Migrant Women and Domestic Abuse: A Growing Concern

I think it is safe to say that the majority of people are aware of the presence of domestic abuse in society. It is an ongoing societal problem that knows no borders or class. Domestic abuse seems to differentiate from other societal problems. People tend to adopt a “that’s not my business” stance. Perhaps you are aware of someone being victimised by domestic abuse, but feel it is not your place to say anything. Regardless of whether you know or not, it’s happening anyway.

It can happen to anyone, male or female. However, this article focuses on a specific demographic where it appears to be prevalent – migrant women. What makes migrant women more susceptible to domestic abuse and violence?

What’s the issue?

Domestic violence and abuse amongst migrant women is a growing public health concern. The problem is not limited to any one country, rather it adopts a more global scope.

Findings from a survey carried out in Australia, made up of 1,400 migrant and refugee women, found that a third of them experience domestic abuse or family violence. Temporary visa holders reported proportionately higher levels of domestic and family violence, as well as coercive behaviour. The same group reported higher migration-related abuse (deportation and children separation).

A cross-sectional study was conducted in Spain, involving 10,202 migrant and native women attending primary care centres. The results found that Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) was prevalent amongst 28% of the migrant women, compared to 14% of the Spanish women.

The number of domestic violence cases experienced by migrant women in Ireland has increased by 12% in 2021, compared to 2020. Pre Covid, one in five calls made to the Women’s Aids one-to-one support service were migrants. In 2014, Safe Ireland conducted a snapshot survey which found that they responded to women from 44 countries, outside of Ireland, in one day.

This year, the Irish Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, published a report from the Independent Anti Racism Committee. This report found that minority women face “extra and therefore the discriminatory burden of additional barriers” in accessing support services.

A study conducted in Western Canada investigated migrant women seeking counselling services from a community NGO. The findings showed that 41% of the 1,763 women who sought services from the counsellor were experiencing domestic violence. Separated and divorced women and women on visitor/temporary visas showed the highest risk.

Levels of IPV prevalence differ by country and characteristics of migrant statuses, such as country of origin, administrative status, and length of stay in the host country.

What makes migrant women different?

There are endless amounts of varying circumstances for each case of domestic abuse. So, what makes the issue so prevalent amongst migrant women? 

Domestic Violence happens across all social groups, however, migrant women find themselves in a more vulnerable position. Additional disadvantages include language barriers, cultural norms, the likelihood of financial dependence, and precarious immigration status. These women lack the societal or familial support they may have been accustomed to in their home countries. Furthermore, they can lack fundamental knowledge on how health and justice systems operate in their current country.

This would also explain why migrant women have difficulty when seeking appropriate aid services. Unfortunately, these are not the only barriers that restrict them. Migrant women represent the vast majority of people on spousal dependent visas. Thus, immigration status is dependent on their spouse. Understandably, leaving an abusive relationship in that instance (where your livelihood is on the line) is extremely difficult, maybe even impossible.

For women living in Direct Provision centres, the situation seems to be more complicated. The lack of information on available support and the language barrier act as credible obstacles to seeking help. However, these hurdles are dwarfed by the much bigger consequence of their asylum being affected.

Governments could be doing more to help. For example, in the UK, a hostile environment has been created for women due to the national immigration policy. This policy has been in operation since 2012. The UK government supports the police reporting victims and witnesses of crime to the Home Office, with an underlying goal of reaching deportation targets. Following the inception of this policy, the number of women who have been deported following reports of domestic abuse rose from 12% to 30%.

I am not forgetting about the cowardly side to domestic abuse, the abuser. It is common for abusive partners to threaten their spouse/partner with deportation if they voice their hardship. The term domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily imply physical violence. Abusers can also inflict emotional abuse, like separating the victim from family or friends, or financial abuse whereby the victim’s access to money is restricted.

Hearing their experiences

When researching the Immigrant Council of Ireland’s webpage, there were a number of stories put forward by migrant women living in Ireland.

One woman came to Ireland nine years ago, and subsequently married her childhood friend. This woman had arrived in Ireland with no visa hence, no legal status. Over time, her husband began having an extramarital affair. Once she decided to leave her spouse, he threatened her with deportation, whilst her children would remain in Ireland. She described herself as a stay-at-home mom, in a foreign country, with little understanding of how the Irish system works.

Another woman, living in Direct Provision, was experiencing emotional violence from her husband. She wasn’t allowed to have friends and he made her stay in their room. His behaviour elevated to violence on occasion. She explained how difficult it was to seek help whilst in Direct Provision. It was only after she left the centre that she came in contact with the appropriate services.

This last woman volunteered in, and was a member of, the Mongolian community here in Ireland. She detailed the lack of information on widely available services in minority languages. “This language barrier is preventing many vulnerable people and especially victims of domestic violence from accessing the urgent help and support they need.” Consequently, she has created a blog to advise migrants on organisations that are willing to help, even for undocumented migrants.

These are but a few cases in Ireland. The fact is, this is happening anywhere migrants are situated. For these stories in full, plus more, visit here.

What’s being done about it?

The charity, Women’s Aid, admitted there are difficulties in reaching migrant women, but serious efforts are being made to change this. They now offer services in more than 170 languages, to ensure all backgrounds can avail of their help.

Current policy in Ireland allows for migrant women in abusive relationships to apply for legal resident status. If your immigration status is linked to that of an abusive partner, parent, or child, you can apply for independent status as a victim of domestic violence.

The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) is the first instrument in Europe to set legally binding standards in this area. Specifically, to prevent gender-based violence, protect victims, and punish perpetrators. This instrument is one of the priorities of the EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025. You can find out more about this here.

Women Support Services

If you, or someone you know, are a victim of domestic abuse, here are a few numbers you can contact.

Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900

The Women’s Aid National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900 operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and provides support and information to callers experiencing abuse from intimate partners.

The Women’s Aid Helpline is the only free, national, domestic violence helpline with specialised trained staff, fully accredited by The Helplines Association 

Immigration Council of Ireland: 01 674-0200

The Immigrant Council of Ireland is a human rights organisation and Independent Law Centre. They support and advocate for the rights of immigrants and their families and act as a catalyst for public debate, legal and policy change.

Safe Ireland: 1800 341 900

Safe Ireland strives towards ensuring domestic violence has no place in Irish society. They want to drive a movement for social change that impacts on communities for generations to come.

Policies around this issue, like the one in operation in Ireland, provide women with a way out of these relationships. However, is that enough? Should these women have to wait until they are in an abusive or violent relationship before their rights to an independent legal status are recognised? Granted, any issue regarding visas and legal status is riddled with complexities. Change should start at the grassroots by making services to migrant women and those in Direct Provision better signposted and more accessible. Then we can get a better understanding of this under researched area.

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Ronan Kirby

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