All of Us or None of Us: SBS Reflects On The Government’s Failure To Protect Migrant Women
“The Domestic Abuse Bill is a chance to set things right for migrant women. I have faced discrimination in the UK compared to other women, only because of my immigration status and the fact that I was not born here. If nothing is done, there will be another generation of migrant women who continue to live in fear. I trust that this opportunity will not be wasted and that migrant women will be given the chance to live in dignity.” (SBS user and survivor, Somiya Basar)
On 6 July, the long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill passed in the House of Commons, after three years of campaigning against the backdrop of the political upheavals of a General Election, Brexit and now a global pandemic. Clause 22, an amendment to the Bill that would have provided a means by which to achieve better protection for abused migrant women with insecure immigration status and subject to No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), was rejected. Despite the Bill being lauded as cross-party effort, the clause was voted down by 330 Conservative MPs, compared to the 207 MPs from Labour and the Liberal Democrats who were in favour.
Our original amendment, that sought to extend eligibility for the Domestic Violence Rule (DV Rule) and the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC) – an appropriate model of protection – to all abused migrant women, was not even put to the vote. Instead, the Government proposed a £1.5m pilot fund ostensibly to provide accommodation and support to migrant women and to assess their needs. We say that the pilot project is flawed and misconceived, not least because considerable evidence of need already exists. There is also insufficient funding; no transparency as to what exactly it is seeking to do and there has been no consultation as to its purpose with leading organisations working with abused migrant women. See our response here. Nevertheless, in view of the Government’s intransigence, we put forward Clause 22 as a compromise proposal calling on the Government to temporarily lift the NRPF for one year as part of the pilot project, since it would allow more women to come forward and seek support, which in turn would provide a more accurate assessment of need and the scale of the problem.
We are deeply disappointed and concerned that the Bill will now make its way to the House of Lords this Autumn devoid of any meaningful protection for some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged women in our society. In this blog, we reflect on the Government’s stance and outline our next steps as we redouble our efforts to continue to fight back against the Government’s hostile environment immigration policies and the lack of equality of access to protection from domestic abuse.
Why is protection needed for migrant women?
SBS and other BME specialist organisations, including LAWRS, the Angelou Centre and Safety4Sisters have campaigned for many years to draw attention to the glaring gaps in protection for migrant women, who are routinely denied access to refuges, safe alternative accommodation and services on the basis of their insecure immigration status and NRPF condition. There is effectively a two-tier discriminatory system for women escaping abuse; one in which migrant women, in the absence of state protection, are rendered at heightened risk of harm, re-victimisation and imprisonment in the home.
You can read more about our amendments and why they are needed here.
Refusal to protect migrant women
There can no longer be any claims to ignorance in Parliament about the desperate and inhumane circumstances in which migrant women find themselves when seeking to escape abuse. Throughout the passage of the Bill, MPs from across the political spectrum acknowledged the plight of migrant women, adding to a growing consensus across state institutions and other sectors that something needs to be done to afford them protection. The Government’s own draft statutory guidance published on 1 July, acknowledges that the NRPF condition is a barrier to exiting from abuse. It states:
“…those who have entered the UK from overseas may face additional barriers when attempting to escape domestic abuse that are related to their lack of access to public services and funds, leading to higher dependence on the partner or family that has supported their being in the UK” (paragraph 77).
Despite this awareness, the Government has wilfully refused to accept our proposed legislative measures, including the compromise amendment that was drafted to mitigate the life-threatening impact that the NRPF condition has on abused migrant women.
Chasing our own tail?
According to the Minister for Safeguarding, Victoria Atkins MP, the first reason for refusing our amendments is the lack of evidence. She argues for the “…need to address…evidence gaps before we are in a position to take well-grounded decisions on how best to protect these victims in the long term.” This justification is allegedly based on the conclusions of the Home Office’s disappointing Migrant Victims of Domestic Abuse Review Findings, which when closely analysed have either gravely misunderstood or simply rejected outright the detailed evidence submitted by SBS and other organisations about the needs and circumstances of abused migrant women. Our formal response to the Review is available here.
During the Report Stage of the Bill in the House of Commons, Yvette Cooper MP, questioned the Minister for Safeguarding, saying: “why not just lift the provisions and requirements on no recourse to public funds in the meantime, until the research is completed and she has more information about what she wants to do next?”
In response, Atkins reiterated the need for more evidence and effectively cautioned against women playing the immigration system. She gave the example of a woman who has entered the UK on a visitor’s visa, seeking welfare support despite the fact that she would have complied with immigration rules that requires evidence of her finances and her ability to support herself whilst in the UK without recourse to public funds. What the Minister failed to comprehend is the circumstances of abuse in which such a woman may find herself and did not question why she would seek access to public funds in the first place. Indeed this point was succinctly countered by Rt Hon Theresa May MP who stated:
“I take the Minister’s point that those who have come on other visas have generally, if not in all cases, had to show that they have independent financial support, but it is perfectly possible that they might find themselves in a relationship where the removal of that financial support is part of the abuse they are suffering.”
We are deeply concerned by the Government’s contradictory and misleading response given that its own draft statutory guidance clearly states that economic abuse “can make the individual economically dependent on the abuser, and/or create economic instability, thereby limiting their ability to escape and access safety.” Some examples provided in the guidance are: retaining a victim’s wages, running up bills and debts such as credit/store cards in a victim’s name (including without them knowing); refusing to contribute to household income or to provide money to meet personal needs; and interfering with a victim’s education, training, or employment . All of these circumstances can clearly apply to someone on a visitor visa subject to domestic abuse, who may have previously declared herself as financially independent.
There is a cruel irony in the Government’s rejection of our proposals for the protection of migrant women on the basis of ‘insufficient evidence’ when the very Government policies that create the conditions of entrapment for such women; such as the NRPF condition and data-sharing between the police and the Home Office, were themselves introduced without any “specific evidence base to support the effectiveness of these measures”. This disturbing conclusion comes not from us but from the National Audit Office (NAO), the UK’s independent public spending watchdog. In its recent report on the effectiveness of immigration measures on the prevention of abuse of the system and enforcement leading to removals, it states: “The Department [The Home Office] uses its Compliant Environment approach to limit unlawful access to government-funded services”. However, the NAO concludes that there is simply no evidence to as to their effectiveness: “[The Home Office] is currently unable to assess whether these measures have any meaningful impact on the likelihood that an individual will leave the UK voluntarily.” (June 2020)
Effectively we are tangled in an insidious web whereby the Government itself now acknowledges that the NRPF policy is a tangible barrier to migrant women escaping abuse, and yet persists in retaining the NRPF condition because it needs ‘more evidence’ of its impact on migrant victims of domestic abuse. Yet, as the NAO has concluded, measures such as NRPF were introduced without any specific evidence base as to their effectiveness and without any assessment as to whether they fulfil the stated Government objective of: “…removing the incentives which it believes draws people to the UK ‘illegally’, encouraging voluntary departures and people to leave before their right to remain in the UK has expired.” 
No right of settlement?
A second reason provided for the refusal to enshrine protection for migrant women in the Bill, emerged particularly during Committee stage when it was suggested that our proposed amendments to extend eligibility for the DV Rule and the DDVC would unjustly provide all migrant women with a route to settlement. The Minister for Safeguarding stated:
“We are concerned that expanding the scope of both provisions would undermine the specific purpose that gave rise to them and introduce a route to a settlement that might lead to more exploitation of vulnerable migrants or, indeed, of our immigration system…I do not for a moment say that people who apply are lying. I absolutely do not say that. What I am worried about, and what I see with modern slavery, for example, is that the people who manipulate, exploit and take advantage will use every way they can find to do it.”
We are unclear (and have seen no evidence in all our 40 years’ of working with migrant women) as to why it would be in an abuser’s interest to ‘exploit’ his partner/spouse by helping her to regularise her status. Indeed, such a move would do the very opposite: it would implicate the abuser and expose him to criminal and legal proceedings whilst providing his partner/spouse with a route by which to access protection and independence. This is precisely why abusers routinely threaten their victims with violence and deportation if they report to outside agencies. Existing evidence shows that perpetrators of both domestic abuse and indeed modern slavery deliberately weaponise women’s insecure immigration status as a form of coercive control, through threats of destitution, forced removal, and separation from children – all of which are used to keep their victims silent and isolated. The Government is well aware of this but has inexplicably chosen to ignore this evidence in order to maintain its position.
Thirdly, also during the Committee stage, the Minister for Safeguarding stated that unlike the spouses of British nationals or those settled in the UK, migrant women who are on non-spousal visas do not have a “legitimate expectation of staying in the country…Neither the DDVC nor the DV Rule was designed to support those without the legitimate expectation of remaining in the country.” According to the Minister, this is why the DV Rule and DDVC cannot be extended.
We are very alarmed by this view since what the Minister effectively makes clear is that immigration enforcement and the ‘hostile environment’ agenda continues to take priority over the need to protect women from abuse and violence. Our view is that all women subject to abuse have a legitimate expectation of being protected from harm. The Government has a legal duty under domestic and international human rights law, such as the ECHR article 2 (right to life), Article 3 (right to be free from inhuman/degrading treatment), and article 8 (right to private and family life) especially when taken together with article 14 (non-discrimination in the enjoyment of Convention rights). The Bill is also potentially in contravention of the Istanbul Convention which also contains key state obligations (Articles, 4, 5, 7 and 59) to ensure there is effective protection from and prevention of abuse, irrespective of immigration status.
The hostile environment and structural inequality
Throughout the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill, what we have observed is the continuation of the ‘hostile (or compliant) immigration environment’ as a legitimate basis for denying migrant women and children protection from abuse and violence in the UK. This has been accompanied by dubious claims about insufficient evidence that do not stand up to close scrutiny. The Windrush affair, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have shed light on the deep and widening nature of structural economic and racial inequality in the UK and yet the Government persists in prioritising and reproducing racialised structures of inclusion and exclusion from protection and rights. In the context of domestic abuse, it has prioritised narratives about ‘illegal immigrants’ and their perceived propensity to ‘manipulate the immigration system’, for which there is no evidential basis. It has prioritised the institutionalisation of abuse and destitution over the need to guarantee protection. This sits at odds with Home Secretary Priti Patel’s recent commitments following the Windrush Lessons Learned review, to address ‘institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issues of race.’  The exclusion of migrant women from the Bill has also occurred in a context where mounting evidence is emerging about the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on women and BME groups and the courts that have ruled on the inhumane and discriminatory impact of NRPF on migrant families.
As the Bill moves to the House of Lords, we will continue to push back against the Government’s insistence that survivors of abuse be categorised according to those that are deserving of protection and those that are not. In the coming months, we will need as much support and solidarity as possible to pursue various strategies to ensure that no woman is left behind and to hold the Government to account. Please see here for our briefing on the Bill for the House of Lords.