UK’s women’s refuges turn away victims who speak no English

Hannah Summers
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Islandstock/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Islandstock/Alamy

Women’s charities have raised concerns that victims of domestic violence are being refused places at refuges, even when there is capacity, because they do not speak English.

Those turned away include a mother with a 14-month-old baby who was fleeing violence after being held as a slave by her ex-husband.

Karma Nirvana, which supports those at risk from forced marriage and “honour”-based violence, said the issue had been exacerbated during lockdown. During that period, there was an increased demand for refuge places and a dearth of interpreters across the public sector.

Of 20 women the charity could not find a refuge for during lockdown, it said five were turned down by six separate refuges for not speaking English.

Related: ‘I live in fear of the unknown’: life in a refuge under lockdown

They included a woman who came to the UK three years ago and was held in domestic servitude by her violent husband and his family. She said they forced her to cook and clean and never gave her money, even when she was pregnant and needed essential items after the birth. “They even kept money I was given as a gift. There was a lot of emotional and physical abuse and they threatened to take my child away,” she said, adding: “I felt trapped and I used to cry a lot.”

After she fled with her baby, Karma Nirvana contacted several refuges, including some that had capacity and promoted spaces for victims unable to speak English. But they all refused the mother a place. Eventually the police were contacted and she was put up in a hotel until a suitable refuge was found.

Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana’s executive director, said: “We’ve had cases where we’ve had to advocate to the ends of the earth for someone’s safety because of a language barrier, despite there being a place available. We are talking about women whose lives are at risk. It is mainly migrant women who are suffering, and it is discrimination.”

Rattu said the issue was part of wider inequalities facing black, Asian and minority ethnic women and that funding should be ringfenced to improve service provision for these communities.

Language should not be a barrier to safety but this is a problem and it’s completely unacceptable.

Diana Nammi, IKWRO founder

She said: “We have real issues coming out of lockdown around resources and funding. When we talk about Black Lives Matter and equality it should be an opportunity to ramp this up the agenda.”

IKWRO’s Women’s Rights Organisation, which supports Middle Eastern and Afghan women and girls, set up its own refuge in 2015, partly in response to the language barriers faced by its clients.

Its founder, Diana Nammi, explained: “We only have eight beds so we have to refer women elsewhere. Language should not be a barrier to safety but this is a problem and it’s completely unacceptable.

“At the moment we are providing language support for four clients in other refuges because it was the only way we could get them in.”

Lucy Hadley, campaign and policy manager at Women’s Aid – which has more than 170 members that run 213 refuge services in England – said the situation was really concerning.

“There has been a shift in recent years to competitive tendering practises in local authorities which don’t always value quality over cost. This means in some cases there are organisations without specialist expertise running some refuges.

Pathway Project, which runs two refuges in Staffordshire, was among providers that had turned women away because they could not speak English. It said years of budget cuts made it harder than ever to provide translation services.

Its CEO, Hayley Baxter, said: “It is extremely sad that, in 2020, organisations are still having to make the decision to turn migrant women away, not because of lack of space, but because they can’t be offered the service that they need, and deserve.

Related: Refuges from domestic violence running out of space, MPs hear

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it was completely unacceptable for refuges to turn women away because of a language barrier.

They said: “Since 2014, we’ve invested £80m in safe accommodation services to support victims of domestic abuse, and announced a £28m package to help survivors during the pandemic, including a £10m emergency support fund for charities providing refuge.”