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Frightened woman ;

Living in fear during the COVID-19 crisis: migrant women with insecure immigration status and domestic violence

Cathy McIlwaine

Professor of Development Geography, King's College London

09 April 2020

While some have heralded the turbulence created by COVID-19 as an opportunity to carve out more equal and transformative gender relations, others have suggested that it will exacerbate existing gender inequalities. Migrant women facing gender-based violence and insecure immigration status, in particular, fall under the latter – unless urgent action is taken.

With a reported 25% increase in calls and online requests for help since lockdown started, it is now acknowledged that social distancing and self-isolation measures can have severe and deadly ramifications for women in abusive relationships.

Yet what about minority women and/or those living with precarious immigration status? The structural violence and institutional racism they already experienced prior to the COVID-19 crisis has arguably become more entrenched.

Why are migrant women especially vulnerable during a pandemic?

My collaborative research has shown that women with insecure immigration status already live in a state of perpetual fear. They fear for their lives and their well-being at the hands of abusive partners, but also the police, social services and other statutory services – and they are afraid that no one will ever believe them.

This research, published last year as part of the Step Up Migrant Women Campaign in partnership with the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), included women survivors of gender-based violence from 22 different countries.

Top findings include:

  • One in four women were too scared to report violence because they thought that they would be deported.
  • Two-thirds of women said their perpetrator had threatened deportation if they reported the abuse – their abusive partners invariably manipulate this fear to commit further psychological violence and coercive control.
  • Over half the women thought the police would not believe their experiences, with half also believing the police would support their perpetrator over them.
  • Over three-quarters of the women had experienced psychological violence in the home at the hands of an intimate partner. Such psychological violence was found to be a precursor to the physical violence experienced by two-thirds of the women.


It started with cursing and everything, and later it escalated to – I think the last time, he hit me. And I was with the baby, and he doesn’t care … I was traumatised.– Aretta,40, from Nigeria

All of this provides an incendiary situation during the current lockdown, when tensions rise and escape proves impossible.

The call to action so far

On 29 March, specific guidance on Coronavirus (COVID-19): Support for victims of domestic abuse was published and Home Secretary, Priti Patel, confirmed that women can leave violent households to go to a refuge during the lockdown.

Yet, refuges and specialist services have been savaged by austerity cuts. This means, in reality, there is nowhere for women to go when they do leave violent homes during lockdown. And although many services for women survivors have moved online, this does not suffice.

Half of the women in our research cited women’s organisations as the most important place to report Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) after the police.

Specialist services are especially important for migrant women who need support in their own languages and culture.

When the women come to us, they disowned their family or were disowned by them; they’re disowned by the community. We end up being their family and their community. This is the only place they know that will accept them, not judge them, and they’re able to fulfil, to learn what their rights are here, and they’ll be given a voice.– Anonymous service provider

Last week, the Latin American Women’s Rights Service and Amnesty International wrote an open letter urging the Government to recognise the specific challenges facing migrant women with insecure immigration status. 

They called to:

  • stop data sharing among statutory services
  • end all NHS charges
  • abolish the ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ (NRPF) condition that prevents many migrant women from accessing support
  • provide additional funding for specialist organisations, including refuges

They also called for the forthcoming Domestic Abuse Bill to highlight the plight of migrant women to ensure that they are protected.

This was followed up by another letter to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to protect migrant women with NRPF – requesting an emergency fund to Local Authorities to ensure they are able to house survivors of domestic abuse in hotels or other appropriate locations.

Now, Women’s Aid has appealed to the Prime Minister to develop an urgent strategy to protect women and girls from abuse, including ensuring equal protection for migrant survivors.

What will happen next?

If these calls are not heeded, many women will die or face life-changing injuries – not just from COVID-19 but from gender-based violence.

The current pandemic is not the cause of Violence Against Women and Girls, yet it brings into focus the enduring inequalities and fears faced by migrant women. It also shows how the prior decimation of the specialist women’s sector funding, especially for refuges, has meant that deaths from domestic abuse will be another legacy of COVID-19.


In this story

Cathy McIlwaine

Cathy McIlwaine

Vice Dean (Research), Faculty of Social Sciences and Public Policy

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