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Tue 22 June 2021

A change to the way in which migrant women who have survived domestic abuse enrol their biometric data risks causing anxiety and fear, as well as increasing the burden on charities, reports Sian Norris

The Home Office has changed the way vulnerable migrant women who are survivors of domestic abuse must enrol their biometric data, in a move strongly condemned by campaigners.

Organisations supporting migrant victims and survivors were informed of the change by email at the end of May. They say that they were not consulted on the changes, despite commitments made by the Home Office at a meeting on 23 January 2019 to do so. 

Previously, women who were regularising their immigration status having left abusive homes could enrol their biometric information at a post office. This had the advantage of being a local and neutral space. Anyone applying for registration or nationalisation as a British citizen must provide their biometric information as part of their application.

However, now the contract with the Post Office has expired, migrant women who are survivors of domestic abuse will be asked to attend one of seven UK Visa Services and Support Centres (SSC), located in Belfast, Cardiff, Croydon, Liverpool, Glasgow, Sheffield and Solihull. 

This means that if you are living in Plymouth, for example, your nearest centre will be in south Wales – although the Home Office will also “consider whether mobile enrolment can be offered as an appropriate alternative” if there are medical issues or safeguarding concerns accessing an SSC”. It has said it offers “enhanced support through a range of travel assistance or mobile services” and, where an individual “does not feel able to attend one of our seven sites, they are encouraged to contact the dedicated helpline, free of charge, to discuss what other options are available”.

Migrant women’s rights organisations, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), are concerned that vulnerable women will struggle to access the centres, especially if they do not live locally, and that they may not even realise that the system has changed. 

“We are not aware of who else has received the email detailing the changes,” LAWRS’ policy and communications coordinator on violence against women and girls, Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, told Byline Times. “On top of all the issues around the change, there’s been a lack of communication and that is going to have a consequence on marginalised women.”


A Lack of Understanding 

One major concern voiced by Southall Black Sisters’ legal and policy campaigns officer Janaya Walker is the emotional impact on vulnerable women having to go to Home Office buildings to enrol their biometric data. 

“The Home Office represents and creates such fear and anxiety in many women because of the weaponisation of their immigration status,” she told Byline Times.

Often in cases of domestic abuse of migrant women, perpetrators threaten their victims by saying that they will be deported if they report the violence.

“They’ve been constantly threatened that they will be treated as potential immigration offenders,” she added. “Attending a more neutral location like the post office is safer for women. It’s a much more trauma-informed way of supporting survivors.”

Some women will also have had difficult experiences with immigration services or have felt the impact of what is known as the Government’s ‘hostile environment’. This may make them feel anxious about approaching the Home Office.  

“It shows a lack of understanding about how the hostile environment has damaged any kind of trust that women have with frontline professionals,” Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez said.

The hostile environment has resulted in fears that frontline staff – from those working in the police to sexual assault referral centres – could report people they suspect of being in the country illegally. Combined with threats from their abuser– that if they leave the family home, the abuser will report them to immigration services – many women feel anxious about going to Home Office centres or other frontline services, which they fear may put them at greater risk.

“It’s really disregarding the vulnerability of the women in this position,” Walker told Byline Times. “This is a survivor of abuse, who has endured abuse for many years and has been fearful of reporting in case she is deported. There’s an incredible amount of fear and anxiety.”

Then there are the practical and financial implications of the change. The Home Office has said that it will cover women’s travel costs should they need to take public transport to one of the SSCs. However, simply covering train or bus fares does not sufficiently recognise the barriers to access created by this new system.

“There’s the language barrier, the fact that women have to travel for long periods,” Jiménez-Yáñez said. “In many cases, they will have been isolated by their abuser and might not be aware of how the train system works. We know that one of the barriers is that the immigration system is very complicated. They don’t make it easy for you to understand.”

It is for this reason that organisations such as LAWRS and SBS provide women with case-workers to support them through the immigration process – SBS staff even accompany women to the post office to enrol their biometrics. “We explain to the women how the system works, what they need to do – these are things they might not know if they have been controlled by an abuser,” Jiménez-Yáñez added.

Now, they are concerned that valuable resources will need to be spent taking women to the SSCs to ensure that they have a supportive advocate by their side when they enrol their biometric data.

“Lots of organisations are telling us this now creates additional pressure on our staff,” said Walker. “They are wondering about what this will mean for their capacity to support migrant survivors, especially if they are not a specialist service.”


A Home Office Culture?

The change follows the recent decision of the Government not to use the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill to scrap the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rule for migrant women survivors and victims of domestic violence. This rule means that people with a specific immigration status cannot access certain welfare benefits, among other services, which can make it very difficult for women to leave abusers – not least because it puts up a barrier to accessing refuges that are often funded by housing benefit. 

“There is a refusal to treat migrants in the UK with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Walker told Byline Times. “Again and again, immigration control takes priority over the protection of women from violence. Migrant survivors aren’t seen as victims first and foremost, but constantly through the prism of being a potential immigration offender.” 

Combined with the lack of support for migrant women offered through the Domestic Abuse Bill, “it’s creating a two-tier system of support,” she added. 

The lack of consultation with specialist services “speaks to a wider culture of policy-making that we’re seeing from the Home Office where there’s no desire to engage in a meaningful way, or to change course when it’s made aware that its policies or rules could have a harmful impact on marginalised groups – in this case, migrant survivors of abuse,” according to Walker.

A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “Anyone who has suffered domestic abuse must be treated as a victim first and foremost, regardless of immigration status. The Home Office informed stakeholders of the change and has spent £1.5 million on services to support migrant victims. To be able to process an individual’s biometrics, they are required to attend in person as it cannot be done remotely.”

The spokesperson added that “Home Office staff dealing with survivors of domestic abuse are trained to deal with them compassionately”.

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