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Food for Thought – International Anti-Corruption Day, 9 December 2018

Men pay with money – women with their bodies: experiences of corruption during migration

by Dr. Ortrun Merkle

This International Anti-corruption Day, December 9 2018, let’s shine a light on something that has not received much attention among policy makers or academics to date: The question how corruption impacts irregular migrants throughout their journey.

Research conducted with my colleagues at UNU-Merit/Maastricht Graduate School of Governance has shown clearly that for many, men and women alike, corruption is a constant throughout their migration. Yet, the experiences are highly gendered especially considering the form of corruption individuals face.

Most migrants report that they have to bribe at many different points in their journey, from the home country to the destination. Corruption here can facilitate migration – by bribing officials, individuals can get papers they need and might not get otherwise or cross borders they do not the documents for. At the same time corruption can hinder migration because they increase the cost of migration so significantly that people cannot afford to move.

Once irregular migrants left the country, of origin, with or without corruption, our study showed that they all frequently face corruption. One simple explanation is that corruption is needed to make up for a lack of networks that could have been used to get many things, e.g. information, in the home country. However ,while all migrants reported corrupt encounters, especially at border crossings, there is a significant difference in the forms of corruption they encounter.

Men frequently have to pay for bribes with money or goods, which corresponds to our classic understanding of corruption. Women, on the other hand, face a very different form of payment: sexual acts. They face ‘sextortion’, defined as the ‘abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit or advantage’ (International Association of Women Judges). A woman’s body here often not only pays for herself but frequently is also used to pay for a whole group. For example, middlemen such as smugglers and traffickers make sure to have women in the convoy to be able to ‘pay off’ the border guards. Women are especially vulnerable to this atypical form of corruption because of gender norms in the home and transit country. For one, women who travel alone, unlike men, often travel against the will of their family and therefore lack financial and emotional support. Additionally, perpetrators often expect that men still have some social networks that might take revenge for harsh treatment throughout the journey, while women are considered easier targets.

Overall, corruption experiences during migration have received very little attention from policy makers and academics – however, as our exploratory research showed, migration for all is full of corrupt experiences and we need to understand better what migrants experience to adapt humanitarian responses accordingly.