Intimate partner violence in Australian refugee communities

Scoping review of issues and service responses
CFCA Paper No. 50 – December 2018


Intimate partner violence (IPV) is violence within a married or partnered relationship. In Australia, IPV is the most commonly experienced form of family violence. It takes place across all cultures and faith groups (Devries et al., 2013; Our Watch, 2018; World Health Organization [WHO], 2012).

Due to low rates of service engagement and few rigorous studies into Australian refugee communities,1 there is little available knowledge to inform practitioners about effective strategies for engaging with, and appropriately responding to the needs of, women from refugee backgrounds. However, we know that IPV is an important issue to culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) populations. There is a growing research interest in the experiences of women from refugee backgrounds, and an emerging evidence base to provide guidance to service providers about promising practices with these groups.

We also know that service providers face challenges in developing culturally safe programming for these groups and in involving communities in violence reduction strategies (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW], 2018).2 Here we differentiate between cultural safety and cultural competency, which is defined as the development of knowledge, awareness and skills in staff that equip them with greater contextual understanding of victims/survivors' experiences (Wilson, Fauci, & Goodman, 2015). Cultural safety adds to that definition by providing a broader understanding of empowerment, identity and the value of cultural beliefs (Phiri, Dietsch, & Bonner, 2010).

The need for greater provision of services to CALD women experiencing violence has been acknowledged by the Commonwealth Government in the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children 2010-2022 (Department of Social Services [DSS], 2010). Its Third Action Plan (2016-19) (DSS, 2016) emphasised the need for increased cultural awareness in service systems and practitioners. Similarly, state and territory governments in recent years have reviewed and updated their policies on family violence and multiculturalism to ensure recognition of cultural diversity and strategies to promote inclusivity. Police and family law system services have also implemented strategies to better engage with diverse communities and foster positive relationships with community-specific organisations.

Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) has produced this paper to support practitioners working in the child, family and community welfare sector. This resource is based on two pieces of work. The first is a comprehensive scoping review of the available literature, which provides an overview of the underlying issues and relevant factors associated with IPV in Australian refugee communities. It identifies intersecting factors relevant to the experience of IPV (such as migration pathways and pre-arrival experiences of refugees), as well as settlement issues for refugee communities more generally (including acculturation stress and social isolation).

The scoping review revealed the need for further investigation into the practical aspects of engaging women from refugee backgrounds with experiences of IPV. For this reason, CFCA also conducted stakeholder consultations with organisations of importance to refugee communities in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria to contribute to the emerging body of literature on promising practice. These consultations form a diverse set of case studies that represent the main issues raised in the literature. They offer a practical perspective on service strategies that have not been widely studied or evaluated in Australia.

How do we define Australian refugee communities?

A definition of community in a refugee context is applied here as, 'those individuals who share a common country or area of birth and/or extended residence in that country; and/or identify as such and are accepted as such, due to familial or other kinship or social ties' (Fisher, 2009, p. 4). The concept of community is important to discussions about how services can develop and improve on culturally safe interventions and programs to meet the needs of individuals from refugee backgrounds who are victims/survivors of IPV.

In Australia, the refugee visa category3 is one part of the offshore component of the Commonwealth Government's Humanitarian Program. In 2017/18, 16,250 places were included in the Australian Humanitarian Program. This will increase to 18,750 places in 2018/19 (Department of Home Affairs [DHA], 2018a). In September 2015, the Australian Government provided an additional 12,000 places in response to the conflict in Syria and Iraq (DHA, 2018a). All 12,000 additional Humanitarian visas have been granted (DHA, 2018a). Individuals entering Australia through other visa categories under the Humanitarian Program can also be considered refugees or coming from refugee-like contexts and are included in general service definitions of refugees.

Great diversity exists among individuals from refugee backgrounds. This diversity extends to communities from the same countries, regions and faiths - as well as between families and individuals in those communities. It is no easy task to discuss Australian refugee communities without making choices about what to include and exclude. This paper focuses on individuals who have permanent residence in Australia through the Humanitarian Program. These individuals have greater eligibility for services and are more likely to seek support for experiences of IPV than those with more precarious immigration status - a fact that is reflected in the available Australian literature.

While the scope of this project is largely limited to discussions regarding individuals from refugee backgrounds who have permanent residency in Australia, the experiences of those on temporary visas (particularly those on spousal visas) are also noted in sections regarding immigration-related violence. (For more information about the official aims of the Humanitarian Program, see


The research design applied in this paper includes a scoping review and stakeholder consultations. The need for this approach was identified in the early stages of research that found a paucity of Australian literature available on the topic. The qualitative stakeholder consultations were devised as a way to supplement the literature with strategies for services on how to engage women from refugee backgrounds experiencing intimate partner violence. This aligns with the general goals of CFCA to support the service sector with perspectives relevant to current practice. The scoping review was undertaken in the first instance, in order to develop our understanding of the general forms of IPV, mitigating factors and experiences of service engagement. The semi-structured interview schedule (Appendix B) was developed based on three main strategies found in the literature about how to overcome barriers to service access and engagement: cultural safety, involving community in responses to family violence, and applying integrated trauma-informed care in programming and practice. Stakeholder consultations were undertaken with three services, across three states in Australia.

The literature search strategy used several electronic social science databases including: ProQuest, Elsevier, Ovid PsyArticles and others. The AIFS library system was used to identify relevant materials from Australia and abroad, including research reports, peer-reviewed articles, service frameworks and guidelines, and government documents. The literature search took place from December 2017 to May 2018 and drew on materials published between January 2008 and May 2018.

The initially identified keywords (see Appendix A) were refined over the course of the search, and a snowballing approach was applied to the main Australian literature on the subject. Initial keyword searches indicated that refugee communities are included in studies into general CALD populations, communities and services, and the literature presented here is generally relevant to CALD as well as refugee communities. Similarly, studies into family violence in these communities included data about IPV and were included in the scoping review.

This research predominantly draws on Australian literature, including 58 peer-reviewed studies and documents from government services and non-government organisations. A small number of studies and documents have been included from outside of Australia (n = 17), mainly from the USA, Europe and Canada. A total of 75 documents were reviewed in this study. Details of the inclusion criteria for documents viewed in the literature search are available in Appendix A.

A scoping review was deemed more appropriate for this research than a systematic literature review, which would require a clearly identified research question and explicit inclusion criteria for the types of studies selected. In this scoping review we found gaps in research, a lack of evaluative studies and only a small number of guides for practical service delivery. This will inform future research and stakeholder engagement undertaken by CFCA in this area.

This research includes peer-reviewed studies that underwent abstract screening to determine relevance to the topic of this paper - a process that was subject to research limitations such as timelines and available resources. Aggregative synthesis with a focus on summarising the available data was applied to the selected materials (Dixon-Woods et al., 2006). In summarising the data, this paper applied categories that were already widely used in available studies rather than developing new concepts or categories. For example, categories comprising previously identified forms of IPV are included in this research based on recurring categories across the data pool. Certain sub-categories (e.g. acculturation and trauma) were present in many of the broad-level categories, while others (e.g. financial abuse as a form of IPV) were coded into distinct categories in the data analysis process. A method of aggregative synthesis that describes general themes and applies existing categories from the literature is appropriate to scoping reviews into emergent and/or 'hard to reach' communities (which present challenges to primary research), and where the research questions are not clearly defined.

Throughout June 2018, consultations were held with services identified through CFCA networks. Engaging the sector through stakeholder consultations worked to provide concrete examples of emergent practice mentioned in the literature. Seven services were initially contacted and three were selected for consultations based on their availability during the fieldwork period. These three services represent a small sample of services that offer support for women from refugee backgrounds experiencing IPV in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria. Telephone consultations were undertaken with service representatives using a semi-structured interview schedule (Appendix B) that was based on themes identified in the scoping review.

Qualitative analysis of the stakeholder consultation data is presented here alongside descriptions of the services; however, this information is anonymised and we do not use the names of the services or representatives who participated in consultations. Consultation data were coded under categories identified in the scoping review, and analysed alongside key aspects of the literature about strategies to support service uptake and engagement in Australian refugee communities.

Ethics approval for this research was obtained through the Australian Institute of Family Studies' human research ethics processes.

1 The United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines refugees as: '[...] any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear is unwilling, to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country' (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR], 2018).

2 Men can also be victims/survivors of intimate partner violence; however, there is little research into experiences of this in Australian refugee communities. For more general information see: AIHW (2018) Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence in Australia, 2018; Oliffe et al. (2014) Gay men and Intimate Partner Violence: A Gender Analysis.

3 This category includes the following visas: The Refugee visa (subclass 200), the in-country Special Humanitarian visa (subclass 201), the Emergency Rescue visa (subclass 203), and the Women at Risk visa (subclass 204).