The ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy has created a number of barriers to protection for women fleeing domestic violence – and the Domestic Abuse Bill is failing to help them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated an existing crisis of violence against women. The Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently being debated in The House of Lords, implements a number of positive steps towards tackling this crisis, including creating a statutory definition of “domestic violence”, providing for a new Protection Order system, and prohibiting the cross-examination of victims in court.
However, the legislation has been heavily criticised for leaving a “gaping hole” with regards to migrant women. Hostile environment policies have created a number of barriers to protection and support for migrant women escaping domestic violence, and the Domestic Abuse Bill is failing to provide special measures to address these.
Of particular concern is the impact of the “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) provision, which prohibits migrants without indefinite leave to remain from accessing welfare. The NRPF rule forces women to choose between staying in abusive households and risking destitution and homelessness. This lack of access to the welfare safety net means that they are almost always ineligible for access to emergency accommodation: the Women’s Equality Party found that four in five migrant women are turned away from refuges, whilst women’s organisation Safety4Sisters have reported that 100% of the migrant women that have been referred to them during the pandemic had been refused vital services because they were not legally entitled to them. Support for women with NRPF is highly restricted — the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC), which provides a three-month “grace period” of eligibility for public funds, only applies to women with spousal visas. The Domestic Abuse Bill must address this gap, opening up access to financial support and ensuring that immigration enforcement is not prioritised over protecting vulnerable women.
The Domestic Abuse Bill must also address the ways in which hostile environment policies can frighten women away from seeking help. In particular, the obligation of many public services — including victim support and social services, as well as the police — to carry out immigration status checks can leave women unwilling to report their abuse. Research by Step Up Migrant Women discovered a number of fears related to immigration status that were preventing women from seeking help, including a fear of deportation and detention, and a fear of having their children taken away. Recognition of these fears and their role as a barrier to support is critical. Women’s rights groups have recommended that the bill contain provisions for safe reporting mechanisms in the criminal justice system, as well as a firewall between public services and immigration control policies, in order to ensure that women can seek support without the threat of being reported to the Home Office.
Current legislation also fails to take account of the roles that insecure immigration status and the hostile environment can play as tools of abuse, weaponised by perpetrators to prevent their victims from seeking help. Step Up Migrant Women found that almost two-thirds of the women studied were threatened with deportation if they reported their abuser, whilst over one half were told by their abusers that they would lose their visas. End Violence Against Women (EVAW) have stressed that the statutory definition of domestic abuse under the new bill must recognise how threats concerning immigration status, as well as the control of documents and application processes, can serve as a form of domestic violence and abuse.
Campaigners are pushing for the government to stick to their promise to fulfil Articles 4(3) and 59 of the Istanbul Convention, which prohibit discrimination in domestic violence support on the grounds of migrant status and residence status. However, whether the government are willing to ensure special protections for migrant women — and by extension to tackle the harms caused by the hostile environment — remains uncertain. Indeed, as some campaigners have suggested, it is difficult to tell whether these ‘gaps’ in the Domestic Abuse Bill are accidental, or deliberate efforts at exclusion.
At JAN Trust, we provide impartial, culturally sensitive and confidential advice and guidance for marginalised women experiencing various issues, including domestic violence. You can find out more about our work and our services here.