Karishma Dharni

SBS #ChoosetoChallenge discrimination against migrant women this International Woman’s Day

To mark international women’s day (IWD) in 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May stated: “No woman and no child should ever spend their days living in fear, suffering domestic abuse and fearful of speaking out.”(1)  And yet, these are precisely the circumstances faced by migrant women and children daily, as outlined so powerfully in the 16 survivor testimonies collated here. Survivor Nausheen says: “the fear, grief of helplessness can’t be explained in words.”

IWD this year coincides with the Domestic Abuse Bill moving to the ‘Report Stage’ in the House of Lords. Hailed as ‘landmark legislation’, there is, however, a glaring and deliberate omission – there is no protection for migrant women. To mark IWD this year, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) #ChoosetoChallenge the Government’s legislation, policies and narratives that deem migrant women undeserving of protection from violence and abuse. This exclusion takes on particular meaning today, on #IWD, as we mourn the passing of Dorothy, a dear friend, SBS ambassador and sister who too was excluded from state protection.

Amendments put forward by SBS and others to ensure that the raft of new measures in the Bill can be accessed by migrant women (the majority of whom are turned away from life-saving refuges and welfare services), and to remove barriers to their safety, have to date, been resolutely rejected. You can read more about our proposed amendments and why they are needed in our briefing on the Domestic Abuse Bill here and our blog here.

Nine years on since the signing of the Istanbul Convention in 2012, the Government is unable to ratify the Convention because of its wilful refusal to adhere to Articles 4(3) and 59 concerning the need to uphold the non-discrimination principle on the basis of migrant or refugee status (2). Instead of treating all women and children subject to violence in the UK as victims ‘first and foremost’ as the Government’s rhetoric on the Domestic Abuse Bill would have us believe, migrant women are in reality being framed as ‘potential immigration offenders’ who will use domestic abuse to ‘exploit’ the immigration system – although there is simply no evidential basis for making such an assumption. In the meantime, to save face, the Government has offered a paltry temporary one-year pilot scheme for migrant women to access as an alternative – a scheme which will help a fraction of the women in need with the most minimal support and with no guarantees that when it ends, long lasting measures will be put into place. (See here for information about the unsuitability of the pilot scheme.)

A genuine commitment from the Government to uphold the rights of women and girls would contend with the experiences of all women and girls subject to gender-based violence, irrespective of background or immigration status. This requires confronting the ways in which broader punitive immigration and asylum policies increase the risk of multiple harms to survivors, and force them to live outside of systems of state protection, whilst also creating a climate of impunity for abusers. In the broader scheme of things, the Government’s position is not surprising given its intent to create a pernicious immigration system. The Guardian recently reported that a new network of immigration detention units for women is being planned by the Home Office, contrary to previous pledges to reform the system and reduce the number of vulnerable people detained. The report also goes onto state that separately, a pilot scheme to ensure vulnerable women could live in the community instead of being detained appears to have quietly been wound down by the Home Office and will close next month.

We fear that the pilot scheme that is being offered by the Government for migrant women subject to domestic abuse will suffer a similar fate.

So far, there is nothing to suggest that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel ’s recent promise to learn the lessons from the Windrush scandal was ever intended to be taken seriously. Stand with us this IWD and #ChoosetoChallenge the discriminatory two-tier system of protection that is on offer for migrant women. Stand with us in challenging the hostile environment and its ever-expanding ways of inflicting cruelty on the most vulnerable in our society who are in need of security and justice. Join us in demanding #ProtectionForAll.

(1) PM’s International Woman’s Day Speech (8 March 2018) https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pms-international-womens-day-speech-8-march-2018

(2) Home Office (October 2020) Ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Combating Violence Against Women and Girls and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) – 2020 Report on Progress: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/928764/CCS001_CCS1020331858-003_Istanbul_Convention_Progress_Report_E-Laying.pdf

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