Karishma Dharni

The struggle continues: SBS responds to the Government’s rejection of our amendments to protect migrant women

Why we are not celebrating the Domestic Abuse Act!

On Thursday 29 April 2021, the Domestic Abuse Bill received Royal Assent, which makes the Bill an Act (law). We are deeply disappointed by this result. The Government’s rejection of the opportunity presented by the Bill to amend the legislation and protect migrant women subject to abuse is deeply disappointing, and so we will not be celebrating. We are clear that without equal protection for all survivors, the Bill is neither ‘landmark’ nor ‘transformational’, it is discriminatory. Our struggle continues.

In total, three amendments were put forward to offer vital protection for migrant women, led by Southall Black Sisters (SBS), the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) and the End Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW). Had these amendments been accepted, they would have put a decisive end to the two-tier discriminatory system of support that exists for victims of abuse in the UK; a system which determines whether or not a woman deserves safety and security based on her immigration status. Had these amendments been accepted, they would have also ended the climate of impunity that exists for perpetrators who harm women without consequence, precisely because of their insecure immigration status.

Our amendment to extend eligibility for the Domestic Violence Rule (DV Rule) and the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC) successfully passed in the House of Lords, but was subsequently rejected again by the Government. SBS then revised the amendment which was also successfully passed in the House of Lords, to lift No Recourse to Public Funds for migrant survivors for the 12-month duration of the ‘pilot scheme’. This was again rejected by the Government, with 352 votes against versus 270 in favour.

In defence of its position in both Houses, the Government has repeated its usual justifications, primarily based on its ingrained, immovable opposition to providing routes to settlement to migrant survivors of abuse, for fear of denting its hostile and inhumane immigration strategy. It has repeatedly stated that it requires more evidence of need and that it must ‘prevent the exploitation’ of the immigration system – both statements that do not hold up to scrutiny. The Scottish National Party’s Stuart C McDonald posed the question in the Commons: “The question for this House is: What is more important, protecting and supporting victims, or protecting Home Office powers over migration?” The Government’s decision to reject our amendments gives us the answer.

As expected, the Government strategically bolstered its position with a timely announcement in advance of the voting stages, that SBS has been awarded funds to run the Support for Migrant Victims scheme (the pilot project) to support women. However, as we have already stated, this does not alter our position that legislative protection is urgently required. The pilot scheme’s unambitious scope and seriously limited funding means that at best, the pilot project will reach 500 women a year for 12 weeks only – and even then will not provide all the holistic support they need. The majority of vulnerable migrant women will remain unprotected. The Government did not respond to Jess Phillips’ question as to “what happens…when the 501st victim visits?”

We commend the work of our sisters at LAWRS for succeeding in securing two compromise but important changes to the Bill in relation to data-sharing between statutory services and the Home Office when migrant women report abuse. You can read more about these amendments here.

We note that elsewhere, the Government appeared to be much more receptive to amendments that strengthened the criminal justice system, (a system that ironically will remain largely inaccessible to migrant survivors, mainly due to their lack of routes to safety). The narrative espoused by the Government during the passage of the Bill has been one of ‘collaboration and cooperation’, but this has been greatly undermined by the insincerity of the stance that has been adopted. We note for example, that whilst measures that give equal protection to migrant women are to be postponed and made conditional on the outcome of the pilot project, Minister Atkins took an entirely different approach to the amendment to criminalise threats to share intimate images in relation to revenge porn, even though a review of the issue is currently underway. She said of that amendment: “Although the Law Commission is currently reviewing the law around intimate image abuse, we recognise the case for immediate action”. She elaborated that the amendment will “have an immediate impact”, pending the Law Commission’s report and recommendations later this year. We ask: Does serious and escalating harm and violence against migrant women similarly not represent a “case for immediate action”? Do migrant survivors facing unthinkable violence not deserve protection measures that have an “immediate impact”, pending the outcome of a pilot project that will ‘inform us of needs’ that are already widely known?

Despite these and other contradictions, we are not deterred from our struggle to ensure the safety and protection of all women, without discrimination. We are immensely grateful to our supporters including the many VAWG organisations who have stood alongside us in this campaign, including LAWRS, EVAW, Safety4Sisters North West, the Angelou Centre and Women’s Aid, along with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the Victim’s Commissioner and others. We also applaud the contributions of many who voted in favour of our amendment in in the House of Commons, particularly those by Jess Phillips MP (who has been a stalwart in the fight for equal protection for all survivors) along with Apsana Begum MP, Stella Creasy MP, Stephen Timms MP, Christine Jardine MP and Stuart C McDonald MP. Maria Miller MP was also amongst those who brought thoughtful scrutiny to bear on the pilot project in the final stages, and reminded the Government of its commitments to ratify the Istanbul Convention by creating a law that works for all women. We are also incredibly grateful for the support given by Peers, particularly our friend the Lord Bishop of Gloucester, Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, who successfully tabled our amendment in the House of Lords and showed moral leadership on the matter, with the support of Lord Rosser, Lord Alton, Lord Griffiths, Baroness Crawley, Lord Woolley, Baroness Helić, and so many others. It is the encouragement and support of so many from all corners that strengthens our determination to continue this struggle, along with our commitment to our courageous service-users who remind us never to give up.

We end this piece with the words of a survivor, Somiya, who eloquently sets out the case for protection that this Government has shamefully rejected:

“Exasperation is the only word I can utter and feel. Regardless of one’s immigration status, everyone deserves to be defended and protected from a person who is in a position to discard and disown the very person they promised to love and protect. Every person matters and the law should be equally applied to all people, yet lawmakers seem to be blind to the huge loopholes in the system. Lawmakers simply refuse to see the difference in the power play in traditional marriage or partnerships and that all is not as it seems. The perpetrators will continue to use this flaw in the system to continue exerting ruthless abuse and violence, without any fear of retribution. The law considers the social and immigration status of the perpetrators and refuses to acknowledge the road taken by women in a traditional marriages. Until the law recognises how vulnerable immigrant and BME women in traditional marriages and relationships are, and sees that women’s right to protection from violence and abuse is withheld because of their immigration status, which is discrimination, women will continue living without substantial protection.”

We hope you will continue to stand with us even as the curtain falls on this chapter of our struggle. Our doors will remain open to all women and children, and our fight goes on.

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