• Borders

    Mothers on the borders

    Women cross borders in search of a better future for themselves and their families or fleeing various forms of violence. 

    Gema Fernández, Managing Attorney at Women's Link Worldwide, explains in this post how they are often separated from their children by state migration authorities

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    Mothers on the borders Oumo Totopa looks at her son's photo while separated from him in September 2017 © Laura Martínez Valero / Women's Link Worldwide

    Throughout the world, women cross borders in search of a better future for themselves and their families or fleeing various forms of violence. Often they travel with their children so that they can have access to better opportunities. Sometimes they are separated from them by state migration authorities based on gender, racist and discriminatory prejudices.

    At Women's Link we have seen this happen at various borders around the world, from the U.S.-Mexico border to European countries like Spain, where women arriving by boat from Africa face this situation. Once in Spanish territory, it is common for authorities to keep them separated from their children for weeks or months until they verify through DNA tests that they are their mothers.

    This happens even if they present official documentation (passport, family book, etc.) proving their relationship. During this time they are not allowed to have any contact, not even by telephone. This situation is desperate for the mothers, whose mental and physical health is damaged by the anguish of separation and the uncertainty of not knowing if they will be able to be reunited with their children.

    This was the case for Oumo Totopa, a woman from Côte d'Ivoire whom Women's Link legally represented. In 2017, Oumo and her son arrived in Spain in different small boats and the Spanish authorities kept them separated for more than 6 months, without giving her the necessary information about the process to follow to prove the filiation relationship with her son and reunite with him.

    Together with Fundación La Merced Migraciones we took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. After years of waiting, the Court notified us of its decision in June 2022 and, to our disappointment, missed the opportunity to set a precedent protecting the rights of migrant mothers arriving in Europe accompanied by their children. The Court dismissed the case on formal grounds and, moreover, found that Oumo and her child had been separated for a "reasonable" time. This shows the difficulties these women face in accessing justice.

    And I wonder: how many months without seeing your child is too long? Would the Court have followed the same criteria if it had been a white family? Why are rights violations allowed at the borders that would be unthinkable elsewhere?

    Women's Link has also documented how migrant women can be separated from their children even long after they have arrived in European countries. In our report "Mothers in trafficking networks: stolen rights" (2017) we analyzed the separation of trafficked women from their children in four European countries - Spain, France, Germany and Denmark.

    In all of them we found women who had suffered separations due to decisions by traffickers or child protection systems. Some of them had been searching for years for their children, who had been given up for adoption, in the hope of recovering them. In none of the cases identified had the mothers abused or neglected their children. The authorities had taken their children away from them because of their situation as victims of trafficking, understood as a risk factor, or because their way of exercising motherhood was very different from the European model, which is imposed as the only valid model.

    It is sad to see how, all over the world, when it comes to migrant families, the authorities understand that protecting the best interests of a child means separating them from their mother, who is their adult figure of reference and attachment, and "placing" them in a protection system surrounded by people they do not know and who, in many cases, do not even speak the same language.

    From Women's Link we will continue working to protect the right of migrant women to stay with their children and for protection systems to focus on protecting family units, instead of destroying them, and to broaden their understanding of what it means to be a "good mother".

    If you would like to support our work so that migrant women can stay together with their children, you can do so here.

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