businesses to being forced to stay inside or working remotely, especially for the group of professionals. For some domestic workers, the workload has increased considerably, for others the situation has remained unchanged.

Key findings: Turkey

Turkey receives female labour migrants from both neighbouring countries in the Global South, particularly the former Soviet Union (FSU) as well as the Middle East (Iran, Lebanon, Syria) and the Global North (Canada, US and  Europe). Our participants predominantly work in two sectors: domestic and care with the majority of those from the FSU working as live-in-care givers and often experiencing substantial deskilling. The majority of professionals are upper-middle income academics, teachers, coordinators, editors, translators and NGO workers, who have mostly migrated from North America, Europe and the Middle East.

  • There are multiple drivers shaping women’s migration to Turkey. For skilled migrant women, precarious working conditions resulting in a lack of future appear to be one of the drivers of migration, concomitantly with kinship ties, marriage migration and the desire to make a change in lifestyle. Other drivers of migration, mostly for the Syrians, Iranian and Lebanese women, are mainly conflict and political pressures, gender inequalities, violence, and discrimination towards sexual identity in their home countries.
  • Lower skilled women describe experiences with violence and discrimination as a driving factor for leaving their home countries. In relation to the lower skilled migrant women, the women’s narratives reveal that the drivers of migration link to their country of origin where some have experienced discrimination, heavy and unequal work burdens based on gender division of labour and the lack of right to work, as well as domestic violence.
  • Women experience violence and discrimination in urban spaces after migration too. Our findings indicate that the majority of women are exposed to verbal, physical and/or sexual harassment in public spaces in Istanbul. However, the city itself is often one of the reasons they chose to remain in Turkey. However, cultural differences and exclusionary attitudes in Turkey often cause these women to feel excluded.
  • Informal work arrangements increase women’s vulnerabilities. In Istanbul, many work without a work permit and without basic social security. Within the framework of informality, lack of standards on migrant domestic workers working and living conditions, the particularities of “home” as a workplace and privileged position of employers seem to reinforce the inequalities and vulnerabilities of women workers’ experience. Their coping strategies are not based on collective action, but rather individual-oriented and limited.
  • Despite the risks, many women feel it is worth migrating. Despite the precarious labour positions in the domestic and care sector, their desire and will to better their and their family members lives, as well as to leave behind the patriarchal relations and ties becomes crystal clear when women’s gains and achievements from their employment are considered.
  • Covid-19 has compounded discrimination. Covid-19 deepened the discriminatory practices of migrant domestic workers in Turkey. Some women who lost their job, rely on friends’ or employers’ financial support.
  • Violence remains a clear threat. All the women pay attention to gender codes and are anxious about femicide and violence against women, as they feel threatened in the streets. This is more prevalent with the migrant domestic workers, whereas the women form the Global North in skilled labour tend to live in safer areas of the city. The research finds that gender inequalities are spatialised and experienced by the migrant domestic workers, and other migrant women, living and working in Istanbul. 


Lebanese Government and International Organisations

  • Collaborative cross-sector work is needed to advance migrant rights and safety. National and international tools to protect female migrant workers are still insufficient. It is thus important to explore the relationships between the state, international and national institutional actors, and civil society, including migrant associations, to gain a better understanding of the limitations of the attempts at global and local governance, and act upon these limitations to overcome them. Improving the conditions of female migrants, from the domestic and the informal to the higher-skilled industries, should be prioritised on the national and international agenda.

Pakistan Government and International Organisations

  • Share data to improve policymaking. Government departments in Pakistan dealing with migrants could be invited to cooperate and compile documents for circulation where they collate their data on migrant communities. ILO, IOM and UNHCR, and other INGOs, could also share their statistics to support delineating a clearer picture of the complex reality of migrants in the country.
  • More migrant-centred programming and resources are needed. Evidence-based and migrant-centred programmes of intervention to support the employability and wellbeing of the Afghan community, and other migrant communities, in Pakistan should be strengthened in view of local integration and resettlement. Economic empowerment, legal protection, job security, access to health and social care, social norms changes should be enhanced, in particular targeting hard-to-reach, rural and undocumented communities, and within those, women.
  • Legal protections for migrant women should be codified. The Pakistani government should re-consider signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Additionally, the government should work at the drafting of a refugee law.
  • The ID card system needs to be more responsive to migrants needs and vulnerabilities. The Pakistani government should revise regulations and policies in relation to the assignment of ID cards to migrant workers, in conjunction with the third sector and employers, to make the permit system more accessible and inclusive.

Turkish Government and International Organisation

  • Collaborative cross-sector work is needed to advance migrant rights and safety. The Government of Turkey, also in collaboration with local authorities and the third sector, as well as INGOs and NGOs, should work together to raise the awareness to shift discriminatory gender norms and to improve the understanding and the enjoyment of women’s rights in the country, including their free use of public spaces.
  • Legal protections and bilateral agreements are needed. The Government of Turkey should intensify efforts to legally protect the work of migrant domestic workers, under the national legislative framework, to ensure basic workers’ rights and social security for these, as well as other women migrant workers in the informal sector. Bilateral agreements with the countries of origin, and with the collaboration of international, regional and local actors, should be considered to improve the conditions and the assistance towards MDWs along all the phases of their journey.
  • Re-join the Istanbul Convention. The government should make advancements towards urgently re-joining the Istanbul Convention, which was abandoned in March 2020. The Convention establishes the protection, prevention, prosecution and ultimately the elimination of all forms of violence against women, including domestic violence and specific measures for the protection of migrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking women.