Emerging voices: Family violence in immigrant and refugee communities

Emerging voices: Family violence in immigrant and refugee communities

A woman with limited English seeks help at a family violence service. She tells the interpreter about the punches, the social isolation, how she must beg her husband for money. The interpreter doesn’t translate her words correctly. Instead he says to her: “You bring shame on our community. I will tell your family you were here.” She goes home, despairing.

Another woman is on a temporary visa. She can’t work or attend English classes and finds herself totally dependent on her husband. When he gets angry – which is often – he takes it out on her: hiding her paperwork, threatening her with deportation and separation from their children.

Stories like these have come out of the two-year ASPIRE (Analysing Safety and Place in Immigrant and Refugee Experience) project, a joint effort by researchers from the University of Melbourne, the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health and the University of Tasmania.

‘Inescapable Loneliness’ by Ruby, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.
‘Inescapable Loneliness’ by Ruby, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.

Aided by 20 bilingual, bicultural health educators, the research team held in-depth interviews with 46 immigrant and refugee women with experience of family violence. The women came from 20 different countries, including established communities (such as the Vietnamese and Greek communities) and more recently arrived communities (such as the Karen and Sudanese communities).

The researchers also interviewed 57 professionals from family violence, settlement, multicultural, interpreting, and law and justice sectors; and held 26 focus group discussions with 223 men and women from a range of cultural communities.

Several women also took part in a Photovoice project – a research method that enables participants to share their experiences, perspectives and priorities through photography.

“This is the largest study that has been done on family violence with immigrant and refugee communities to date in Australia,” says University of Melbourne gender and health researcher Dr Cathy Vaughan, from the Centre for Health Equity.

“Because we worked with diverse communities including immigrants, refugees, international students, temporary migrants and people seeking asylum, we have been able to identify common experiences in relation to family violence as well as particular issues faced by different groups.”


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Like non-immigrant Australian women, the women participating in the ASPIRE project reported forms of violence and control from perpetrators including physical, sexual, emotional and psychological violence; violence related to pregnancy; reproductive coercion; financial abuse; and controlling behaviours.

They also reported immigration-related violence or coercion including having passports and other documentation withheld and threats of deportation and visa cancellation.

“Some women also spoke of violence perpetrated by members of the extended family and threats made against family living overseas. They also reported extensive financial abuse and threats associated with money and assets, particularly when marriage was associated with complex financial arrangements between two extended families,” says Dr Vaughan.

“Visa restrictions on women’s ability to work, study and no access to Centrelink or Medicare make them completely dependent on their partner and make it very difficult for many women to leave.”

Often migration led to many women feeling socially isolated. Many were settled in regional or rural centres, did not speak English or drive and had restricted access to education or employment. Perpetrators of family violence further manipulated these circumstances by preventing women from socialising, learning English and accessing support services or information, the study showed.

‘3am’ by Kelly, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.
‘3am’ by Kelly, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.

“Challenges with communication and accessing information came up again and again in interviews. While this was a particular concern for women who were not fluent in English, many English-speaking women also found it hard to access information about their rights and navigate the complex family violence response system. Some women were quite anxious about interacting with authorities, worrying that this might have adverse consequences for their residency and that of their children,” says Dr Vaughan.

During the research, Dr Vaughan says, the team discovered the cultural backgrounds of abusers varied. In some cases, the perpetrators of violence were Anglo-Australians.

“These men entice women here with false promises and then expect what is essentially domestic servitude. Some women end up victims of extreme physical and sexual violence as well, they are essentially brought out here as slaves.

“Parliament has attempted to pass legislation to prevent Australian men who have been convicted of family violence from sponsoring a partner to come to Australia, but even if it is passed, given the under-reporting of family violence, there will still be women who come out on partner visas who are at risk.”


Several women and many service providers reported problems communicating through interpreters, with inaccurate interpreting reported in a range of settings, including in courts. There were also examples of interpreters sharing confidential information with women’s families and communities.

“The interpreters we interviewed said that they had not had any training in relation to family violence and received no debriefing or counselling support. In some cases, listening to a client’s trauma could trigger re-traumatisation in interpreters from refugee backgrounds,” says Dr Vaughan.

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Family violence services in general are under immense pressure, but the research team found that meeting the specific needs of immigrant and refugee women was particularly under resourced. Professional staff reported high costs associated with assisting immigrant women and their children who had no income and who required assistance for legal, immigration and protection matters.

Dr Vaughan says the research revealed many of the strengths of the family violence and settlement sectors but also found significant communication, policy and practice gaps between the two.

Many professional staff identified that non-collaboration is symptomatic of the pressured high demand and under-resourced service environment where they do not have the time to fit in the extra work required to build relationships or manage gaps between services.

Some women reported a distrust of family violence services. Because services are so under-resourced, staff prioritise women who are on the verge of leaving their partners because this is typically the most dangerous time for them. But Dr Vaughan says many immigrant women don’t want to leave, they just want the violence to stop. She says these women still need access to support and should be respected if they choose not to leave.

‘Gossip’ by Paw Htoo Lei, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.
‘Gossip’ by Paw Htoo Lei, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.

Attitudes to police were also mixed. Some women had positive experiences while many reported feeling dismissed, disbelieved, blamed and discriminated against by police officers. Perspectives on pro-arrest and pro-prosecution justice responses varied, with some women expressing relief when police took immediate action while others were overwhelmed by the rapid response, especially if they had previously encountered inaction by police.

“Despite these challenges, many professional staff expressed a strong commitment to developing their ability to meet the needs of immigrant and refugee women and working collaboratively with other services,” says Dr Vaughan.


Findings from the two-year study will be disseminated to communities, service providers and policy-makers, providing evidence to inform culturally-appropriate prevention and support interventions, and building local communities’ awareness and capacity to respond to violence against immigrant and refugee women.

Co-researcher Dr Adele Murdolo, Executive Director at the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health, hopes the findings will prompt community services and state and federal governments to act decisively.

“It will take a generation to eliminate violence against women so we need to start making a concerted effort now, and not just continue to rely on little pools of ad-hoc funding for time-limited and uncoordinated projects,” says Dr Murdolo.

“We need long-term, sustainable prevention of violence against women programs, ensuring that universal prevention programs are inclusive and appropriate for a broad diversity of Australians and that meaningful, specialist programs are conducted with immigrant and refugee communities.”

The ASPIRE project (formally titled ‘Promoting community-led responses to violence against immigrant and refugee women in metropolitan and regional Australia’) was funded by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and was a collaboration between the University of Melbourne, the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health and the University of Tasmania. The research team includes Dr Cathy Vaughan, Associate Professor Deb Warr, Dr Karen Block and Ms Erin Davis from the Centre for Health Equity (University of Melbourne); Dr Adele Murdolo, Dr Regina Quiazon and Dr Jasmin Chen (Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health); and Dr Linda Murray (University of Tasmania) as well as 20 bilingual, bicultural workers.

An exhibition of the PhotoVoice photographs will be displayed at the Victorian launch of the ASPIRE project on Friday 9 December at the Melbourne Town Hall.

Banner Image: ‘Sadness Behind Closed Doors (Home), by Reeta Verma, as part of the ASPIRE Photovoice project.

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Ruth Hentschel