Domestic violence is an incident or pattern of incidents that involve violent, threatening or degrading behaviour towards a partner or ex-partner. In the year prior to March 2018, the police for England and Wales recorded almost 600,000 domestic abuse cases, increasing 23% from the previous year. Each week, two women are killed each week by a current or former partner.
For migrant and Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) women, domestic abuse continues to be one of the greatest risks they may face in the UK. Fears of being forced to abandon their homes and children, in the case of speaking out, leaves many victims choosing to endure repeated instances of sexual abuse and violence by their controlling and coercive partners. Research by the national charity Safe Lives found that BAME victims, including migrant women, stay silent about their abuse for almost 1.5 times longer than white, British or Irish women, and were less likely to reach out for help.
Silence over Safety
The prevailing reason why migrant women keep quiet about their abuse is due to their dependency on a Spouse Visa, allowing them to live with a UK sponsor for 30 months. This means that individuals are often financially dependent on their abusive sponsors, with the risk of destitution hanging over their heads if they choose to come forward with allegations of abuse. This poses challenges in relation to the current Universal Credit Policy which makes payments to households rather than individuals, marking financial independence from a partner much more difficult. An individual who wishes to apply for an Alternative Arrangement payment must provide written evidence from a ‘person acting in an official capacity’; a task that will almost definitely arouse the attention or suspicion of an abusive partner.
Additionally, with a hostile environment still very much encompassing society’s treatment of migrants, turning to the authorities to seek help encompasses its own risks. Last December, the human rights groups, Liberty and Southall Black Sisters, lodged the first ever super-complaint against the police after a secretive data-sharing arrangement with the Home Office was exposed. As a major breach of trust and responsibility, the investigation revealed that victims of domestic abuse, who came to the police for support, were instead being reported to immigration enforcement.
What’s more, with domestic abusers aware of the temporary and indefinite nature of their victim’s immigration status, manipulation and threats of being deported further prevent individuals from speaking out. In religious communities, women are reluctant to report or address the subject of abuse from a male partner in the fear of marginalization, ostracization or further abuse from family and friends. Additionally, the official government doctrine that migrant domestic abuse victims ‘may be best served by returning to their country of origin’ fails to consider those who are seeking asylum and are at serious risk of significant persecution and danger in their country of origin.
The Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill
One step in the right direction for domestic abuse victims is the draft of a new Domestic Abuse Bill, released by the Home Office in January. The bill’s encouraging aspects include the promise of a reformed system that centres on helping victims, rather than their abusers, and provides the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse which includes physical, financial and emotional abuse. One particularly praised element of the Bill was its pledge to prohibit the placing of victims on the stand with their abusers during cross-examinations.
However, the Bill falls short in lending sufficient support to BAME and migrant women who lack social security, support, and access to resources. In October 2018, the importance of offering equal support to all women in the UK was laid out in the Home Affairs Select Committee advisory report on the Government’s bill. However, many campaign groups, including those that make up the Step Up Migrant Women coalition, have argued that the draft bill fails to adequately address certain issues faced by abused migrant women – including the issue of police referrals to the Home Office.
Additionally, whilst the future of Brexit remains hazy, EU citizens can expect diminished protection from domestic abuse once stricter immigration rules are implemented. If failing to provide sufficient evidence of continuous residency or missing the deadline for settled status, EU migrants risk falling into an area of illegality.
Escaping Domestic Violence
Whilst a typical Spouse Visa curtailment (a divorce) would result in the non-British spouse having to return to their country of origin, migrants who have experienced domestic violence can apply for a Spouse Visa Extension and then Indefinite Leave to Remain. This will enable a victim to leave their abusive partner and live independently from the conditions of their previous Spouse visa. They can then apply for public funding and financial support for three months through a Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDV) whilst their case and visa status are reviewed by the Home Office.
However, the process is lengthy and requires victims to provide detailed proof of their abusive relationship in order to qualify. For victims who speak little English, fulfilling the requirements of their applications is made even harder, putting their cases at a disadvantage or deterring them completely. Additionally, many migrant women may lose this option if they have any outstanding debts or charges of over £500 on the NHS. The government desperately needs to drop this litigation debt which penalises victims who need constant medical support from the NHS due to the severity and frequency of their abuse.
Exacerbating these issues is the government’s decision to consistently axe legal aid for domestic abuse victims since 2012. Legal Aid is fundamental in ensuring that migrant women have access to the correct documents, are aware of the immigration process and have access to legal advice and support.
Whilst the draft Domestic Abuse Bill shows a glimpse of hope in protecting domestic abuse victims, the Government’s provisions for migrant women continue to be inadequate. Effective legislation that directly commits to the prohibition of reporting victims to immigration enforcement desperately needs to be enforced. The option to escape domestic violence has to be available for all. Greater access to support services, refuge provision, and Legal Aid are all fundamental in ensuring that no woman has to endure damaging and often, life-threatening abuse.
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This article has been written by Maddie Grounds, political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service – an organisation of leading UK immigration lawyers. | @IASimmigration
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