20th May 2020

During the COVID-19 crisis, Refugee Women Connect have witnessed a marked increase in suffering and hardship among our service users.  Asylum-seeking and refugee women constitute a population with multiple intersecting experiences that can create challenges in accessing services, justice and safety in a hostile system. Survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) are particularly vulnerable to these risks.

In recognition of this, Refugee Women Connect has partnered with the SEREDA Project from the University of Birmingham to research the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on forced migrant survivors of SGBV. The aim of the research was to understand how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted the lives of survivors and the services set up to  support them.

The research was conducted across 5 countries through interviews with 52 survivors and 45 organisations. A combination of methods including short telephone interviews, communication via emails and WhatsApp messages were used to allow survivors to choose which platform they felt most comfortable being interviewed on. Service providers ranged from international, national to local non-governmental organisations, public institutions and private service providers working with forced migrants. Respondents included NGO directors, migration and protection programme managers, SGBV personnel, psychologists, doctors and social workers. Refugee Women Connect’s Women’s Advocacy Group was involved in the research with members participating in interviews to explain how the crisis continues to affect their lives.

'You know when you already have a problem and another comes on top, it makes the problem bigger - like when it's just one problem, but if you already have all those underlying things carrying this and that trauma, layers and layers of different things'
- West African woman, UK

Our research shows that forced migrant survivors of SGBV in the UK are experiencing greater risk and a reduction in their safety through severe economic hardship, highly limited entitlements to public funds and a reluctance to approach health services. In particular survivors reported that having a No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) condition imposed exacerbated physical and mental health problems as clients had a higher risk of destitution and could not access emergency accommodation. Job losses have created situations whereby survivors are reliant on others for food provision or cash payments. Survivors also reported high levels of digital poverty due to economic hardship.  Unable to pay for phone credit or data, many were excluded from accessing virtual support groups, specialist counselling, health information or were simply unable to call for help . Survivors also reported that pandemic restrictions trigger intrusive thoughts of past trauma such as confinement or extreme social isolation.

'I feel that as if I were inside a jail because of Corona…As if I were tied with a chain. I can no more recognise myself! I feel exhausted…I hate my life…we can no more think or work for our future'
- East African woman, Tunisia

Organisations working with survivors reported that pandemic restrictions have necessitated alternative ways of working including virtual groups, arranging helplines and fundraising and developing new models for identifying funds.

'Unfortunately, the rights of forced migrants are often the last to be considered, and in the UK the response is as we would have expected - and in keeping with hostile environment policies.  Simple systemic changes will alleviate suffering and potentially save lives'
- Pip McKnight, Head of Policy and Advocacy

Refugee Women Connect, alongside SEREDA partners at University of Birmingham, call for the UK Government to take immediate action to:

1. Ensure forced migrant survivors of SGBV have all the necessary resources required to stay safe and meet their basic needs

  • Include increasing asylum support payments by £20 per week in line with universal credit to meet the demands of: 1) rising food prices and cleaning products; 2) access to cash and online shopping for those using Aspen cards; 3) increased reliance on digital access or phone credit to access support services, receive important health information, home-school children or call for help;
  • Recognise that data or Wi-Fi access is a necessity and urgently ensure Wi-Fi is available in all asylum accommodation.

2. Revoke NRPF conditions for forced migrant survivors of violence in need of protection regardless of their immigration status

  • Provide social protection by giving access to social welfare and domestic violence refuges to enable survivors to seek safety when required.

3. Cease the required reporting of immigration status in healthcare and other public services

  • Create an immediate ‘firewall’ between immigration control and public support services to reduce the public health and personal risks caused by this policy during the C19 pandemic.

4. Prioritise access to services and safety for survivors regardless of their immigration status by increasing funds for NGOs

  • Additional resources need to be made available to ensure access to services for forced migrant survivors of SGBV;
  • Ensure appropriate and accessible mental health and human trafficking support services are prioritised
  • Establish safe reporting mechanisms responsive to the structural inequalities specific to forced migrants, including the multi-occupancy asylum housing and digital poverty.