Anne East is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of leading UK immigration lawyers.
The stain of domestic abuse shows little sign of fading. Around 2 million adults experienced some form of abuse in the year ending March 2018 while a staggering 293 women were killed in domestic homicides between 2014 and 2017 . This is an average of two women every week which is a figure that is remaining stubbornly consistent.
The Domestic Abuse Bill
In a drive to stamp out the horrors of abuse in the home, the government set out its ground-breaking draft Domestic Abuse Bill (DA) Bill in January this year. In a landmark move, the bill provides clarity over the definition of abuse, recognising that it is often more insidious than a black eye or broken bones, including identifying financial and economic coercion and controlling behaviour.
However, while the draft undeniably paves the way towards enhancing the existing framework of support to victims, it crucially overlooks the specific needs of migrant survivors who are often marginalised and isolated for a multitude of reasons.
Recognising this, the House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee met this June and published their findings in a report to urge the government to rectify the shortfalls for migrants before the Bill is officially written into law.
Immigration Status: A Tool for Abuse
One of the prevailing factors impacting migrant women is their insecure immigration status. Often dependent upon their abuser – the ‘Sponsor’ of their visa – migrant women often fear escaping and leaving their abuser in case this breaks the conditions of their Spouse Visa.
However, not only are migrant women threatened by their abuser and controlled in this unique way, but the Committee even found police forces have been reporting abused women to immigration enforcement. Despite guidance from the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) instructing that ‘victims of crime must be treated first and foremost as victims’, around 60% of police forces share information about migrant domestic abuse victims with the Home Office for immigration purposes.
Two in three migrant women claim to fear reporting abuse as a result. Some women are even perversely compelled to seek a Spouse Visa extension than report their circumstances to the police. Extending their visa allows them to accrue the five years necessary to seek permanent and independent settlement from their ‘sponsor’ (the abusive spouse). However, the downside of this is that five years is obviously far too long to live at the hands of an abuser.
In a bid to prohibit this cruel practice, the Committee urged the Government to build a firewall between local authorities and immigration enforcement to prevent the boundaries from being blurred. Victims should not be choosing between arrest, deportation, detention and/or destitution with the possibility of being separated from their children for coming forward. Extending this recognition even further, the Committee actually recommend tweaking the statutory definition of abuse to identify ‘coercive control related to immigration status’.
Another specific area that concerned the Committee is the financial hurdles migrant women disproportionately face in order to gain protection.
As it currently stands, migrants are prohibited from benefits, otherwise known as the ‘no resource to public funding’ (NRPF) rule. However, domestic abuse victims on a Spousal Visa are eligible to three months independent Leave through the ‘Domestic Violence rule’ – providing they can evidence their abuse, which is a problem in itself. However, once granted this temporary relief and status, victims are able to apply for the ‘Destitute Domestic Violence’ concession (DDV) which grants them financial aid during this timeframe.
While the DDV sounds reasonable on paper, the reality is that it falls short in protecting all victims of abuse. Women who have been trafficked, are refugees or who hold any other type of visa are ineligible for this support, suffocating any hope of affording a way out of abuse. Compounding this further is the fact that refusal rates for women seeking Leave status through the ‘Domestic Violence rule’ rose from 12% to 30% by 2016 while Women’s Aid project, No Woman Turned Away, found victims disadvantaged with the NRPF are unable to take a space in a refuge since they cannot claim housing benefit to fund their place.
Coercion, emotional manipulation, financial control – these are all covert forms of abuse yet the effects are no less distressing or dehumanising than being physically beaten or sexually assaulted. But proving such control can be difficult, time consuming and a seemingly hopeless task when under the controlling thumb and watchful eye of a perpetrator. While the Committee seeks to extend the financial aid to six months, there is little mention of relaxing the hoops migrant victims must jump through to gain protection. Examples of evidence they must submit to document the abuse include letters from medical practitioners, social services, refuges and police or court reports. Many women simply won’t have such evidence, which the DA Bill and the Committee largely overlooked.
Nowhere to Turn
The Committee also recognised any ambitions set out by the DA Bill are hugely undermined by the government’s austerity drive.
Local authorities are responsible for licensing refuges and safe houses for survivors of domestic abuse. But budget cuts mean local authorities will face a staggering deficit of £7.8 billion by 2025, leaving little room to fund essential accommodation let alone any specialist care that may be needed for migrant victims.
Although the DA Bill recognises the importance of catering for women with specific needs or vulnerabilities, it has ring-fenced a mere £300,000 to support BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) services. This is a drop in the ocean at tackling the decimated frontline support in which such insufficient funding is felt the hardest by the most vulnerable. The consequences, in human terms, are horrifying: Women’s Aid uncovered 94 women and 90 children were turned away a day in 2017 from a refuge as a result of exacerbated specialist services. Without further allocated funding, migrant women will continue to fall through the cracks.
Our Society, Our Problem – Finding Solutions
Domestic abuse is everyone’s problem and, while the Bill is a welcome step forward, without reform recommended by the Committee and leading campaigners, it will take three steps back for our migrant sisters. More still needs to be done to fill in gaps so that no one’s daughter, sister or mother should endure or suffer abuse in silence because living free from abuse, degradation, servitude and slavery is a fundamental human right.
Whether or not the changes will be enshrined in law is yet to be seen. However, with Theresa May making it her ambition to write up the law before she leaves office, campaigners are growing increasingly concerned that the Bill will pass in its current form, and migrant women, again, will be left behind.