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Wed 29 September 2021

The Government voted against amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would have improved access to justice for migrant women, Sian Norris reports

The Government’s ‘landmark’ Domestic Abuse Bill fails to protect vulnerable women, after MPs voted against an amendment to it that would require all abuse victims receive equally effective protection and support, regardless of their immigration status.

The amendment would have ensured that migrant women who have ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) would be able to access support on an equal basis to British nationals and those who don’t have the NRPF condition on their visas.  

The Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), who set up the Step Up Migrant Women campaign in coalition with 50 other women’s organisations, tweeted after the vote that it was “deeply saddened by the defeat of migrant amendments”.

“The Domestic Abuse Bill will not be ‘landmark’ because it does not protect us or the women we support,” it added. 

In advance of the vote, Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Jess Phillips told Channel 4 News that the bill would be “very weak if it leaves out people the day after it is passed”.

The women’s organisation Southall Black Sisters has been awarded a one-year £1.5 million pilot scheme contract to address the “alleged evidence gaps” about the needs of abused migrant women. It was announced by Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins during the House of Commons debate. Atkins described the scheme as providing “not only safe accommodation to victims” but also “the evidence on which to take long-term decisions on future support arrangements for migrant victims”.

Southall Black Sisters wrote on Twitter that “we already have the evidence” regarding the support needs of migrant women who experience domestic abuse. It and LAWRS “produced a point-by-point rebuttal” to the Home Office’s claims that more evidence is needed. 

It added that the scheme would only support 500 women and “does not guarantee any long-term legislative protection for migrant women” and that the bill does not “enable the UK Government to ratify the Istanbul Convention [a Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence], almost a decade after its signing”. The Government would “not achieve its ‘landmark’ status without legislative protection for migrant women,” it added.

The controversial NRPF policy means that certain types of visas prevent individuals from claiming most forms of state benefits, including housing benefit – without which it is difficult for women fleeing domestic abuse to access refuge accommodation. 

Women who are applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK and who are victims of domestic abuse can apply for the Domestic Violence Destitution Concession, which provides three months of financial support to help a woman get to safety. However, Labour MP Debbie Abrahams has described the process of accessing this “lengthy and bureaucratic” and leaving women “in limbo”.

This option is available to women who have come to the UK on a spousal visa and who have experienced domestic abuse. An amendment proposed by the House of Lords to extend the Concession was defeated by the Government.


Risks to Migrant Women

Domestic abuse can affect any woman – it does not discriminate by class, ethnicity or background.

Around 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales in the year ending March 2020 and women are most at risk of experiencing repeated incidents of abuse. 89% of victims who endure more than four incidents of violence are women.

For migrant women, specific issues relating to their immigration status can be manipulated by their abuser to exacerbate the violence committed against them. 

Migrant women are also more at risk of gender-based violence, including domestic violence, sexual violence, ‘honour-based’ violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and trafficking. Ethnic minority and migrant women in England experience higher rates of domestic homicide.

Campaigners have spoken of how abusers can use a woman’s insecure immigration status as a tool to threaten their victims with deportation – women are put off from reporting abuse as they fear that they will be forced to leave the country. Women’s rights campaigners therefore claim that the Government’s ‘hostile environment‘ policy “is being used by abusers against women”.

Step Up Migrant Women’s research revealed that six in 10 women had received threats of deportation from abusers. Research from Imkaan found that the rate was even higher: 92% of migrant women have reported threats of deportation from the perpetrator.

The House of Lords put forward an amendment to ensure safe reporting for migrant women experiencing domestic abuse, so that they could be assured that, if they approached the police, they would not risk deportation. The amendment did not pass but Victoria Atkins told the House of Commons that the Government has “committed, in good faith, to review existing data-sharing procedures and publish the outcome by June”.

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