Ongoing projects

Support for Very Vulnerable Migrant Women

Ongoing programme launched in September 2018 with an initial small grant by Oxford Aid to the Balkans (OXAB)

Particular Vulnerabilities of Migrant Women

Over the recent years the team of the Center for Legal Aid Voice in Bulgaria has worked on a number of complex cases of vulnerable migrant women.

Migrant women typically have numerous vulnerabilities that need to be addressed such as, for example, health issues, being single parents, the risk of trafficking and exploitation, limited access to the labour market due to residency status, childcare responsibility, etc., Often, embedded cultural barriers prevent them from seeking help and defending their rights. Negative attitudes towards them on the part of the host society nationals make it even harder to find accommodation or work.

The CLA has provided not only legal aid to these vulnerable migrant women, but it has played a significant role of a mediator between the different stakeholders that need to be engaged in supporting vulnerable women, including victims of violence. Not once or twice have State Agency for Refugees (SAR) staff have called us directly to ask if we can help, because, often, the cases of vulnerable migrant women are extremely complex. In addition, due to procedural obstacles, the issue of accommodating asylum-seeking migrant women in shelters is legally and practically complicated, and the language barrier and lack of interpreters add to the difficulty. The general scarcity of services in Bulgaria for women who have experienced GBV  means that finding a place in a shelter could take countless hours of negotiations and arrangement-making between CLA staff and the staff of NGOs operating the crisis centres.  Thus, the fate of a woman whose eligibility to live in the shelter is about to expire is uncertain, and we are often the ones left with the responsibility to find a solution and prevent homelessness, destitution or the women and their children becoming victims of exploitation or violent crime.

Some of the most complex cases we have dealt with have involved the trauma of female genital mutilation (FGM). Bulgarian officials in the judiciary and the administrative decision-making institutions are generally unfamiliar with this practice, which makes it even more difficult for the women who are victims of it to make the case of vulnerability when applying for asylum. Shockingly, as very recent cases show, it is not recognized by the SAR as a valid ground for granting international protection (see the second example of current case in the end). This exposes the women to risks of deportation and detention, while cutting off their access to much needed support services.

Scarcity of Resources in NGO Sector

While a number of specialized NGOs, as well as international organizations, are involved in providing support to asylum seekers and refugees in Bulgaria, the focus of their activities is typically limited to issues specific to the refugee status or procedure of the beneficiaries – e.g., children’s activities in the reception centres, Bulgarian language classes, etc. Funding is project-based, with much of it coming from EU funds, which means that the goals and activities are prescribed, with little flexibility to respond to the varied, complex and changing needs of vulnerable migrant women in a comprehensive and holistic way. On the other hand, NGOs not specializing in serving refugees and migrants as such lack the knowledge (linguistic, cultural, legal) and the resources to serve this group. Further, A survey by Ariadne found that the number of foundations that support work to end violence against women in Europe is small, and that funding tends to be at a low level and short-term compared to expressed needs. A Ms. Foundation study among U.S. Foundations found that support to end gender-based violence totaled just 1.8 percent of all foundation giving.[1]

The "Support for Very Vulnerable Migrant Women" Programme

Profile of women supported

Migrant women in Bulgaria with precarious status (e.g., at risk of deportation/detention and/or at risk of homeless/destitution), with multiple vulnerabilities – with small children at risk, single mothers, physical and/or mental difficulties, victims of domestic violence or GBV, victims or at risk of human trafficking, unemployed/underemployed.

Goal

As a result of the support provided within the framework of the Programme, the migrant women become socially and economically stabilized, with their pressing legal and other issues resolved with a favourable outcome, and they are able to take charge of their lives and plan for the future.

Method

The Case Management method is an approach from the social work field that involves holistic support, focused on the individual characteristics and needs of the person. The literature[2] on proving social services to migrants, and servicing effectively members of vulnerable groups, more broadly, indicates that key best practices are the provision of a high-quality personalized service, based on a comprehensive needs assessment. The so-called wraparound method,[3] initially used primarily to support youth with behavioral challenges, is one such approach, focusing on personalized attention and involvement of the client in the process, and multiple levels of engagement with service provides, institutions and structures, with a primary focus of integrating a client with multiple needs into the community.

The structure of the work will be based on the Community Assessment and Placement (CAP) model of the International Detention Coalition (IDC)[4] and will include the following stages:

1.     Screening – preliminary assessment conducted through an interview at the first meeting; specific vulnerabilities identified and indicated.

2.     Needs Assessment with a focus on the specific needs based on vulnerabilities

3.     Case Plan prepared on the basis of the Needs Assessment form and interview, in discussion and with the participation of the Client; outlines the interventions to be taken, including a schedule of meetings and progress review.

4.     Intervention(s) – work directly with the client to complete the interventions (e.g., assistance with finding housing; administrative help; scheduling appointments for psychological, medical, legal and other help; children needs; employment; involvement in the community, etc.)

5.     Case closure/final assessment – the Goal is accomplished and the Case Manager prepares a report outlining the particular challenge encountered, the gaps in the system, if any and the steps that led to the resolution/progress.

Activities

-       Legal aid (consultations, preparation of documents, representation before administrative bodies and the courts) that covers not only asylum and migration issues, but also any family law, social assistance, children’s rights, criminal (e.g., for human trafficking), and civil law matters;

-       Social mediation and accompanying the clients to appointments with institutions, specialists (doctors, psychologists) and other (landlords, potential employers);

-       Referrals to experts providing different services such as psychologists, medical staff, shelter operators, real estate agents and recruitment experts, kindergarten etc.;

-       One-time emergency assistance fund, to cover an urgent material need (e.g., transport; rent; medication) that is not provided for from elsewhere;

-       Interpretation and translation as required;

-       One-on-one coaching sessions, as needed, to empower the women to plan for the future (goal-settings, motivation);

-       Progress tracking and recording; preparation of reports.

 

Initial Pilot Project period: Sept. 2018 - Sept. 2019, supported by a grant of about 5,000 EUR from Oxford Aid to the Balkans

Target number of women to supported as part of the programme: 4-5 at any given time

Support team members: Case Manager, Lawyer(s), Interpreter, Social Mediator/Assistant

Sustainability plan: fundraising and communication campaigns to attract donations; volunteer hours contributions by lawyers and other team members; application for project and core actvity grants

 

Two Stories of Very Vulnerable Migrant Women supported by the Programme

T.R., a 27-year-old Afghani woman, came to Bulgaria in 2016 with her husband and two young children in 2016. A victim of rape and subsequent forced early marriage to the perpetrator, she fled her country of origin with the help of an acquaintance, who subsequently because her husband. If returned to Afghanistan, she will face near-certain death for having perpetrated the crime of “zina” – an honour crime related to leaving her legal husband, as well as persecution for becoming “Westernized”. Her husband, who fled persecution by the Taliban, will also be in danger. In spite of their evidently well-founded fear for their lives, the family’s application for international protection was refused (in accelerated procedure, as manifestly unfounded application) and with the Court confirming the decision, they ended up in detention. T. and the children were released after several months, as required by law, while the husband remains in detention to this day, in a facility far away from Sofia, and the family has been separated for over a year. Upon release, T. found herself homeless and alone in the street with the children, sleeping in front of the mosque in downtown Sofia. With the help of a clerk at the mosque and later an international organization, she was placed first in a homeless shelter for a very short time, and in a specialized state-owned and NGO-run residential facility for mothers and babies at risk. She is not working and does not receive support fro her husband, as he is still in detention and cannot have an income. In June 2018, T. received a negative court decision on her subsequent application for asylum. Upon learning this, the management of the residence informed her that they are unable to extend her stay there and she has to leave by August 8. The child protection services have informed that should she be in a situation without proven accommodation and means of support, they will take the children away from her. The CLA is working on several fronts to find accommodation and a guarantee of support for her, including through seeking a guarantor among the Afghani community in Sofia, and trying to convince the director of one of the centres of the SAR to take her in, in spite of lacking of asylum seeker status. In the meantime, we are preparing yet another subsequent application for protection, while also filing an application with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

A.K., 28, is a woman from an African country. She arrived in Bulgaria in the Fall of 2016, pregnant at an advanced stage. The pregnancy was the result of marriage with a Turkish citizen, done at the insistence of her family, and from which she fled because of physical and psychological violence on the part of the husband and his mother. She gave birth in Bulgaria, after spending several months in detention, from which she was released only after threatening to kill herself rather than giving birth in conditions to detention. A CLA team member met her in December 2016, when she was living in one of the reception centres for asylum seekers in Sofia with the newly-born baby girl, and provided her with legal counseling on both her asylum case and the situation with parental rights over the baby, as well the potential risk of the father finding them. Both A. and the baby were in very poor health, and medical care was arranged for them by an international organization working in the camp. Soon thereafter, she started receiving threats on the Internet from the husband and father of the child. When they escalated, in the end of January 2017, A. was urgently taken out of the camp under police escort and placed in a crisis centre for women victims of domestic violence and/or at risk of trafficking. On the same day, her first and last interview with the SAR, aimed at discovering and assessing her refugee story, was conducted, while she was in a state of acute crisis. Once in the crisis centre, A. spoke to psychologists, at it was then discovered that she had been a victim of female genital mutilation, performed in her country of origin when she was a child. It also came out that other women placed in the refugee camp had exploited her and had attempted to push her into prostitution. After the crisis centre, she was transferred in a state-owned, NGO-run residential facility for mothers with babies at risk. With time and the help of a number of organizations, she stabilized, the child was enrolled in kindergarten and in early 2018 A. left the residence and moved into a small apartment (partially paid through a programme with Caritas Bulgaria) and started working at a meat-processing plant. In the meanwhile, she was refused protection by the SAR, which issued a decision that ignored any vulnerability and did not even mention the FGM issue. The CLA appealed the decision and won at first instance. In May 2018, the father of the child, who had not stopped trying to get in contact, appeared in Sofia, intercepted A. and the child in a park in the centre and threatened her physically. With the help of the CLA, the same night she was placed in a crisis centre. Complaints were filed with police in an attempt to ensure her safety. At the decision of the crisis centre management, she and the child were suddenly and without her consent transferred to another centre on the other side of the country, where she knew nobody. During the about two weeks she spent there, it became known that the SAR had appealed the court decision (and refused to withdraw the appeal in spite of the CLA’s pleading to them), which means many more months of uncertainty for A. Upon learning the news, A. broke into a crisis and stopped feeding herself and the child for awhile. She decided to return to Sofia and to her apartment at her own risk, and the CLA accompanied her to the local police office to discuss safety measures. She also received, through the CLA, a consultation with a family lawyer regarding what possible steps could be taken to have a divorce, it which it became clear that filing for divorce while having insecure legal status in Bulgaria would be risky as the child might be awarded to the father, in spite of the history of violence, and the lack of care since the birth. Another refusal of status, a realistic possibility in spite of the first-instance court decision, will see both deported to the country of origin where the child, a girl, will be at high risk of FGM, or to Turkey, into the situation of violence and abuse.



[2] See, for example, “Good practice in social care for asylum seekers and refugees,” Social Care Institute for Excellence, London, UK, online: https://www.uclan.ac.uk/research/explore/groups/assets/good_practice_social_care_asylum_seekers_refugees.pdf

[3] For a literature review on the principles and effectiveness of the wraparound method, see “Integrated Supports for Children, Youth and Families”, University of Alberta, online: http://www.cup.ualberta.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/A-Literature-Review-of-the-Wraparound-Process.pdf

[4] International Detention Coalition, “There Are Alternatives: a Handbook for Preventing Unnecessary Immigration Detention” (revised edition), Melbourne, Australia: 2015, available at: http://idcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/There-Are-Alternatives-2015.pdf, p.47.