Moussa, a 13-year-old Malian refugee, waits for his mother as she visits a doctor in the Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania May 23. More than 320,000 people have fled their homes due to conflict in northern Mali. Half of them have settled in refugee camps in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. Mbera, the largest of such camps, is home to more than 64,000 people. The camp's remoteness in the Sahara desert makes delivery of humanitarian assistance difficult. (CNS photo/Joe Penney, Reuters)

ROME (CNS) — Increasing numbers of women are migrating alone, a situation that makes them vulnerable to violence and exploitation, but one that often shows their courage and commitment to making a better life for their families, said speakers at a conference in Rome.

About 214 million people live outside their country of origin, and half of all migrants are women, said Miguel Diaz, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, which sponsored a panel discussion about migration and women May 24.

The global economic crisis has increased the danger that migrant women and children will fall prey to traffickers as they flee violence and poverty, seeking a better life for themselves and their families, the ambassador said.

Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, said in the experience of the Catholic Church, its ministers and aid agencies, women who have been forced to migrate, “despite everything that has happened to them in their lives, respond to their situation with remarkable courage, resourcefulness and creativity.”

“They believe wholeheartedly that the future offers change and possibilities,” he said.

At the same time, the cardinal said, women migrants need special protection. They may be the targets of ethnically motivated rape during times of civil strife; their safety often isn’t ensured even in refugee camps; and many become the head of their household in a land where they do not speak the language or understand the culture.

Martina Liebsch, policy director for Caritas Internationalis, told conference participants that strong myths are believed by both migrants and people in the countries they hope to enter.

Migrants, she said, “often believe in the myth of a better life somewhere else, in developed countries, whereas in fact they often end up undocumented, doing precarious work, with little or no access to rights.”

The people who make the most money out of migration — traffickers and smugglers — “exploit this myth and the dreams.” She said a police officer told a recent Vatican conference that “it is easier nowadays to traffic a person than to traffic drugs or weapons.”

People in the world’s richer countries “have their own myth — that they are being invaded by migrants,” she said. But, in fact, research has demonstrated there is more migration in the developing world because most migrants want to stay as close as possible to their homelands.

In addition, she said, the rich countries rely heavily on migrants for semi-skilled and unskilled labor in construction and in domestic work, including caring for the elderly and for children.

In fact, Liebsch said, while poor countries have long lamented a “brain drain” with the emigration of their highly skilled, highly educated citizens, today many are experiencing a “care drain” with the departure of nurses and those who traditionally have cared for children and the elderly.

National laws, international policies and nongovernmental agency efforts to assist migrants must become more sensitive to the fact that women and men migrants often face very different threats and challenges, she said. In particular, the fact that so many women migrants end up doing domestic work means they are employed in the least regulated sector of most countries’ economies and face the most potential exploitation.

Farah Anwar Pandith, the U.S. State Department special representative to Muslim communities, said whether they are first-generation or fourth-generation immigrants, Muslim women in Europe often are raising their children surrounded by “shrill voices” debating immigration and cultural diversity.

New Muslim immigrants face isolation because of language barriers, but they also face the physical barrier of being forced to live in the poorer neighborhoods. Outreach to promote literacy is important, she said, but emotional support is even more crucial.

“We do not want mothers raising children to tell them that they will never belong to the country, society, communities in which they live. We want mothers to be able to promote opportunities for their children, to give them the opportunity to live up to their God-given potential,” she said.

“The bottom line is to listen to what the women are saying about what’s happening to their families, to their children and in their environment,” she said.

— By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service