Migrant Women’s Concerns Are Heard Only Weeks Before The Domestic Abuse Bill Is Written Into Law

This article has been written by Olivia Bridge who is a political correspondent and commentator for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of leading UK immigration lawyers.

At the beginning of this year, the UK government released a drafted version of its ground-breaking and much-awaited domestic abuse (DA) bill in a bid to tackle the endemic that now costs almost three women a week their lives and the British economy £66 billion a year. Over two million people – almost 6% of all adults – endure domestic abuse in the UK every year while almost half of millennials claim to have witnessed abuse as children.

However, following its release this January, the DA bill prompted criticisms from leading women’s rights campaigners and groups – notably the coalition Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW) – for failing to protect BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), refugee and migrant women.

After migrant survivors staged a demo in Parliament Square to raise awareness and to spur the government into action, the Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee echoed their concerns and published their review of the bill in a report this June.

Higher hurdles for migrant victims

A prevailing concern for the Committee stems from the ‘no recourse to public funding’ rule (NRPF) which applies to the vast majority of individuals in the UK on a time-restrictive visa. For migrant victims of abuse, this places an additional barrier between seeking safety in a refuge or social housing. With no money to flee with and constrained by the conditions of their Spouse Visa, migrant victims feel they have little choice but to stay with their abuser until they pass the five-year mark to seek permanent settlement on their own.

Fortunately, the government recognises that five years at the mercy of a violent and controlling partner is too much to bear. There is one route – the ‘domestic violence rule’ – which allows victims to curtail their Spouse Visa and seek Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). Victims can also apply for the ‘destitute domestic violence concession’ (DDVC) which provides financial aid, but only for three months. However, only those on spousal visas are eligible for this support which leaves many women on work, student and partner/fiancé visas stranded and stuck between breaking the conditions of their visa, risking deportation, becoming destitute or homeless, or enduring the abuse. Those without any financial aid are often turned away from refuges too since they cannot claim housing benefit to fund their place. In Women’s Aid project, ‘No Woman Turned Away’, two-thirds of women were not able to claim support because they were not on spousal visas.

Aside from the obvious problem that a vast majority of migrant women fall through the cracks of this, there are also significant obstacles blocking the path to safety for those who are eligible. To gain a fee waiver and prove their destitution, victims must submit paperwork such as bank statements, payslips and utility bills – documents which can quite often be withheld by perpetrators. The irony of demanding this is that the DA Bill has just identified financial and economic abuse in its statutory definition.

Victims must also convince the Home Office that, on the balance of probabilities, they are a survivor of domestic abuse who is eligible for protection. In its guidance document, the Home Office lists a table of evidence in which certain paperwork has higher value than others. For example, any proof demonstrating the abuser has a criminal conviction, a police caution or an order in civil court is ranked as substantial, conclusive proof. Letters compiled from social services, welfare officers or even witnesses can also be submitted as ‘strong’ evidence. However, arrests, police reports, medical reports from hospitals or a GP only amount to ‘moderate’ value while statements from the victim themselves or photographs constitute as ‘weak’ supporting evidence.

Having an insecure immigration status in the current ‘hostile’ climate is another factor silencing migrant women from coming forward, which abusers often exploit too. Yet exacerbating their concerns even further is the fact that authorities mimic these methods by reporting migrant victims of abuse to immigration enforcement. As many as 27 police forces admit to upholding this practice, and Amnesty International actually found Home Office guidelines stating that some victims “may be best served by returning to their country of origin”. The result of this is that fewer migrants expose their ordeal: 2 in 3 migrant women are hesitant to report abuse while half of respondents to a study by the Latin American Women’s Rights Service at King’s College London claimed they feared the police would side with their perpetrator. It doesn’t help that applications for ILR through the ‘domestic violence rule’ are being refused at a higher rate than before the ‘hostile environment’ policy came into effect in 2012 (ILR refusals for domestic abuse victims rose from 12% to 30% by 2016).

The DA Bill and the Committee’s Findings

While heralded as a once-in-a-generation opportunity, the DA Bill offers some great reforms that would alleviate thousands of women out of abusive households. Examples include a new statutory definition that finally recognises non-physical abuse, such as financial coercion and control, alongside reformed protection notices and protection orders with stringent punishments for offenders. Crucially, the Bill offers to end what Women’s Aid called an “abhorrent practice” in which victims are cross-examined by their ex-partners and abusers in family courts.

However, it clearly falls short at protecting those without Settled Status or British Citizenship. Fortunately, the Committee recognised this and suggested recommendations that would make all the difference, such as extending the financial aid to six months rather than three and for building a firewall to prevent police forces handing victims over to border control. The panel also urged the government to extend the statutory definition to recognise migrant women’s unique plight and circumstances, including ‘coercive control related to immigration status’, forced marriage, FGM and honour-based violence.

Yet with time ticking down before the DA bill is expected to be written into law (16 July), and with Theresa May making it her personal goal to achieve before she leaves office, concerns are rising that the bill will be rushed through without the recommendations being considered. In its current form, the Committee regards the bill a “missed opportunity” in that it bitterly falls short at protecting those who it is designed to protect. Without reforms to the bill and significant attention to its shortfalls, the bill will achieve little at cracking down on domestic abuse and the practice will sadly limp on.