The refusal rate for people applying to stay in the UK after suffering domestic violence more than doubled between 2012 and 2016 after the government pledged to make the UK a “hostile environment for illegal immigrants”.
A new rule, which allowed people who entered the UK on a spousal visa and then suffered domestic abuse, the right to apply for leave to remain, was introduced in 2002 after campaigners argued that women were being forced to choose between deportation and continued abuse or domestic violence.
But a freedom of information (FoI) request by the Guardian has revealed that the refusal rate for applications under the domestic violence rule rose from 12% in 2012 to 30% in 2016, the last year for which full-year data was available.
The figures show that 1,325 people were refused out of a total of 5,820 applications made between 2012 and 2016.
The situation for immigrant women who have suffered domestic violence has dramatically worsened in the past four years, said Radhika Handa, legal policy and campaigns officer at Southall Black Sisters.
“We have this really hostile state climate where migrant women suffering domestic violence are being sacrificed at the altar of an immigration policy obsessed with limiting rights,” she said. “That is not the hallmark of a civilised democratic society. We’ve been horrified by it.”
Campaigners accuse the Home Office of using the testimony of violent husbands to deny victims of domestic violence the right to remain in the UK after they have escaped abusive relationships.
In a key case last November, the Home Office decided to deport a young woman who said she had been abused by her husband and his family. A judge ruled that the Home Office had accepted his account “without evaluation and then relied on it as the main reason for rejecting ’s account”.
Until 2015, if applications were made under the domestic violence rule and rejected, appeals had a very high rate of success, said Lucy Mair, a barrister from Garden Court North Chambers, who represented the claimant in the November case.
But since 2015, applicants only have a right to an administrative review. According to Mair, this means there is effectively no recourse to challenge a decision.
A separate FoI request revealed that just 2% of administrative reviews from 2015 to May 2018 resulted in an initial Home Office decision being overturned – 15 out of 630 requests since appeal rights for domestic violence cases were removed.
Between January and March 2011, 82% of appeals made under the old system successfully overturned a Home Office decision, according to the charity Rights of Women.
“So if even if the secretary of state messes up a decision, gets it completely wrong, we have no recourse any more. We can’t appeal to a tribunal and ask a judge to look at it,” said Mair.
Thangam Debbonaire, the Labour MP for Bristol West and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, said she was dealing with several cases where constituents were being forced to stay in abusive relationships because vital documents were kept by their partners.
The situation had deteriorated even in her two years as an MP, she added. “It is very frustrating. In normal times your MP could help unblock the system and address problems but now my caseworkers are tearing their hair out. We are getting blocked at every turn.”
Debbonaire, who before becoming an MP worked for Women’s Aid and is an expert in domestic violence, added: “We have domestic violence laws which give out good signals – but what we are doing in these cases is saying we care about tackling domestic violence, except if you have insecure immigration status, and then we don’t.”
The process is also prohibitively expensive for many, she added. If applicants cannot prove they are destitute, the cost of applying for the right to remain under the domestic violence rule has more than doubled since 2014 from £1,093 to £2,389 in 2018, plus an additional £2,389 for each dependent child.”
The government also issued new policy document for Home Office staff on the use of the domestic violence rule in February this year, which Handa called “very problematic”.
It tells officials to take into account the length of the relationship, calls a woman’s own testimony “weak evidence” and says that police evidence against both parties should be considered.
Handa said: “We find that when the police are faced with cross-allegations from the perpetrator, if he says things like ‘she attacked me/my mum/all of us and I was restraining her’, police may arrest the woman or treat both perpetrator and victim the same. For example, cautioning or warning them both.
“This is then going to have a detrimental impact on the applicant’s immigration application.”
She also warned that since 2014 women who are brought to the UK but then taken back to their home country and abandoned are not allowed to make an application under the domestic violence rule.
“Women who have been taken back to their home country and abandoned often have any documentation taken away from them,” she said.
“These women face terrible stigma, they have been abused and they should be able to apply under the domestic violence rule.”
Increasingly concerned about the direction of policy related to domestic violence victims, Southall Black Sisters has requested meetings with the Home Office but has been ignored, said Handa. “They are basically stonewalling,” she said.
A Home Office spokesperson said applications for leave to remain under the domestic violence rule were handled by specially trained caseworkers.
They said: “Any rise or fall in the approval or refusal rate will simply be a reflection of the nature of applications received rather than any change in policy or how staff have been asked to consider such applications.”
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has called on the government to protect victims of domestic violence with insecure immigration status, after a report by Claire Waxman, London’s first victims’ commissioner, highlighted how people can be forced to remain in abusive relationships due to their immigration status.
“The government’s hostile environment policies are leading to vulnerable people being denied access to much-needed services and facing significant risk of being unlawfully detained,” Khan said in a statement.
The government’s figures released under FoI show that the number of applications received between 2012-2016 have remained consistent at around 1,200 applications a year.
Asked about applicants inability to challenge a decision, the spokesperson added: “Since initial decisions on domestic violence applications are made by a specially trained group, it is to be expected that successful reviews of their decisions are rare.”