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A Feminist Foreign Policy Approach to Immigration

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu

Over the past decade, immigration reform has been a priority for many Northern countries in Europe and in North America. Promises to tighten borders and reduce the number of approvals for asylum-seekers have featured heavily in electoral campaign rhetoric following rising nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments. Immigration has always been tied to the ideas of statehood, defined territorial borders and citizenship and therefore, emphasise state security at the cost of individual human security. That the many flaws in the state-centric system have become apparent now more than ever necessitates engagement with a feminist foreign policy approach to immigration.

Immigration is a Gendered Experience

Feminist theorists have made inroads into theory and discourse on migration, examining how it disproportionately disadvantages women and non-binary persons. Mainstream scholarship and policymaking on migration is constructed in gender-neutral terms, seen from “the standpoint of a universal, undifferentiated ‘male’ subject”. [1] But contrary to this homogenised assumption, gender is a constitutive element of immigration as it permeates a variety of practices and institutions implicated in the same [2]. As women are historically associated with immobility, passivity, and dependence, the dominant narrative renders women as invisible or dependents to male migrants, rather than as migrants in their own right. [3] Women may migrate for a diverse set of reasons such as fleeing gender-based violence, being persecuted for their sexual orientation, escaping conflict or losing their husbands/sons to violence or seeking better lives in countries with a better women’s rights track record.

Women usually have less control over the decision to migrate than men and this lack of agency when displaced from their homes, exacerbates the risk of human trafficking. As an ODI report detailed, “female migrants (especially in cases of forced migration or displacement) may be forced into prostitution, sex work to survive or provide for their families” [4]. Women, queer and non-binary asylum-seekers and refugees are subject to overt violence and systematic gender-based violence while in transit or during waiting periods where they are suspended without rights, status, citizenship, or support. In many accounts, abuse is perpetrated by state officials such as customs officers or law enforcement. [1]

Once they enter the host country, women continue to face additional struggles in the workplace. They are more likely to taken on work in the low-paying informal sector, such as through cooking, cleaning, nursing and caring – work that is delineated according to traditional gender roles. These occupations further gendered assumptions of women’s innate ability to be caretakers and conducive to existing gender hierarchies. Because this domestic labour is ‘hidden’ in the informal private sector, policymakers rarely pay heed to it and do not account for it in migration policy or schemes. [5] As Cynthia Enloe summarised, “working in someone else’s home raises for all of these women common issues of political invisibility, intimacy, and possible harassment”. [6] Predictably, domestic workers are often denied rights under: women’s, immigrant’s, and worker’s rights regimes.

The violence faced by women and LGBTQI people is omnipresent across the home state-host state continuum - from the overt and structural violence of asylum regimes and immigration detention centres to violence at home due to war, conflict, domestic abuse, intimate partner violence etc. Feminist migration scholarship brings to light that gender should not just be an individual or separate category of analysis that positions female migrants as members of family or as a victims of violence. Gender should be acknowledged as a system of uneven power relations that permeates the entire migrant experience. To this end, gender mainstreaming of immigration policy and discourse will allow for recognition on how each migrant’s lived experience and needs are unique and varied.

Immigration within Existing Feminist Foreign Policy Frameworks

Thus far, Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico have formally launched feminist foreign policies, yet none of them make explicit references to immigration nor address the specific and intersectional contexts that migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers come from. Beyond tokenistic allusions to the need to enhance security and protection for migrant women and the inclusion of migrant status as a category with regards to intersectionality, none of the existing feminist foreign policy frameworks pay much attention to immigration as feminist foreign policy issue.

In Sweden, historically seen as a ‘women-friendly’ and ‘refugee-friendly’ country, there are glaring inconsistencies between the country’s commitment to feminist foreign policy and the prevalence of discrimination against immigrant women within the country. In response to the 2016 European ‘migrant crisis’, several Swedish leaders, including prime minister Stefan Löfvén, justified tightening acceptances for asylum-seekers to bare minimum EU-levels, with claims that increasing immigration from patriarchal societies is endangering local women’s rights, freedom and safety. [7] Even though Canada has maintained its commitments to take in Syrian refugees, its current immigration policies have not addressed the specific risks of women from conflict zones and persons or LGBTQI+ individuals who migrate because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and/or sex characteristics (SOGIESC). [8] Canadian mining companies have a long history of building mines on indigenous territory in Latin America without taking the consent of local communities first, leading to the latter’s displacement and impoverishment. [9] Additionally, Sweden, Canada and France are also guilty of continuing with business-as-usual arms deals policies, supplying dangerous weapons to countries in the Middle East, an unstable region which is notorious for emigration of displaced persons.

What Would a Feminist Immigration Policy Look Like?

Current state-centric conceptions of security view borders as hard lines in need of protection and such norms are used to bolster anti-immigration rhetoric that reinforces the idea of a ‘national security crisis’ to keep outsiders out. Moreover, it places the protection of the nation and the state before the protection of the individual. Gendered ideas about the state and masculinised forms of statecraft need to be completely revamped and the relationship between sovereignty, borders, power, rights, and international relations needs to be reconsidered. [1] This is especially the need of the hour when the state, the primary provider of safety, becomes a source of insecurity for those waiting at the borders.

The refugee system of western, white countries is riddled with cultural essentialism and “thrives on constructing a hierarchy of nations in which the ‘‘West’’ is seen as a land of hope, freedom, and acceptance, and the ‘‘East’’ as a source of oppression and backwardness” [10]. The irony of these deeply-rooted ideas of Western hegemony comes out in full display when one considers that the “West” (including former colonising powers, NATO members and many other rich Northern industrialised nations) supports military interventions in the name of human rights and then rejects the same rights and dignity to refugees and asylum-seekers who come to their countries to build new lives. Western countries with strong pull factors for migration must develop feminist processes for asylum seekers. As powerful states with economic, military, and political capital, they do play a role in most conflicts that cause migrants to leave, and must therefore start with reparations and formal apologies for the displaced victims and pillaged societies before anything else.

Feminist immigration policy would also address mail-to-order brides, sex trafficking, sex slavery and prostitution. In the words of journalist Alice Driver, “feminist immigration policy would need to tackle disappearance and ensure that countries have policies in place to identify and prevent the human trafficking and prostitution of unaccompanied migrant girls.” [9]

Intersectional feminist foreign policymaking around migration should also include queering asylum processes for LGBTQI refugees, as the latter reveals a system replete with structural violence in which “certain bodies are protected, and others are constructed as disposable” [9]. A feminist approach to asylum-seeking would include persecution on the grounds of gender and sexuality to be valid and legitimate claims for asylum. It would also decrease barriers to the renewal of regulatory status, fast-track pathways to citizenship and permanent residency as well as safeguard their rights. Above all, a feminist approach to immigration reform would address underlying conditions of inequality and insecurity that give rise to the need to flee to other countries. In this respect, comprehensive demilitarisation goes hand in hand with feminist immigration policy.


1. Dr. C. Agius and Dr. S. Clark, (2019), Border Practices, Gender, and Australia’s Approach to Asylum, Disrupted: the Migration Issue, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57cd7cd9d482e9784e4ccc34/t/5eb91acb06715c55584c5e09/1589189375189/Centre+for+Feminist+Foreign+Policy+Disrupted+-+The+Migration+Issue+PDF.pdf

2. P. Hondagneu-Sotelo, (2003), Gender and U.S. Immigration: Contemporary Trends

3. M. Morokvasic, (2019, January 7), Women on the Move: Impact of Migration Revisited, bpb,


4. T. O’Neil, A. Fleury and M. Forest, (2016, July), Women on the move Migration, gender equality and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, ODI.org, https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/10731.pdf

5. K. Pannell and M. Altman, (2009, June 16), Minding the Gap: Feminist perspectives on policies affecting immigrant labor in the domestic services industry in Europe, Cahiers de l’Urmis, http://journals.openedition.org/urmis/810

6. C. Enloe, (2014), Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics

7. E. Edenborg, (2020, June 3), Endangered Swedish Values: Immigration, Gender Equality, and “Migrants’ Sexual Violence”, chapter in Nostalgia and Hope: Intersections between Politics of Culture, Welfare, and Migration in Europe, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-41694-2_7#Sec9

8. K. Powell, Global Affairs Canada: Feminist Foreign Policy Dialogue, https://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/Rainbow%20Railroad%20FFP.pdf

9. A. Driver, (2018, March 6), The women and girl migrants who disappear, and the feminist policies that could save them, Open Canada, https://opencanada.org/women-and-girl-migrants-who-disappear-and-feminist-policies-could-save-them/

10. A. Kusnierkiewicz, (2019), Learning to be Queer: Queer Refugees and the Burden of Proof: How Asylum Processing Hierarchises Sexual Experiences and Construes a Limited Concept of ‘Legitimate’ Queer Identity, Disrupted: the Migration Issue, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/57cd7cd9d482e9784e4ccc34/t/5eb91acb06715c55584c5e09/1589189375189/Centre+for+Feminist+Foreign+Policy+Disrupted+-+The+Migration+Issue+PDF.pdf

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