Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Foreign and Misunderstood: The Challenges Faced by Migrant and Refugee Women Victims of S/GBV in Malta



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Isotta Rossoni. Isotta completed her MSc in Criminology and Criminology Justice at Oxford University in 2015, and is currently a Research Support Officer within the Department of Criminology at the University of Malta. Her work revolves primarily around Project CAPTIVE, an EU project focusing on migrant women who have suffered sexual or gender-based violence. Concurrently, Isotta works as PR & Projects Coordinator for Victim Support Malta, a Maltese NGO supporting victims of crime. 

'The police did not help at all (…), they were his friends and males. They made fun of me, being a woman and a foreigner (…) I think foreigners should be taught to stand up for their rights’

Darna (pseudonym), Filipino woman living in Malta

Up until the early 2000’s the little island of Malta, in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, was a country of emigration. The rise of conflict in the African continent in 2002 and Malta’s accession to the EU in 2004 turned the tables. In recent years, growing numbers of EU citizens have moved to Malta for work and study, and asylum seekers from Somalia, Sudan and Sub-Saharan African States have reached its shores, after braving the Mediterranean Sea.

Among the many migrants and asylum seekers reaching Malta are women. Their narratives have garnered far less attention than those of male migrants, despite the so-called ‘feminization of migration’. Yet their stories deserve to be told and it’s not just a matter of fairness or gender equality. Migrant and refugee women and girls face unique challenges at home, on the road to ‘safety’ and in the host country, because of gender; because and as a result, of being women. Very often, the fil rouge, or common denominator of these challenges is violence.

Many of the asylum-seeking women living in Malta originate from conflict-ridden countries; many have undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) when they were just young girls; many have been raped by soldiers in the home countries, by mercenaries during their journeys, by other male migrants when in detention in Malta. Their bodies have been used as weapons of war, as the ‘currency’ to secure passage across the desert in Libya, and have continued to be violated after arrival. Their experiences of violence can only be made sense of, if examined through an intersectional lens, understanding the multiple ways in which gender, migrant status, age, nationality and other factors mingle and intertwine.

Although research on violence at the intersection of violence and migration is on the rise in the Maltese context and elsewhere, many questions remain unanswered. What happens to migrant women after they leave detention or open centres? How many migrant women experience intimate partner violence? How many report it and access services? How many women who are currently living in Malta have undergone FGM?

CAPTIVE (Cultural Agent Promoting & Targeting Interventions vs Violence &. Enslavement), a 2-year EU-funded project led by the University of Malta, in partnership with the University of Coventry (UK) the University of Seville (Spain), a refugee/prison camp Justizvolzugsanstalt Zweibrucken in Germany, and two NGOs, the Associazione Nazionale Famiglie Emigranti in Italy and Euro-Cides in France, is hoping to dig deeper into these issues, influencing policy and practice. One important finding which has emerged during the first phase of the project through several interviews with local stakeholders and two interviews with migrant women victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), is the lack of a specialised service for migrant women who have suffered S/GBV in Malta.

This is particularly concerning in light of the specific barriers and challenges experienced by migrant women in accessing services. Research conducted in the field of healthcare highlights that migrant women feel at a loss when attempting to navigate the Maltese system, and are often unable to communicate with practitioners due to language and cultural barriers. Lack of effective communication leads to practical issues, as well as hinders the establishment of trust between medical professionals and their patients. Women feel anxious, frustrated and uncomfortable as a result of their inability to verbalise their questions and concerns. Conversely, due to their limited awareness of the migration/asylum context and their lack of training in cultural awareness and sensitivity, many practitioners also experience difficulties and frustrations when interacting with refugee women.

Although there is a host of governmental and non-governmental services available in Malta, there appears to be a divide between services targeted at migrants and services for women who have suffered violence. Staff rarely receive both intercultural training and training in GBV, and there is a severe lack of interpreters and cultural mediators. Most stakeholders concede that migrant women grapple with unique issues, such as the lack of support system, immigration-related problems, difficulty in accessing employment because of discrimination based on religion (e.g. the hijab), race or other, language and cultural barriers. Yet, paradoxically, they also stress that, once they access services, they are treated in the same manner as anybody else. As one stakeholder argued: ‘We treat everyone the same with no distinction’. Although this mindset may stem from lack of funding hindering the establishment of specialised services, and/or be informed by a logic of fairness, it leaves the situation of migrant women broadly unaltered, and highlights the need for a shift in perspective and approach.

To this end, Project CAPTIVE aims to develop and deliver targeted training for professionals, as well as set up an Ethno-Cultural Agent run by migrant and refugee women themselves. The role of the Ethno-Cultural Agent will be that of raising awareness about the phenomenon of S/GBV and its legal implications in Malta within migrant communities and among both women and men; informing women of the services available on the island; and referring them to such services when required. The idea is that of making local stakeholders more aware of the importance of adopting a tailored approach when dealing with migrant women who have suffered S/GBV, whilst at the same time empowering the women to identify and recognise the issue, and act as agents of change in their own communities. As Darna (quoted at the beginning of this article) emphasised, the cycle of victimisation rarely ends upon arrival in Malta, but often continues to be perpetuated at the hands of those actors or entities that should be providing help and support. CAPTIVE hopes to contribute to breaking the cycle, empowering migrant and refugee women to know their rights and as Darna put it: ‘to stand up for them’.

CAPTIVE is co-funded by the Justice Program of the European Union. For any queries pertaining to the project please email Lead Researcher Sandra Scicluna on sandra.scicluna@um.edu.mt or Research Support Officer Isotta Rossoni on isotta.rossoni@um.edu.mt

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Rossoni, I. (2017) Foreign and Misunderstood: The Challenges Faced by Migrant and Refugee Women Victims of S/GBV in Malta. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/07/foreign-and (Accessed [date])

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