Gendering of Migration

Helen Sunderland

In recent years, migration has never been far from the headlines. The European migrant crisis – the worst since the Second World War – saw several million people endure exhausting and dangerous journeys to the continent. Refugees fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and many other countries, as well as those escaping extreme poverty, risked their lives trying to reach Europe by land and sea. Thousands died trying to do so. As the EU struggled to reach a consensus about how to resolve the crisis, migration became increasingly politically charged. Fears over immigration were a factor in the Brexit vote and have fuelled the resurgence of the far-right across Europe.

The narratives of the crisis were distinctly gendered. The stories which caused the most public outcry involved women and young families. The image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi who drowned off the Turkish coast in September 2015 is difficult to forget. Suffering women and children came to symbolise the ‘refugee’. Meanwhile, single men were more easily labelled as ‘economic migrants’. The subtleties of language could be all too easily exploited to determine people’s futures.

Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump continues to follow through on his anti-immigration campaign. Again, the impact on women and children has been emphasised in the media. ICE deportations have stepped up, families are being separated at the border, and now the President is threatening to prevent the members of a migrant caravan from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador from claiming asylum when they reach the US-Mexico border.

While the world is more connected than ever before, migration is, of course, nothing new. Legacies of migration, which shape our multicultural, global world, continue to be contested. Earlier this year, the Windrush scandal broke in the UK – with a cruel irony on the sixtieth anniversary year of the British Nationality Act of 1948. As ever, with the movement of peoples across borders, attempts to control and classify their mobility inevitably follow.

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Teresa Bernardi’s paper, ‘Women’s Mobility and Practices of Identification in early modern Venice’ engaged with some of these issues in an early modern, multicultural city. Bernardi’s research looks particularly at the role of gender in shaping experiences of mobility. Marital status impacted the migrant registration process in Venice. Gendered practices of registration mean single women’s mobility is often absent from the historical record.

One of the strengths of Bernardi’s methodology is its engagement with the historiographical shift away from static understandings of identity to dynamic practices of identification. This foregrounds the agency migrants might have in choosing how they presented themselves to the authorities. Bernardi uncovered fascinating cases of women who had travelled across the Mediterranean, exploiting the registration systems available to them in different places. Some women took advantage of the protections religious authorities offered lone migrant women. Religious conversion could be used as a tool to secure registration in a city, though this could attract the attention of the Inquisition.

The intersection between mobility and religion was a theme that ran through Bernardi’s paper. Priests played an important mediating role between the various communities in Venice and the city authorities. As such, the registration of foreigners in Venice depended both on an enduring oral tradition and personal networks as well as written documentation. Moreover, the Jewish community in Venice faced particularly harsh restrictions on their movement. As we still see today, religion was a powerful way to ‘other’ the migrant.

Our present-day conceptions of migration are often rooted in national terms – national borders and national identity. Current migrant experiences are framed by the technologies of the modern state. Bernardi’s paper was a helpful challenge to these modernist assumptions about migration, whilst offering powerful insights into the perennial issues raised by the movement of peoples across borders.

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