The forthcoming Domestic Violence Bill must prioritise safety, equality, dignity and liberty for migrant women. Anything less is discriminatory, unjust and completely antithetical to a civilised, democratic society that claims to respect human rights values.
Time and time again we hear the government’s rhetoric that no woman should suffer domestic violence. Yet time and time again we see the rights of migrant and refugee women ignored and pushed to the margins; the human rights of these vulnerable women are constantly sacrificed at the altar of harsh and inhumane asylum and immigration policies. We say no more. No more must migrant and refugee women be treated as second class citizens. No more must migrant and refugee women be afforded lesser rights and protections than British women.
Despite hard-won concessions for migrant women who are victims of domestic violence, they continue to be a highly vulnerable and marginalised group. Asylum seeking women are dependant on support and accommodation from the National Asylum Support Service (NASS). This is often inadequate and results in vulnerable women being dispersed across the country, away from any support networks they have built and frequently living below the poverty line in substandard and isolated conditions. The Destitution and Domestic Violence concession allows some migrant women who are applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain under the Domestic Violence Rule limited access to benefits whilst their application to remain is processed. However, other vulnerable migrant women, including abused women with insecure status and subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ requirement, have no access to state benefits or housing including refuge spaces. They are forced to depend on charity handouts, food banks, or (if they have children) limited support under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 which is becoming more and more difficult to access. This state of affairs renders them even more susceptible to destitution, harm and exploitation.
We have made this point many times before – immigration status should never impact on the right to be safe from domestic violence. But rather than positive action, we have seen yet more racist legislation. The Immigration Act 2016 has severely impinged on migrants’ right to access services such as health and housing; this has left some of our service users unable to access private housing and at risk of exploitation by landlords due to their insecure immigration status. Other women are too frightened to access healthcare due to NHS data sharing with the Home Office. Alarmingly, the anti-immigration, xenophobic and hostile culture and environment resulting from the enactment of the Immigration Act and draconian enforcement measures has contributed to the subversion of those statutory and even voluntary sector services that are expected to protect the most vulnerable in our society. The police, health professionals and social workers are all expected to act as border guards and to prioritise this over and above their duties to protect and assist vulnerable women and children.
All too often, we have seen our users suffering extreme poverty and serious mental health problems as a result of these damaging policies.
Our demands for migrant women are simple:
Abolish the ‘no recourse to public funds’ restriction for migrant women fleeing domestic violence;
End the policy of dispersal of refugee women and urgently review the levels of financial support provided by NASS;
All migrant women must have the opportunity to regularise their status as victims of gender based violence;
Specialist services for BME women (including migrant and refugee women) must be properly funded and resourced;
The safety net of equalities and human rights legislation must be protected at all costs;
Migrant and refugee women must be treated as equal human beings of equal worth, with equal access to justice and state protection.