Research from the University of Birmingham has revealed that many undocumented migrants were anxious about seeking medical help – fearful of being reported to immigration authorities and being deported – and were therefore suffering in silence.
The report, Understanding the Impact of Covid-19 on Forced Migrant Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence, due to be published on Monday, took witness testimonies from more than 90 survivors and organisations in five countries, including the UK.
It found that victims were finding themselves locked in with perpetrators, with no access to shelters or advice organisations, and as a result were having to suffer abuse.
Jenny Phillimore, the lead author of the research, said: “Some women and their children are going hungry and without medical care – they are entirely destitute and reliant on the generosity of neighbours, themselves struggling.
“Social isolation is exacerbating multilayered traumas – no distractions mean women are reliving abuse episodes, increasing anxiety levels, sleep problems and leading to suicide ideation.”
Tracy, 26, a Nigerian survivor of trafficking who lives in an International Organization for Migration shelter in Tunisia with her husband, Endurance, described life as becoming “unbearably difficult” since the beginning of the pandemic.
The couple, who have irregular immigration status, are struggling to feed themselves, saying they are on the verge of starvation.
“The life here in this pandemic is so hard, especially for us, the migrants. They gave us just 30 dinar [£8] to eat for seven days but that can’t even feed us for two days, so now we only eat once a day. It is very difficult and we have no one,” said Tracy.
The report found that in some countries there had been increased targeting by traffickers as well as pressure put on children to enter into marriages.
There had also been a knock-on effect due to the cancellation of therapeutic services and self-help groups. Digital poverty confounded this issue, excluding many from participating in online meetings, resulting in many migrants spending long days alone.
“With many women having lack of digital resources to access online/via phone – women who were moving forward with their lives now feel themselves slipping backwards and are losing hope,” said Phillimore.
She added: “Individuals feared going hungry and struggled to receive support due to pandemic restrictions, which included suspension of some projects. Work previously available in the informal economy disappeared and losing income opportunities increased economic hardship.
“Forced migrants living in shelters, shared accommodation and overcrowded housing with shared kitchens and toilets were unable to self-isolate – creating health risks and anxiety about contracting the virus. Legal status introduced a range of barriers – from no access to public funds and services to not being allowed to work or open a bank account.”