Challenges for Migrant Women in Argentina

Argentina, Features, Issue 4 - June 2016, Issue 4 Features

By Francisco Yofre

Argentina, which has been a destination for immigrants for more than a century, has seen the pattern of migration change in recent years. Among the current wave of newcomers are women who came seeking a better life than they had in their home countries. While many do find greater economic prosperity, others struggle in low-paying jobs or fall prey to the false promises of unscrupulous recruiters.

Immigration Trends and Perceptions

Located in South America’s southern cone, Argentina is one of the countries in the region that has received the largest number of immigrants. The magnitude of this influx was clear from the country’s first three censuses. In 1869, 12.1 percent of the population was foreign-born; in 1895, that figure had climbed to 25.4 percent; and by 1914, it had reached 29.9 percent. The vast majority arrived in ships, packed with immigrants from Spain, Italy, Poland, and Russia, fleeing social crises in Europe. After the First World War, migration flows from overseas fell, and a different pattern began to emerge: migrants entered from the countries along Argentina’s borders, especially Paraguay and Bolivia, and, more recently, Peru.

María José Astudillo es de Ecuador. Foto de Hernán Alvarado

María José Astudillo is from Ecuador. Photo by Hernán Alvarado

One of the most significant differences between immigrants from Europe and more recent newcomers from nearby countries is how they are viewed in Argentina’s collective consciousness. “Although the arrival of Europeans was strongly resisted during its initial years by local inhabitants, or “criollos,” it later evolved into a kind of epic, valiant migration narrative that forged the national sense of being. The other migration flow, from neighboring countries, does not give Argentines such pride. On the contrary, these migrants are identified as invaders and even blamed for the country’s social ills,” says María Inés Pacecca, doctor of Anthropology at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and a specialist in migration issues.

Immigrants from neighboring countries are frequently accused of taking jobs from locals and being responsible for rising crime rates. However, census data shows that their number has never surpassed 7 percent of Argentina’s total population. Despite this, Alejandro Marambio, former director of the Federal Prison Service, says that “6 percent of the prison population is made up of foreigners, including transient migrants, meaning that this figure decreases if we analyze the migrant prisoners who actually live in the country.”

If the numbers don’t seem to indicate that Bolivians and Paraguayans take away jobs, then why, as Dr. Pacecca indicates, are immigrants from Europe and those from countries close to Argentina viewed so differently? “This is because the social groups creating the country’s historical narrative changed, the groups or affiliations among people making the laws and cementing the country’s ideological foundations changed. As time passed, the second and third generation descendants of immigrants [from Europe] who had entered the country in massive numbers began to access legislative positions. [In addition], the two migration flows never had the same social trajectory. Migration from Europe was never illegal; migrants from those countries were escaping brutal famines, but they still had passports. Immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America, who arrived in waves up until the beginning of the 21st century, did not. This discriminatory barrier is written into legislation, and it comes from those who wrote that legislation,” Paceacca explains.

Female Immigrants: Challenges and Successes

Marina Quiñones was born in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 57 years ago. She came to Buenos Aires in 1980 with her sister Nicol. They both work at a vegetable shop. As she sorts and stocks oranges and pears, she recalls her first two years in the country, working at an illegal textile factory managed by an immigrant from Korea. “Those were hard times, since I didn’t have my papers. My sister and I came under attack many times. But we finally managed to get our own shop. Sometimes it’s hard to make progress, and it’s almost impossible to move to a better neighborhood,” Marina remembers. Nicol, standing behind the cash register, finishes her thought. “Bit by bit, we were able to bring some of our family members here. There was always more work here, more for the women than for the men, and above all the exchange rate with the dollar was very advantageous. Discrimination exists, we’ve experienced it, but it’s always existed, especially against women. Now, people pay more attention to these issues, and at this point, we don’t really care what people say about us,” she says, shrugging her shoulders indifferently.

Beginning in the 1960s, immigrants from other South American countries began arriving increasingly in urban centers, including the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (BAMA)—a destination for about half of all newcomers to Argentina. This pattern coincided with a gradual increase in the overall proportion of female immigrants. By 1980, these women—who came to work more and more in the service industry and domestic sector—comprised half of all immigrants living in BAMA.

Marina y Nicol Quiñonez son de Bolivia. Foto de Hernán Alvarado

Marina and Nicol Quiñones are from Bolivia. Photo by Hernán Alvarado

A country of about 43 million people, Argentina is currently home to 550,000 Paraguayans, 340,000 Bolivians, and 150,000 Peruvians. Women make up an increasing number of those migrating from Paraguay, where immigration to Argentina began in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as from Peru, from which it started in the 1990s. For decades, immigrants from Bolivia—who only recently began to include large numbers of women—received help from networks of friends and coworkers; these contacts, in turn, contributed to various opportunities for the immigrants to accumulate capital.

According to Pacecca, “Women from Paraguay make up a good part of the labor market for domestic workers, but have not been able to become employers. It’s even reasonable to assume that the demand for domestic workers in large urban centers led to greater migration by single women, even at very young ages. On the other hand, many women from Bolivia have succeeded in becoming business owners. It’s a migrant population that has been able to seize opportunities. Eventually, they will follow the same path as the Italians and Spaniards at the beginning of the 20th century did, using farms and agricultural work. They begin as hired labor for bosses, then they become the owners of that land, and later they become owners of this whole land. They bring their compatriots and start a business selling vegetables. Migrants from Paraguay never took on this pattern of upward mobility.”

Corina Courtis, a doctor of anthropology at UBA, writes in her study Gender and Migratory Trajectories that “The recent wave of migration from Peru was motivated by the economic model that pegged the peso to the dollar, which was attractive to many who sent remittances. Their arrival displaced women from Paraguay as domestic workers.” Currently, about 55 percent of Peruvian female immigrants are employed as domestics—many more than from either Bolivia or Paraguay. For Pacecca, this phenomenon is due to the fact that “since they’re a labor force that is paid by the hour, that hour is charged at the same rate no matter what level of education these women have. Many women from Peru have an education level much higher than those from Paraguay. This causes employers from Argentina to choose women from Peru since they have more educational qualifications, yet charge the same amount.”

Foto de Hernán Alvarado

Photo by Hernán Alvarado

The Dark Side of Migration: Human Trafficking and Sex Work

Immigrants from the Dominican Republic, most of whom arrived in the 1990s, face different challenges. Argentina is their fourth most popular destination, after the United States, Spain, and Italy, according to a 2015 report from the International Migration Organization (IOM). Many were attracted to Argentina for the ability to remit dollars back home, the lack of visa requirements to enter as a tourist, and the perception that it would be easy to find employment as a domestic worker. “Recruiters offered [many of them] a ‘package deal’ that included airfare, living fees, and work. The amount was roughly US$2,000, or what many potential migrants would earn after an entire year of work in the Dominican Republic. Before migrating, 80 percent of migrants knew someone who lived or had lived in Argentina,” the IMO report adds.

However, recruiters frequently tricked the first arrivals, many of whom were women lured with false promises of lucrative jobs—but often found themselves working instead in the sex industry. While women from the Dominican Republic represent fewer than 1 percent of all immigrants to Argentina, their often dire economic situations have resulted in 90 percent of them becoming victims of human trafficking networks, both in Buenos Aires and in the southern region of Patagonia. One organization providing them with assistance is the civil society group CAREF (Comisión Argentina para los Refugiados, or Argentine Commission for Refugees). According to CAREF, female immigrants from the Dominican Republic are more poorly educated than other residents of Argentina: 40 percent have not completed primary school, and 6 percent are illiterate. According to interviews that CAREF conducted with female Dominican immigrants, more than 60 percent of them obtained the necessary funds to migrate by mortgaging their own or their parents’ homes, by obtaining a bank loan, or even from the recruiters themselves; others resorted to prostitution as a way to earn money quickly.

Another migration trend is reflected in the October 2014 adoption of a “Syria Program” to admit refugees escaping the armed conflict in Syria. Nearly 100 people came, 20 of them women, in addition to the 160 who had arrived since 2012. 3,000 more Syrian refugees will arrive this year, assured cabinet leader Marcos Pena at the beginning of June.  “It’s a good sign, but the migration flow is not very intense,” says Tamara Lalli, who was born in the Syrian town of Yabrud and is in charge of providing connections and advising these refugees in Buenos Aires regarding obtaining proper documentation. The majority of these refugees would prefer to go to Brazil or the United States. Argentina is unknown to them, despite the robust Syrian community in the country. “And there’s the fact that there are four million descendants of Lebanese Syrians, almost 10 percent of the total population, but the reality is that we haven’t maintained any truly distinctive characteristics and we’ve almost completely integrated. Refugees arrive with a very high level of education and find work as soon as they begin to understand the language. The first job that they get is in Arabian restaurants run by other refugees or acquaintances from Syria. They do their best to adapt but it’s not easy at all since they’ve lived through very difficult experiences, nothing less than all-out war,” Lalli adds.

While all migrants arriving in Argentina face unique challenges in beginning life in a new land, they also share some common goals and experiences. Female immigrants, like their male counterparts, make the journey in search of better opportunities for both themselves and their families. Some find employment at low-skilled jobs, others become the unfortunate victims of traffickers, and the lucky ones discover financial success—all in an effort to secure better lives than those they left behind.

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