Domestic violence in migrant and refugee communities

An interview with a member of a working group on refugees and migrants as victims of domestic violence in Münster, Germany

Refugees and people with a migration background have an increased risk of becoming victims of domestic violence. The loss of home and relatives, the lack of a sense of belonging as well as related mental stress, in addition to the abuse already experienced on the way to a new country, can lead to conflicts and aggression within the family. The different backgrounds and experiences of refugees and migrants as victims of domestic violence must be considered when offering help. Language barriers can prevent them from seeking help.

A participant of our IMPRODOVA student course on domestic violence at the medical faculty of Westfälische-Wilhelms University (Germany), who often works as translator in cases of DV, conducted an interview with a member of a working group specialized on refugees and migrants as victims of domestic violence. The interview describes how they come into contact with victims, what kind of support is offered, what challenges are present and the aims of the support given by them. This comprehensive support is based on the collaboration of many professions.

How do you come into contact with victims of domestic violence?

Clients, the majority are women, are referred to us e.g. by women's shelters or social services and we advise them on legal matters (e.g. What will happen regarding my asylum application? How does this affect my residence permit?) or we offer them psychosocial support. Particularly in the context of psychosocial support, a confidential relationship with the clients is being established that facilitate e.g. to identify trauma sequelae as a result of experienced domestic violence.

What support do you offer to refugee women?

The non-profit organisation "Society for the Support of Asylum Seekers e.V." (Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft zur Unterstützung Asylsuchender e.V. (GGUA)), as well as Refugio as part of the GGUA and the Workers' Welfare Association (AWO) have been offering low-threshold services as prevention measures for several years, which provides socially isolated women with the opportunity to network. This includes, for example, the "Chat Cafe", which takes place once a month and is a meeting place for women with and without a migration background, who can exchange ideas, practise the language or do something together. Through a special women's group offered by Refugio, participants meet - with therapeutic or pedagogical support - to talk together about how to get out of isolation and make contacts, or how to deal with stress and psychological strain in a better way. Some refugee women live very isolated lives, have hardly any contact even with (same-language) people in the accommodation and suffer from loneliness. Therefore, we also offer so-called pleasure training, i.e. positive experiences or experiences that benefit the women. In this way, these low-threshold opportunities are also a potential door opener for victims of domestic violence and to establish a first contact with the outside world. They get to know their environment and their possibilities.

How much does the language barrier complicate your work?

Among isolated refugee women, the language problem is exacerbated. Support services are often hardly known because of the language barrier. The women's counselling centres in Münster have tackled this by use of multilingual flyers and many low-threshold opportunities (e.g. sports courses, networking opportunities) that are unknown. We work with trained language and cultural mediators or design our services in various languages so that participation is possible even with little knowledge of German.

Do you have any idea why refugee victims of domestic violence do not seek support?

Because many services have a too high threshold and victims are put off by that. The language barrier certainly also plays a role. You have to build bridges via offering low-threshold services and create positive experiences to help them out of isolation. In addition, a professional help system with counselling centres and women's shelters is unknown to many women - they often do not even know that these possibilities exist. Many other factors also play a role in making it difficult to communicate about difficult issues. For example, the shame of those affected or living in a community, where talking about domestic violence is a taboo, plays a major role. The refugees are often not integrated into structures that could support them and often they are put under pressure by their own family. This means that not only the violent partner, but also the family exerts a lot of pressure on victims – divorce and separation are often a social taboo. I believe that another factor is the gender role in the family. Often the women are responsible for childcare, while the partners e.g. attend a German language course. This often consolidates existing power structures. Many clients describe their worries about their residence status and their future in Germany as a factor why they stay with their perpetrator.

What are your tasks?

One task is to create a place where problems can be discussed – if needed with the help of a language mediator. We try to assess whether it is an acute high-risk situation or whether the person has a trauma disorder and can adapt the appropriate actions accordingly. In the case of an acute high-risk situation, we refer them to the police, social services, or women's shelters. In the case of trauma sequelae resulting from an experience with violence, either outpatient therapy places are arranged or they are connected to psychosocial counselling, psychotherapy or our low-threshold group offers at Refugio. If the need for action is of legal nature and the person has questions regarding the asylum procedure, we contact the foreigner´s authority, the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) or lawyers and include them in our social counselling.

And how exactly do you facilitate these low-threshold offers?

First and foremost, it is my task to create (secondary) preventive empowerment offers. These offers are tailored to women who have been, are currently or could be affected by domestic violence. The empowerment offers include, among other things, possibilities to get out of isolation, to get information about help services or to learn to perceive and set one's own limits. Some clients often have no way of setting limits and let a lot of things happen to them. It is always difficult to find a way out of the cycle of violence. Basic information, such as the telephone number of the police, is also provided.

You are a member of the municipal working group specifically for refugee victims of domestic violence. Can you tell us something more about it?

The members in this working group come from different sectors, such as women's counselling centres, women's shelters, social services, police and forensic medicine. The working group is organised by the Equal Opportunities Office and was founded by the working groups "Protection against Violence" and "Against Violence against Women and Girls". We participate in the three working groups with different colleagues, because our team wants to be represented in all groups. The working groups mainly discuss structural difficulties, analyse needs and initiate new offers. For example, we organised a dance programme with the women's sports club as a low-threshold programme, which unfortunately had to be interrupted due to COVID-19. In addition, due to close networking, there is also an exchange at the level of individual cases; we have common clients whom we support with different expertise.

What are organisational challenges when cooperating in cases of domestic violence?

Cooperation can then become difficult when there are not enough free places in the women's shelters for acute cases available. Here, we quickly reach the point that victims of domestic violence cannot be referred. If the victims are accommodated, the cooperation works very well. In order to mitigate the problems associated with a too low number of women's shelters, the refugee social service has set up a shelter that quickly helps victims of domestic violence to get out of the acute situation and offers them a place to stay overnight. The concept is similar to a shelter, with the hallway monitored by security. However, this is only a short-term solution. Another problem is getting reimbursement for language mediation in cases of outpatient psychotherapy, which could take a lot of time depending on the service provider. In Münster, a health card was introduced following the Bremen model, which was a good step. This way, visits to the doctor are possible without further issues and bills will be paid directly by the health insurance company. In other cities and around Münster, a health card has to be collected from the social welfare office and the caseworkers there decide whether there is a need for treatment. This is a big hurdle, because a person not familiar with the situation of the clients has to decide on the need for treatment and on financial compensation.

What are your experiences at work so far?

Our cooperation with the women's counselling centres and the women's shelters is much more routine now. Everyone knows the strengths of the respective actors. Overall, working together has become much more "normal" for us. The cooperation with the psychotherapists, who still had some questions and concerns (e.g. regarding therapy with an interpreter or clients who have just come from another country), is also more routine.

Due to the multiple discrimination that some refugees have experienced, but also due to the nature of the traumatic events, such as discrimination or forced prostitution, the topics seem very daunting and overwhelming for some professionals. However, one must not forget that these people have a lot of resources and are very resilient. Accordingly, not only problem-oriented but also resource-oriented work is very important.

What are your aims?

Our goals are multifaceted and are primarily oriented towards empowering and supporting the refugees to know and assert their own rights. We support them in legal matters and try to secure their residence in Germany. However, it is also important for us to exert political influence on the structures and to raise awareness about the specific needs of our target group so that, for example, the EU Reception Directive is implemented. In this way, we can all act in favour of the victims in cases of domestic violence against refugees.

2021-02-18 by M.A. Paulina Juszczyk and Prof. Dr. Dr. Bettina Pfleiderer, Research Group Cognition & Gender, Medical Faculty, University of Münster ((WWU), Germany) and IMPRODOVA partner