The Victims' Bill and forced migrant survivors of sexual and gender-based violence

Executive summary

Globally the scale of forced migration and governance has doubled in the last decade while becoming increasingly feminised. Current trends will intensify with the conflict in Ukraine and situation in Afghanistan.

Every year millions of women, children and LGBTQI forced migrants are subject to SGBV in conflict, in flight and in refuge. The Victims’ Bill is landmark step in ensuring all victims of crime, including forced migrants, receive the support they need through the criminal justice system.

  • The Bill should ensure all victims receive the support and treatment they need, regardless of immigration status and where the victimisation took place.
  • University of Birmingham research shows that forced migrant victims of SGBV face further abuse and trauma once in the UK and are let down by our justice and asylum systems.
  • Harm could be prevented or mitigated through improved trauma awareness, gender sensitivity and survivor-centred service delivery among professionals working with forced migrant victims.

Policy recommendations

The Victims’ Bill offers a real opportunity for measures to address the victimisation and trauma of forced migrants.
Whilst the proposed Bill is very much welcomed, University of Birmingham research has generated evidence which indicates how the Bill has the potential to ensure all victims receive the treatment and services needed and have a clear path for justice. These include:

  • Ensuring ‘all victims’ means everyone regardless of immigration status and where the victimisation took place (whether in the UK or overseas).
  • Access to the justice system should be safe for everyone, victims should not face fear of arrest or detention for immigration offences when reporting SGBV.
  • Information about what constitutes violence and victimisation, rights and entitlements, and how to seek safety and access justice should be effectively communicated to all forced migrants and associated spousal migrants immediately on arrival to the UK or during visa application processes.
  • Criminal justice agencies should ensure that interpreters are matched to victims by gender and language.
  • Grassroots and specialist migrant organisations should be involved in consultations about services and pathways to justice.
  • Further funding should be provided to specialist forced migrant services so they can provide expert help capable of addressing the accumulative traumas associated with long-term and multi-perpetrator victimisation and work with mainstream organisations to build their capacity to work with forced migrants.
  • Asylum interviews and accommodation should be trauma and gender-sensitive, with caseworkers trained on how to interview victims in ways that do no harm and ensuring victims are placed in single gender accommodation.
  • The criminal justice and asylum systems should develop approaches to share evidence about victimisation; reducing the need for victims to repeatedly recount abuse which increases risks of re-traumatisation.

Professor Jenny Phillimore has outlined these recommendations in full through the formal consultation process for the Victims’ Bill.

About the Research

Over the past four years, the international Sexual and Gender Based Violence against Refugees from Displacement to Arrival (SEREDA) research team led by Professor Phillimore, has conducted extensive research to understand the nature and incidence of SGBV experienced by refugees who have fled conflict to seek safety in the UK.

The research identified how forced migrants faced multiple incidence of SGBV over time and place and at the hands of different perpetrators. However, once in the UK, many SGBV survivors continued to experience violence and/or were placed at risk of further abuse or trauma by immigration and asylum policies.

Following extensive interviews undertaken between 2018-2022 with over 80 forced migrant SGBV survivors, and 50 service providers working with survivors, we identify:

  • Traumatic asylum processes - Gender insensitive and sometimes very lengthy asylum interviews by male caseworkers with male interpreters prevented women survivors disclosing SGBV experiences or re-traumatised forced migrants who disclosed SGBV. Post-interview support was not provided for forced migrants in distress.
  • Unstable and risky housing - Many women were placed in mixed gender housing and described bathrooms and bedrooms without locks, abusive staff who walked in unannounced and sexual harassment. Respondents were also exposed to racist abuse and homophobia in dispersal neighbourhoods and housing.
  • Encouraging violent dependency - Forced migrant women who joined husbands with refugee status on a spousal visa are dependent on remaining in their relationship to stay in the UK. They lived with the threat of deportation, and then honour based violence on return, if the marriage broke down. Having no recourse to public funds made them financially dependent on abusers. women endured sometimes extreme levels of abuse believing they would be detained and their children taken away. They were not aware of the Domestic Violence Rule and struggled to access help after escaping abuse.
  • Health impacts of SGBV - The combined effects of years of violence and the interactions between SGBV and immigration and asylum systems generated high levels of trauma resulting in physical and psychological harms. Respondents talked about injuries and sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies sustained during their journeys. Long waits (often over a decade) for an outcome to their asylum claim intensified psychological problems with suicide ideation, depression, sleep and eating disorders commonplace.
  • Healthcare - Although some respondents accessed health and psychological treatments they needed, through either GPs or civil society organisations, the majority received no support. Many were too fearful to seek medical help or report violent incidents to the police in fear of being deported, while others suggested that professionals lacked knowledge of lived experiences of forced migrant survivors and the barriers they faced accessing services such as frequent changes of address, language barriers and having No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). Clinicians’ lack of experience and time to help survivors disclose SGBV experiences meant that both physical and psychological conditions went untreated.

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