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.

Domestic abuse is a widespread issue in the UK: one woman is killed every three days as a result while almost half of millennials claim to have witnessed domestic abuse during childhood. The charity Safe Lives estimate that domestic violence costs the British economy £66 billion a year – more than alcohol and drug misuse, obesity and cigarettes combined.

In a once-in-a-lifetime landmark victory, the government unveiled its draft Domestic Abuse Bill (DA) this January which offered, for the first time, a statutory definition that recognises financial coercion, controlling behaviour and other non-physical forms of domestic abuse. The refreshing reforms also included a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner alongside further protection notices and orders. It felt as though the voices of victims were finally being heard: the drafted bill also promised to axe the traumatising practice in which abusers have been able to cross-examine and interrogate their victims in family courts. This is a monumental move that is long overdue.

However, migrant women and refugee women are crucially left out of the government’s new-founded empathy, despite the fact that their route to safety is disproportionately littered with obstacles. 

Blocked from public resources such as benefits and social housing as a consequence of restrictive visa rules, vulnerable women have few places left to turn to. Many feel trapped by the terms and conditions of their Spouse Visa requirements since this dictates that the non-British migrant physically lives with their partner (the ‘sponsor’) in the UK. Numerous women in such seemingly helpless positions actually go on to seek a Spouse Visa extension to surpass the five-year minimum threshold for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) which liberates them from needing a ‘sponsor’ and from being confined under their abuser’s roof.

Part and parcel with domestic abuse – particularly for migrant women – is that many are often starved of their rights. Few know that there is a loophole that can lead to safety without jeopardising their legal residency rights: the ‘domestic violence rule’ provides a fast-track ticket to ILR – as long as the applicant can prove they are a victim of domestic abuse. If successful, victims can then apply for the ‘destitute domestic violence concession’ (DDVC) which grants them access to public funding and housing for up to three months. However, since the ‘hostile environment’ dominated and tainted applications from 2012 onwards, refusal rates for women seeking ILR under the domestic violence rule rose from 12% to 30% by 2016.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that their insecure immigration status is used against them twofold: while abusers exploit their victims’ vulnerability as a method of control, local authorities have also been found to perpetuate the wheels of abuse and hostility by reporting them to immigration enforcement. Over half (27 of 45) police forces across the country admit to sharing victims’ details with the Home Office for immigration purposes. The Home Office actually suggest some survivors “may be best served by returning to their country of origin”. As a result, 2 in 3 migrant women fear reporting abuse while Liberty and Southall Black Sisters have launched a police super-complaint, referencing cases in which victims have been arrested and placed in detention instead of being protected.

Following a joint campaigning effort by 30 leading organisations in the UK under the coalition Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW), MPs and Lords examined the ways in which the bill fell short and published their findings in a report on 14 June.

In light of the financial hurdles migrant victims face, the Committee recommends that the three-month funding support be extended to six months and should be open to all survivors of abuse. The Committee were horrified to hear cases in which the authorities neglected their duty of care by handing victims over to immigration enforcement and agreed that a firewall ought to be in place to prevent public services from sharing such information in the future. MPs also urged the government to extend the statutory definition even further to recognise migrant women’s unique plight and circumstances, including ‘coercive control related to immigration status’.

However, the Bill still has room for improvement. Notably, the ‘no resource to public funding’ (NRPF) rule was flagged by the Committee since most migrants – spouses, fiancés, students, workers and those on an unmarried partner visa – are all sadly susceptible to abuse, but only migrants on a spousal visa can claim for financial aid through the DDVC route. Further still, victims burdened with the NRPF rule are also blocked from temporary shelter since they cannot claim housing benefit to fund their place in the refuge. In Women’s Aid project, ‘No Woman Turned Away’, as high as two-thirds of women were not eligible for financial support because they were not on spousal visas. Despite ironically having just recognised economic coercion and financial abuse – in which a perpetrator controls and/or dominates a victim’s finances – the government doesn’t seem to be extending its commitment to safeguard migrant victims from this form of abuse.

Another major hindrance for migrant women seeking protection is the reams of evidence they must submit to convince the Home Office of the abuse they receive, which seemingly goes amiss by the Committee. Women must provide at least one letter from a GP/medical practitioner, social services, a women’s refuge or any police documents to ‘prove’ they are a victim of abuse. In a dark twist of fate, victims who have also faced too much physical violence and racked up over £500 of litigation debt to the NHS may also find themselves ineligible for protection from the government.

Women’s refuges are overwhelmingly overflowing, underfunded and decimated too. Austerity has plunged councils into axing their budgets and safe havens. 94 women and 90 children were turned away a day from shelter in 2017 while all four rape crisis centres across London were forced to close their waiting lists entirely in 2018. Women’s Aid also criticised the lack of resources and funding for specialist BAME services: in just 2018, there were just 30 refuge services run specifically to meet BME women’s needs.

In a bid to patch up her legacy that leaves behind a stinging catalogue of injustices inflicted upon migrant and BAME communities in the UK, Theresa May regards the new bill a personal priority to complete. The government is supposed to be writing the bill into law by 16 July – only one week before Mrs May abandons her post at the helm for good.

However, it’s clear that the final stages of this bill should not be rushed: there is still significant work to be done and the legislation simply isn’t fit for purpose yet. While the rough bill is certainly a step in the right direction, the Committee finds its current form a “missed opportunity” when it comes to protecting migrant victims. The government must assess the landscape and the factors that impact such victims – women should not be choosing between destitution, detention, deportation or continued abuse and violence.

Unfortunately, until the new recommendations are taken onboard, the bill is just a diluted drop in the ocean at what could have been – and a bitterly sad missed-up opportunity to protect those on the margins of our society.

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