Domestic Abuse Bill Does Not Go Far Enough to Protect Migrant Women
By Bethany Morris, a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of leading immigration solicitors. @IASImmigration
In January 2019, the UK Government published the draft Domestic Abuse Bill in attempt to tackle the crisis of gender-based violence, which according to the National Crime Survey for England and Wales, increased by 23% between 2017 and 2018. Although the draft bill offered some promising proposals including an extended definition of domestic abuse to incorporate non-physical abuse and economic abuse, the implementation of a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner and the prevention of cross-examination of victims in court, the support for migrant and BAME victims again appears sparse. As a result, many continue to experience emotional and economic abuse, and their perpetrators gross misuse and manipulation of their immigration status.
The Step Up Migrant Women coalition organised a protest in Parliament Square to voice their concerns over the new bill’s inadequate support for migrant women. Illary Valenzuela-Oblitas, the coordinator of the coalition, has expressed unease at the distrust in authorities amongst victims, with many being ‘blocked from reporting violence to the police or GP’s for fear they will be treated as suspects and face detention or deportation’; a study conducted by the Latin American Women’s Rights Service at Kings College London supports this, discovering that 2 in 3 migrant women fear reporting their abuse to the authorities.
The joint committee on the draft bill has since conveyed concern over its ‘missed opportunity’ to incorporate protections for BAME and migrant victims. Consequently, the Committee have agreed to place a ‘firewall’ between immigration enforcement and public services to ensure victims are protected rather than deported; a prospect that is commonly weaponised as a form of control. It is feared that this threat has forced many women to apply for a Spouse Visa Extension to prevent deportation and strengthen their immigration claims. Amending the definition of domestic abuse to incorporate the weaponization of immigration status is another welcome amendment which would see migrant and BAME victims further supported. In addition, the committee recommend that protections against discrimination should be reinforced by public authorities to ensure that the rights of victims are safeguarded.
Although such changes are welcomed, more reforms to the Domestic Abuse Bill are needed to defend the rights of migrant and BAME victims. The ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) rule states that those with a residence permit allowing them to live in the UK may be illegible to access public funds. Those who fall into this bracket include those who live in the UK on a Spouse Visa, the stipulations of which are already restricting for those struggling to flee their oppression. Statistics by the Sisters for Change demonstrate this further since as many as 40% of BME women are living in poverty in the UK. Ultimately, the inability to claim benefits or receive healthcare could prove detrimental to victims who may already be on a low income or have their finances withheld by their abusers.
The report compiled by the Sisters for Change in November 2017 stated that ‘law and policies fail to address the differentiated needs and intersectional discrimination of BME women’ after discovering that cuts to financial budgets and aid, both centrally and locally, have left victims isolated. The report has found that a lack of specialist services for the BAME community is fostering an environment that poses an increased risk of stereotyping the forms of abuse that BAME women endure, as a sharper focus on culturally-specific forms of violence such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has diverted attention away from ‘everyday’ forms of abuse, such as domestic abuse.
Additionally, local authority budgets for refuges were cut from £31.2 million to £23.9 million in 2017 reducing the aid available to the most vulnerable. The report also discovered that Violence Against Women (VAW) services are experiencing a nationwide funding crisis which has been fuelled by budget cuts to local authorities, in turn placing pressure on smaller charities to offer support to marginalised groups.
Victims of domestic abuse who reside in the UK on a Spouse Visa and wish to escape their partnership must cancel their Visa, known as a Spouse Visa Curtailment. This process is a serious hindrance to victims, often requiring them to provide an extortionate amount of evidence to attest that they are genuinely a victim before they can legally escape their relationship.
Consequently, systems that should be protecting the rights of survivors and victims are failing to do so, in turn leaving them isolated, unsupported and risking the perpetuation of abuse. Although the committee’s criticisms offer some welcoming approaches towards ensuring the rights of migrant and BAME victims, there is clearly more assurance and action needed to give victims the rights and support that they need and deserve.