Latin America: Women immigrants target of xenophobia

by Marcela Valente

Buenos Aires, 23 Jul 2001 (IPS) - Xenophobia in today’s Latin America is directed against immigrants from within the region itself because they are seen by locals as a threat to employment or simply because they are poor - a rejection that is accentuated in the case of women immigrants.

Such were the conclusions that sociologist Cecilia Lipszyc, national coordinator of the Argentine Institute against Discrimination (INADI), outlined in a conversation with IPS.

Argentina is the region’s standout case, as it continues to be an important receptor nation of Latin American workers, particularly those coming from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, most of whom are women.

INADI and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) organized a seminar this month in Buenos Aires about women immigrants in Argentina.  Participants drafted policies to fight the xenophobia and racism to which these immigrants are subjected, to help eradicate prejudices and to improve their insertion in the local community.

Women delegates from various immigrant organisations here and from cultural associations in the immigrants’ countries of origin gathered also to study the rise in cases of women brought from other countries in the region to work in Buenos Aires as prostitutes.

Also on the seminar’s agenda was the selection of delegates who will take part in the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, convened by the United Nations from 31 August to 7 September in Durban, South Africa.

The participants in the Buenos Aires conference studied the data of an International Organisation for Migrations (OIM) report, which shows that migration flows have changed their course in the last two decades.

In today’s Argentina, which for more than a century received immigrants from Europe - and also from Chile and Uruguay beginning in the 1960s -, there is now a continuous flow of citizens arriving from other Latin American countries.

Peruvians, Paraguayans and Bolivians currently represent some 80% of the foreigners living in Argentina, which is still the main destination of South American emigrants despite its economic crises and high unemployment, which stands at 16.7% of the economically active population.

Research by the Ecumenical Support Service for Immigrants and Refugees shows that women immigrants are not very visible because they continue to be counted in migrant statistics as “passively displaced,” in other words, accompanied by a male head of family.

But the study reveals that most of the immigrants arriving in Argentina are women who have travelled alone, often leaving their children behind in the country of origin.

Furthermore, 59% of 180 women immigrants surveyed said they had studied at the secondary or tertiary level, but despite their relatively high level of education, 68% reported that they are working as domestic employees, a sector that sustains a high demand for labour despite the lack of jobs available in this country.

The Ecumenical Service’s data indicate that racial prejudices may limit the possibilities of women immigrants to gain access to better-remunerated jobs.

“It is not unusual to find Peruvian women working in homes in which their Argentine employer has completed less schooling than they have,” Maria Ines Pacceca, one of the author’s of the report, told IPS.

It is precisely this new phenomenon of incorporating foreigners into society that has unleashed a wave of xenophobia against immigrants from within the Latin American region, who according to communications expert Beatriz Sarlo, are seen as a threat to Argentina’s identity as a “European” nation.

As a result of the heavy European immigration of the 19th and 20th centuries, the urban population in Argentina is made up largely of descendants of people born in Spain, Italy, France, Germany and Britain, who have a much greater presence than people of indigenous origin.

“The resistance to accepting cultural differences originates in the pressures that they exert on identity: we are what we think we are,” Sarlo explained.

This is one of the reasons behind the Argentines’ rejection of immigrants from other Latin American countries - most of which have greater racial diversity in their populations, particularly people of indigenous or African origins -, and is not simply a matter of competition for scarce jobs, she added.

Earlier this year in Argentina a guard threw a Bolivian woman from a moving train because she refused to pay her fare. The other passengers witnessed this cruel demonstration of xenophobia impassively, without any reaction.

INADI chief Lipszyc pointed out that “with socio-economic systems that are increasingly exclusionary, immigrants are perceived as a threat to sources of employment and to the education and health systems of the poorest sectors. On top of this, there develops a violent discourse that profoundly harms the foreigners.”

The sociologist explained that anti-immigrant discrimination does not occur only in the cultural and social arenas, but also through public policies and government legislation that serve as restrictions on immigration.

Much of this limiting legislation in Argentina dates back to the country’s most recent military dictatorship (1976-1983).

These laws pave the way for what is known here as the “paperwork industry,” a  business that provides profits for many who charge outrageous sums to “help” the  recently arrived immigrants to find their way through the tangle of seemingly  endless steps that must be taken to obtain legal residency in Argentina. – SUNS4943

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SUNS 4943, 25 Jul 2001