Women refugees and migrants

Refugee women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo: UN Women/Catianne Tijerina
Photo: UN Women/Catianne Tijerina

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The issue

Today, around the world, people are on the move. They are migrating to escape poverty, improve their livelihood and opportunities, or escaping conflict and devastation in their own countries. Women represent almost half of the 244 million migrants and half of the 19.6 million refugees worldwide [1].

The remittances sent by women migrant workers improve the livelihood and health of their families and strengthen economies. In 2015, international migrants sent $432.6 billion in remittances to developing countries—nearly three times the amount of Official Development Assistance, which totaled at $131.6 billion [2].

Women are often the first responders in a crisis, and whether en route or in camps, in home countries or destination countries, they play a crucial role in caring for, sustaining and rebuilding their communities.

Yet, refugee and migrant women’s needs, priorities and voices are often missing from policies designed to protect and assist them.

Fast facts

  • Between 2000 and 2015, the number of international migrants has increased by 41 per cent to reach 244 million. Almost half of them are women [3].
  • Migrants, especially migrant women, have higher labour force participation rates (72.7 per cent) than non-migrants (63.9 per cent) [4].
  • Almost every sixth domestic worker in the world is an international migrant, and women make up 73.4 per cent of international migrant domestic workers [5].
  • Yet, only 22 countries have ratified the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers (No. 189), which recognizes the additional vulnerabilities of women domestic workers and protects the rights and dignity of all domestic workers.
  • Today, 50 per cent of the world's refugees are women and girls [6]. Yet, only 4 per cent of projects in UN inter-agency appeals were targeted at women and girls in 2014, and just 0.4 per cent of all funding to fragile states went to women’s groups or women’s ministries from 2012 to 2013 [7].
  • According to UN reports, 60 per cent of preventable maternal deaths take place in humanitarian settings and at least 1 in 5 refugees or displaced women are estimated to have experienced sexual violence [8].
  • The number of internally displaced persons stood at almost 40 million at the end of 2014. Current data suggests that women living in protracted displacement slightly outnumber men and their hardships get worse over time [9].

Placing women in decision-making roles and including their needs and realities in policies and solutions designed to address global migration and the refugee crisis make them more sustainable and responsive.

Looking for more facts and figures? See our related infographics.

The United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants

Addressing the unprecedented large movements of refugees and migrants needs a more humane and coordinated approach that all countries can endorse and implement. On 19 September, on the occasion of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, Heads of State and Governments will come together at the first-ever high-level summit for refugees and migrants to discuss the key elements of a global compact for safe, regular and orderly migration and a global compact on responsibility-sharing for refugees.

The day-long summit is expected to generate global commitments to address the root causes of large movements of refugees and migrants; to ensure at all stages, the human rights, safety and dignity of refugees and migrants; to provide protection from violence; and to prevent discrimination and xenophobia.  World leaders are also expected to discuss a more predictable and equitable way of responding to large movements of refugees through responsibility-sharing and a comprehensive response plan for refugees.

With refugee and migrant women playing a pivotal role around the world to sustain communities and economies, the global commitments must include achieving gender equality, the empowerment of all women and girls and their human rights as underlying principles, address the unique needs of women and girls, include their voices, and be accountable to them.

Snapshots of our work

 Dawa Dolma Tamang.

Towards safe migration and decent work for women in Nepal
Dawa Dolma Tamang migrated from rural Nepal to Abu Dhabi because she wanted to improve her livelihood and support her family. She ended up paying seven times more than what was required to the recruiting agency and was wrongfully denied work on medical grounds. Today, Tamang is working as a mason and will soon start taking the vocational and entrepreneurship skills training provided by a UN Women programme that is advancing women’s economic empowerment in Nepal.

Sayokhat Tashbekova welcomes visitors into her workshop where she, along with other abandoned wives of Tajik migrant workers, creates traditional crafts for sale. Photo: UN Women

Left behind Tajik women overcome hurdles through trainings and self-help groups
As Tajik men migrate for work overseas in pursuit of a new life, some abandon their wives and children. A UN Women programme supports livelihood trainings and self-help groups for abandoned wives of migrant workers. The project has also led to the recognition of abandoned wives and children as a socially vulnerable group in the law, facilitating their access to free legal, economic and psycho-social services.

Meliya Gumi (front left) contributes ideas on how to prevent irregular migration at one of the Community Conversation sessions in her village. Photo: UN Women/Fikerte Abebe.

Community conversations in Ethiopia prevents exploitative migration
Lack of economic resources and opportunities are driving Ethiopia’s young women to migrate, often through illegal brokers, as domestic workers in the Gulf countries. A programme by UN Women and ILO has initiated ‘Community Conversations’ to ensure safe migration.

Refugee and rural women in host country, Lebanon, learn to create, brand and commercialize high-quality handicrafts, organic and agro-food products as part of the UN Women Fund for Gender Equality project. Photo: UN Women/Joe Saade

In host country Lebanon, refugee and rural women build entrepreneurship, cohesion and future
Women entrepreneurs from refugee and host communities in Lebanon are using their unique skills and creativity to build their own model of social stability in Lebanon while launching economically viable businesses.

Samen Phalla, a 44-year-old domestic worker and a team leader of the Cambodian Network of Domestic Workers. Photo: Lisa Taïeb.

Empowering domestic workers through information technology in Cambodia
Research shows that domestic workers in Cambodia need access to and information about physical and mental health. A new technology supported by UN Women empowers them towards a healthier life.

From where I Stand

This editorial series captures the unique and powerful stories of people around the world, through compelling first-person accounts of their daily sustainable development challenges and how they are bringing about change. Read more»

Lenche Zdravkin. Photo: Mirjana Nedeva

“It took me only two days to realize who they were and why they were passing by my house by the railway track...”

SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

Lenche Zdravkin, a legend in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for her work with the refugees, speaks about how meeting refugees crossing the border has shifted her perspective on life. Read more»

Edna Valdez. Photo: UN Women/Norman Gorecho

“The main challenge for women migrant workers is that they don’t know what rights they have....”

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

Edna Valdez, President of Bannuar Ti La Union, shares her experience as a migrant worker, and her work now for migrant women’s rights in the La Union province of Philippines. Read more»

Rubia Akter.  Photo: UN Women/Tapati Saha

“I migrated to Abu Dhabi in 2011, looking for a decent life. As soon as I arrived, I realized that it was not the job that I was promised...”

SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth

Rubia Aktar from Bangladesh speaks about reintegrating after being a migrant worker and opening her own small tailoring shop in Betila, Manikganj. Read more»

Nahimana Fainesi.  Photo: UN Women/Catianne Tijerina

“This is my second time living in communal camps, second time running away from civil war to protect myself...”

SDG 2: Zero hunger

Nahimana Fainesi [Finess] speaks about her life as a Burundian refugee in the Lusenda refugee camp in Fizi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Read more»

Zaad Al-khair. Photo: UN Women/Christopher Herwig

“The day I fled to Jordan there was heavy shelling in my neighbourhood. There were bombings close to our house...”

SDG 4: Quality education

Zaad Al-khair, a Syrian refugee living in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, speaks about working hard to complete her studies and access higher education. Read more»

Photo essays

Photo essay: In the Philippines, women migrant workers rebuild lives, advocate for each other

A global programme by UN Women, “Promoting and Protecting Women Migrant Workers’ Labour and Human Rights”, supported by the European Union and piloted in the Philippines, works to build the capacities of migrant women’s organizations and networks to better serve and assist women migrant workers.

In the past two decades, an annual average of 172,000 Filipino women have left the country as migrant workers, in the quest for decent work and adequate income. Many endure abuse and exploitation and need reintegration support upon return. A UN Women programme is strengthening the capacity of migrant women’s organizations and networks to better serve and assist women migrant workers. These are their stories »

Stories of hope from a Cameroon refugee camp

Hawa, 23, was eight months pregnant when her husband was killed in the fighting in CAR. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

To the world they are known as “refugees”. Nameless, faceless, all the same. But each of them have a different story to tell, of their lives, who they lost, and how they got here. Fleeing from the devastating conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR), today they are rebuilding their lives, one day at a time, in a camp in Cameroon. UN Women supports economic and social rehabilitation to some 6,250 vulnerable women and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence there. These are some of their stories »

In DRC, women refugees rebuild lives, with determination and hope

With UN Women’s assistance, in 2015, 264 women refugees contributed to the camp’s food security after being trained to grow vegetables.  Photo: UN Women/Catianne Tijerina
Burundi’s ongoing political turmoil has caused hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and seek shelter in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At the Lusenda refugee camp, which is home to more than 16,000 refugees, the majority are women and girls. Hundreds of refugees have come to the Safe Haven multipurpose centres for protection and economic and social empowerment, established by UN Women. Here’s a glimpse into daily life at the camp and the centres »


The real-life tale of a domestic worker

Snow White is from Karen State, Myanmar. Her father died when she was 11, leaving her responsible for the care of her mother and younger siblings. Lacking opportunity and education in her hometown, Snow White joined a group of friends hoping to be smuggled into Thailand to find work as domestic workers, setting off a harrowing journey that nearly left her dead. Watch our story to find out how Snow White’s story unfolds.

295,000 refugees flee political violence in Burundi

A year after political violence erupted in Burundi, 295,000 people have fled to neighboring Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo. More than half of those fleeing are women and children, who face not only food shortage and poverty, but also higher rates of sexual and domestic violence, and increased chances of early/child marriage. UN Women sets up “Safe Spaces” in refugee camps to offer income opportunities and business training for women, as well as psycho-social counselling and trauma assistance.

Speeches and statements


  • Op-ed: Empowering women and girl migrants and refugees
    On 19 September 2016, Heads of State and Government will address the issues surrounding large movements of refugees and migrants and endorse a set of commitments and a global agenda for the future when they formally adopt the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. Ensuring gender equality, the empowerment of all women and girls and the realization of their human rights, must be a central driving force of the historic opportunity in addressing the largest movement of refugees and migrants since the Second World War, writes Lakshmi Puri, UN Women Deputy Executive Director, in this op-ed.
  • #AskUNWomen Twitter chat on women refugees and migrants
    In the lead up to the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants, Twitter users joined Andrea Milan, UN Women expert on gender and migration, for an #AskUNWomen Twitter chat on 15 September to discuss the gender dimensions of displacement.

Join the conversation

Help us bust the myths about women and girls on the move! With your tweets and posts you can move the conversation forward and raise awareness about the rights and needs of women refugees and migrants using the hashtag #UN4RefugeesMigrants. A social media package with sample messages in English, Spanish and French is available here.

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More stories

A woman migrant worker washes pots in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran

Creating “happy homes” for domestic workers in Asia Pacific
Live-in domestic workers in the Asia Pacific region often experience multiple abuses. The innovative Happy Home Campaign has launched a video series to raise awareness of the rights and obligations of domestic workers and their employers. The campaign encourages employers to take the lead in creating happy home environments.

Khet Kumari Ghimere. Photo: UN Women/Pradeep Shakya

From where I stand: Khet Kumari Ghimere
When she was 21, Khet Kumari Ghimere migrated to Kuwait as a domestic worker. Overworked, abused and underpaid, she returned to Nepal after two years. Today she works as a security guard at the emergency shelter for migrant women run by the organization, Pourakhi, which is supported by UN Women.

Hau, a migrant woman from Hai Duong province in northern Viet Nam. Photo: UN Women/Pham Thanh Long

Migrant women of Viet Nam claim social protection and rights
An estimated 40 – 50 per cent of migrants in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the two biggest cities in Viet Nam, are women, and they face distinct challenges. More than 10,000 migrant workers have learnt how to access social welfare benefits, legal protection, health care and more through a programme supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality.

Rural women carrying out agricultural production activities on allotments.  Photo courtesy of the Instituto para las Mujeres en la Migración.

Women migrant workers in Mexico organize for their rights
Training workshops organized by UN Women and partners brought together local organizations, migrant women and civil servants in Mexico to discuss ways to address migration, gender and development.

Refugees getting ready for the train in Gevgelija to travel to the border with Serbia, photo credit: Mirjana Nedeva

UN Women assesses the needs of women migrants and refugees in Serbia and fYR Macedonia
Despite gender-sensitive good practices, a UN Women assessment found that response-planning, services, protection capacity and information are not yet sufficient to meet the needs of migrant women and girls in Serbia and fYR Macedonia.

Blerta Aliko

Expert's take: Bringing light to the darkest places
Blerta Aliko, who leads UN Women’s Humanitarian unit, reflects on the current unending flurry of humanitarian disasters around the world.

Many of the civil society participants in the Women on the Move workshop were meeting for the first time. Photo: UN Women/John Bleho

Civil society advocates forge recommendations ahead of World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul
Ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit, UN Women and Oxfam brought together more than 50 refugee advocates from 15 countries in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa to formulate a joint position on how to respond to the challenges faced by refugee women and girls. Governments should ensure refugee women’s participation in decisions that affect them, said participants at the “Women on the Move” workshop.

An anonymous victim of trafficking in Moldova. Photo: UNDP in Moldova

Breaking the cycle of human trafficking in Albania
To support women and girl survivors of trafficking, UN Women in Albania has been supporting service-providers in shelters with capacity-building and salary subsidies. A national public awareness campaign against the trafficking of women and girls has been launched, and journalists have been trained to report more accurately and effectively on human trafficking.

A snapshot of UN Women’s work in response to the crisis in Syria
During the ongoing conflict in Syria, UN Women has been actively working to highlight the distinct needs of women and girls, including protection and resilience, and promote their role as meaningful participants in conflict-resolution, peacebuilding and eventual recovery and development.

Domestic workers rejoice after the results of a vote on the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers at the 100th Session of the International Labour Conference, in Geneva, on 16 June 2011. Photo credit: International Labour Organization

Domestic workers' rights treaty becomes reality
As the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 189 enters into force on 5 September 2013, hopes are high for the impact it will have on securing the rights and protection of domestic workers worldwide. According to ILO estimates, there are 53-100 million domestic workers worldwide, 83 per cent of whom are women.


Women Migrant Workers' Human Rights
UN Women’s series Transforming Our World presents succinct thematic documents with the aim of raising awareness on the importance of tackling inequality and on the legal framework that protects the rights of women as well as promote solutions to these issues from all areas of society.

Gender Assessment of the Refugee and Migration Crisis in Serbia and fYR Macedonia
This publication is a gender analysis of the response in fYR Macedonia and Serbia which looks at the main risks that women and girl refugees face; classifies the services available for women; determines which barriers exist to access services and information for women and recommends how gender issues can be mainstreamed in the national and international response. 

Filipino Women in International Migration: Situation Analysis, Policy Context and International Mechanisms
This publication aims to enhance the existing knowledge and resources on the current situation of the Filipino migrant workers with particular attention to the gender dimensions of migration. It includes accessible sex-disaggregated data and analysis of women migrants’ profiles.

The Effect of Gender Equality Programming on Humanitarian Outcomes
Based on evidence gathered directly from crisis-affected populations, “The Effect of Gender Equality Programming on Humanitarian Outcomes” study presents a compelling case that gender equality programming makes a positive contribution to improving humanitarian outcomes. The study also provides practical recommendations on the best means to integrate gender equality programming into future humanitarian interventions in ways that strengthen effectiveness and inclusiveness.

Gender, Remittances and Asset Accumulation in Ecuador and Ghana
This study constitutes a pioneering effort to measure whether women accumulate physical and financial assets as either remittance managers or migrants themselves. Based on household asset surveys in Ecuador and Ghana, the authors find that women have fared as well as men in their ability to acquire assets through remittances or savings earned abroad, but overall, a relatively small share of migrant households are able to accumulate assets, a finding requiring the attention of policymakers.

Women Migrant Workers in ASEAN
This Policy Brief takes a broader view of women’s labour migration in ASEAN and considers both the economic and non-economic contributions that they make. Recognising that women labour migrants face gender specific challenges and barriers, this Policy Brief provides recommendations to policy-makers on how to ensure the potential of women migrant workers is maximized to benefit the individual migrant, her family and her community while avoiding simplifying women migrant workers as tools of economic development.