A woman leans on a kitchen counter and is silhouetted against a window.

Refuge: “We want people to know they aren’t alone”

21 December 2020

On any given day, Refuge supports thousands of women and children fleeing domestic abuse. Hear how the charity is using Barclays’ help to bolster its support for survivors of modern slavery, human trafficking and tech abuse through the pandemic.

When Hoa* fled her home in Vietnam for political reasons, she became the victim of a criminal network. Separated from her six-year-old son, she was trafficked to China, Greece, Belgium and the UK, and exploited physically and sexually.

Seven years into her devastating situation, Hoa was trapped in a house on the outskirts of London where she was being made to work on a cannabis farm. When she realised that the door to her room had been left unlocked, she seized the opportunity and ran for her life. 

Soon after, she met a woman who would help to ensure her freedom. The woman told Hoa about Refuge, a UK charity which supports people who have endured modern slavery and domestic abuse. The charity helped her to apply for permission to stay in the UK – and in 2020, reunited her with her now-teenage son.

Hoa finally had the chance of a new life, but then the COVID-19 crisis hit. Hoa lost her job, and she and her son had to move into a small room with a sofa bed, in a house full of strangers who made them feel unsafe. With no real home, money or support, Hoa turned to Refuge once more.

The charity was able to support her again, finding her safe accommodation and helping her to apply for benefits, register with her local doctor and enrol her son in school. She is one of 195 survivors of modern slavery that Refuge has been able to support during the pandemic, thanks to Barclays’ £100m COVID-19 Community Aid Package

Mari Edwards smiles for a photo, sitting on an outdoor bench.

Mari Edwards is Head of Operations at Refuge, the UK's largest provider of services for survivors of domestic and gender-based abuse.

All of those things that have always been an issue for victims and survivors escalated to a whole other level.

Diane Williams

President and CEO, JBWS

A girl sits on the floor, using her phone.

The pandemic has sparked an increase in complex tech abuse cases.

Responding during the pandemic

It’s well documented that the pandemic has led to an increase in domestic abuse around the world. It has also exacerbated some of the drivers of human trafficking, as more and more people have found themselves living in desperate circumstances.

All of this has led to increased pressures on the services offered by Refuge, which is the UK’s largest provider of services for people experiencing domestic and gender-based abuse – supporting thousands of women and children on any given day.

With help from Barclays, Refuge has been able to not only respond to this demand, but also to start new projects. Among these is an initiative designed to help the organisation become “fully trauma-informed” by supporting its staff wellbeing and resilience. 

The bank also provided advertising space in a central London Underground station to help the charity to publicise its National Domestic Abuse Helpline number, expanding its reach and increasing awareness of the vital support Refuge can provide.

Yet as the charity adapted its services to help ensure the safety of people like Hoa, another form of violence was surging worldwide: tech abuse. 

Helping people feel safer online

Mari Edwards, Head of Operations at Refuge, says perpetrators are increasingly using digital platforms and smart technology to abuse, gaining access to personal and home devices, online accounts and even children’s devices.

“Technology is increasingly being misused to monitor, harass and track people against their will,” she says. The fact that much of daily life has been driven online for long periods over the past 20 months has only made that worse.

From April 2020 to May 2021, Refuge reports seeing on average a 97% increase in complex tech abuse cases requiring specialist support compared to the first three months of 2020. Many of those facing abuse, adds Edwards, feel that they have to stop using their devices, leaving them with “short windows of opportunity to access the support and information they need”.

Responding to this increased need, Refuge has strengthened its cybersecurity infrastructure and expanded its services for people experiencing tech abuse. One such service is the charity’s website RefugeTechSafety.org, which was launched in May 2021 with funding from Barclays. The site aims to raise awareness of tech abuse and offer resources on digital safety.

One woman who sought support from Refuge’s Tech Abuse Team is Amy. She was being harassed online by a man she had met on a dating app. “At the time, the abuse felt insurmountable,” she says. “My mental health was severely affected.”

The team showed her how to secure her privacy and location settings, helping her to “feel safer online”, and worked with her to gather evidence for the police which led to a Stalking Protection Order against her abuser.

The experience spurred Amy to contribute to the launch of the charity’s Tech Safety website. “Often people in my situation may not know where to turn or what their options are,” she says, “which is why I’m so pleased to have been involved in the creation of refugetechsafety.org. It’s great to see that the resources that helped me through such a difficult time of my life will be available to others in similar situations.”

Ultimately, says Edwards: “We want people to know they aren’t alone, and that Refuge is there to support them.”

A new beginning

For Hoa, Refuge’s support has turned her life around. Speaking to her outreach worker, she says that thanks to the charity’s help, “my family’s life has gotten much better”.

Hoa has started learning English online and found part-time work in a shop, while emotional support from Refuge has helped her cope with what she has been through.

“You have listened, understood and sympathised with my circumstances,” says Hoa. “When I was unemployed and had no income due to the pandemic, you helped me apply for emergency funding. Recently, when my family faced the risk of homelessness again, you supported us to find accommodation. I feel really touched by all the support you have given.”

Having seen first-hand the changes Refuge was able to make in Hoa’s life, her outreach worker says: “Without Barclays’ support, we wouldn’t be able to save as many vulnerable victims as Hoa and their families. Your support keeps us going, gives people hope, direction – and saves lives.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the clients.

Barclays’ COVID-19 Community Aid Package

Barclays has established a £100m COVID-19 Community Aid Package to support communities impacted by the social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic. It consists of two components: charitable donations to non-profit partners working in the communities where Barclays operates; and a commitment to match personal colleague donations to their chosen non-profits who are helping COVID-19 relief efforts in their communities.

Find out more about Barclays’ COVID-19 Community Aid Package.