Securing the Equal Protection of Migrant Women Victims of Domestic Abuse – All Women Count
Roundtable discussion organised by Sisters for Change on securing an inclusive and effective Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill
Below is the speech was given by Radhika Handa – Legal Policy & Campaigns Officer at Southall Black Sisters to the roundtable discussion group on 8th May 2018.
For too long, we see have seen the rights of migrant and refugee women ignored and pushed to the margins; the human rights of these vulnerable women constantly sacrificed at the altar of harsh and inhumane, asylum and immigration laws and policies. Such laws and policies have deliberately and carefully created the ‘hostile environment’ that the new Home Secretary is now seeking to disown.
Many of us repeatedly highlighted the inhumane consequences of anti-immigration laws and rhetoric that was deployed mercilessly to gain the popular vote. But now is the time to really drive home the message that we cannot and will accept the many violations that take place in the name of immigration controls.
We must use the forthcoming Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to prioritise safety, equality, dignity and liberty for migrant women. Anything less is discriminatory, unjust and completely antithetical to a civilised and democratic society.
At least 60% of the women we work with at Southall Black Sisters (SBS) have insecure immigration status. Every day for almost 40 years, we have seen migrant women who are subject to physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse. But they have nowhere to go because they fear deportation and destitution.
In the hands of perpetrators, a woman’s insecure status becomes a weapon of abuse, control and coercion. Women are deliberately kept uninformed by their partners and in-laws about their status, to keep them vulnerable and dependent. Perpetrators are safe in the knowledge that their wives and partners have nowhere to go and no means of survival. More recently, we have seen new forms of abuse of migrant women, including transnational marriage abandonment. This involves perpetrators deliberately stranding their foreign national wives (and sometimes children) abroad without papers or resources in their country of origin, to prevent them accessing justice and realising their rights in the UK.
Historically, state-imposed restrictions on migrant women’s access to services have only served to heighten their vulnerability to abuse and violence. But the most disturbing aspect is that the enactment of increasingly restrictive immigration laws and policies have failed to protect these women. In our view, this amounts to state complicity in abuse.
Because the unpalatable reality is that abused migrant women do not have the same right of access to safety and support when compared to other women who are victims of violence and abuse. This creates marginalisation and inequality and makes them vulnerable to heightened forms of domestic and sexual violence as well as harmful practices, sexual and economic exploitation and domestic violence related homicide (including so-called ‘honour’ killings) and suicide. There is evidence to suggest that BME women including migrant women suffer from disproportionately higher rates of suicide and homicide, linked to a history of abuse.
This is why we have led campaigns over the last 20 years to ensure that migrant women suffering domestic abuse do not face the appalling ‘choice’ of staying in a violent relationship and risking their lives or leaving to face destitution, deportation and further exploitation. We succeeded in introducing the Domestic Violence (DV) Rule in 2002 to allow women on spousal visas a route to apply for indefinite leave to remain if their relationship broke down due to domestic violence. Further lobbying resulted in the Destitution and Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession being introduced in 2012 to allow DV Rule applicants the chance to access limited state benefits and housing whilst their application was being considered.
However, because of the restrictions placed on who can apply under the DV Rule (and therefore be eligible for the DDV concession), most migrant women are subject to ‘no recourse to public funds’ (including housing benefit and access to social housing, child benefit and tax credits). Vulnerable women and children have no proper access to food and other basic items. Many rely on charity handouts from organisations like us and food banks. We have continued to campaign for the abolition of the no recourse to public funds restriction for all migrant women who have suffered domestic abuse as there is no doubt from our experience that it leaves women destitute, traumatised and at risk of their lives.
But rather than positive action, we have seen yet more racist legislation that undermines the government’s own commitment to end violence against women and to leave no woman behind.
The draconian measures and hostile environment created by the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016, Brexit, and other related measures have affected almost every aspect of migrant women’s lives in devastating ways. It has affected their ability to access housing, welfare benefits, open bank accounts, obtain health care and access protection and support for the abuse they have suffered. All the while, savage spending cuts and commissioning structures that value cheap, generic services are decimating both the justice system and the specialist services that support these migrant and other BME women.
I want to mention two specific problems for migrant women that we encounter in our day to day work; access to housing and the right to police protection.
In relation to housing; women with no recourse find it almost impossible to access housing.
Migrant women face delays and disbelief by local authority housing departments; they face refusals from refuges either because of a shortage of refuge spaces or because of their lack of access to benefits. Even if they are able to access a refuge, it is less likely to be a specialist service with access to a properly experienced and resourced caseworkers and even publicly funded immigration lawyers.
Women with children who are fleeing domestic abuse, in theory, should be able to access support under s17 of the children Act from social services. In reality, we face daily battles with children’s services to get them to fulfil their statutory duty to women and children. Much of our time is spent trying to get children’s services to carry out the s17 child in need assessment, and then challenging it when the much-delayed assessment turns out to be wrong or hopelessly inadequate because it ignores the domestic abuse and focusses on the mother’s character or credibility rather than the children’s welfare and needs.
Some of the most common and egregious responses that we have encountered include:
- Suggesting that the children can live with the perpetrator of abuse or his family, or recommend mediation with a view to reconciliation
- Suggesting the mother can go back to her own country (even when there is an outstanding immigration application or there is evidence it would be dangerous for her to return)
- Shunting women and children between two or more local authority areas, both of whom dispute responsibility for the family;
- Threatening to accommodate the children but not the mother or some younger children but not older children;
- Diverting the mother to make an asylum claim (and therefore shift their responsibility to provide accommodation and financial support to the National Asylum and Support Service (NASS), even where the social worker has no immigration qualifications or remit to recommend this course of action.
Women who try to obtain private sector housing also face considerable hurdles. There are now criminal penalties for landlords and letting agents who rent property to those not lawfully present in the UK. Our casework, as well as research from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, shows that even lawfully present migrants are facing discrimination when trying to rent accommodation. Those who lack the requisite paperwork – for whatever reason – are turned away or worse, are exploited financially and sexually by sham landlords. Others are provided with inadequate and sometimes dangerous housing. Some destitute and desperate migrant women are forced to turn to prostitution to survive.
In these circumstances, many abused women have no option but to rely on third parties such as friends or community members for accommodation. This leaves them in a precarious situation and vulnerable to further exploitation. Others, in absolute desperation, they return to their perpetrators with potentially catastrophic consequences for them and their children.
Asylum seeking women fleeing domestic violence are in a dire position. Although entitled to financial support and housing if they are destitute, the support they are given is hopelessly inadequate. The financial support is £36.95 per household per week, with small additional payment available to pregnant women and young children. NASS housing can be provided anywhere in the country and a refusal of accommodation (however justified) will mean no further accommodation offer will be made. This means that asylum seeking women face the ‘choice’ of homelessness if they refuse NASS accommodation, or dispersal to an unfamiliar part of the country at short notice, destroying what support networks they have been able to form, often rendering them unable to continue work with support services such as SBS, and leaving them isolated and even more vulnerable to violence, exploitation and mental health problems.
Police Prioritisation of Immigration Enforcement
We have long been concerned about migrant women who report domestic abuse being questioned by police about their immigration status and indeed being reported to the Home Office rather than being afforded protection and safety. In a recent case, the police and Chair of a local Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC) made clear to SBS that vulnerable and abused women with insecure immigration status should not call the police even in emergencies where they fear for their lives or that of their children. The police argued that they are duty bound to arrest and report women to the immigration authorities if they are flagged up on their database as ‘illegal immigrants’, irrespective of whether or not they are taking steps to secure their status based on their right to apply to remain in the UK as victims of domestic violence. SBS arranged a meeting with the local borough commander, where the police confirmed the view that their paramount duty is to arrest migrant women with insecure status and not to protect even in cases of domestic violence.
We have consistently challenged MARAC partners in similar scenarios, and have often been able to influence best practice and ‘change the dialogue’ around immigration matters at local MARACs. We know from partner organisations that where MARAC is not challenged, there is a culture developing of turning to immigration enforcement as a means of affording so-called protection to abused migrant women or to deal with risks posed by perpetrators. This means that both victims and even perpetrators are arrested, detained and even deported without due process.
This is not just a local problem. We are aware of similar responses within MARAC elsewhere and indeed the same ‘immigration overprotection’ attitude with police forces across the country.
Conclusion and Recommendations
So in conclusion – and we have made this point many times before – immigration status should never impact on the rights of all migrant women regardless of their status, to be safe from harm and abuse. We will be making the following demands in this area in respect of the DV Bill:
- We must have one coherent, overarching policy of protection and rights for all migrant women suffering gender-based violence (including women with insecure status and asylum seeking women);
- Abolish the ‘no recourse to public funds’ restriction for all migrant women and children subject to gender-based violence;
- Extend the DV Rule and DDV concession to include all migrant women and children irrespective of their visa status and extend the DDV Concession to longer than three months’ leave;
- Reform housing and social security laws and policies vital to prevent abused women and children plunging into poverty and destitution. This would include refuge places for all migrant women suffering domestic abuse with access to a specialist, properly resourced link worker;
- Provide clear statutory guidance to the police, social services and health services to protect and assist victims of domestic abuse and their children, regardless of immigration status;
- Develop safe and confidential reporting systems for victims with insecure immigration status
- End the policy of dispersal for abused female asylum seekers
- Greater inclusion of foreign spouses in the visa application process, at both the stage of application and curtailment, so that they are aware of their rights;
- Provide temporary visas for women who have entered the UK on spousal visas and are taken to another country and abandoned there so they can come back into the UK to exercise their rights.
- Institute ring-fenced funding for specialist BME services and refugees based on history and track record of working to further equality and human rights of women.