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Domestic abuse, the hostile environment and a pandemic

Trainee solicitor Claire Powell discusses how the government is failing to protect migrant women affected by domestic abuse in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Posted on 25 September 2020

In the UK two women a week are killed by a current or former partner but COVID-19 has increased levels of abuse, with women’s organisations confirming that we are dealing with two pandemics: violence against women and girls (VAWG) and COVID 19.
Despite government promises that we are “all in this together” the additional risks faced by victims of abuse, especially those from Black and minority communities, dismiss the claim that the pandemic is any sort of “great leveller”.
These are not new risks. Austerity, public sector cuts and an immigration strategy which created a hostile environment has left BAME victims of abuse critically vulnerable, particularly those with insecure immigration status. 
These women are being failed, as is shown in the lack of protection offered to them by the new Domestic Abuse Bill. Significant change is necessary to ensure all women are protected from the threat of violence, regardless of race, background, or immigration status. 

Domestic Abuse Bill 2020: missed opportunities? 

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 has been long-awaited. It provides a statutory definition of domestic abuse and has been called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to save lives” . The Bill has been broadly supported by women’s organisations. However, in its present form it does not protect all women. 
Migrant women are often at a higher risk of domestic abuse, facing specific risks like honour-based violence and slavery. Societal challenges include language barriers; distrust of authorities and a lack of knowledge of immigration status, and rights. 
These cultural barriers are compounded by legal ones - access to support and vital public services are linked to immigration status.
The ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) rule is that only those with certain types of visa or residence are permitted to access state support. This includes all benefits, social housing and even refuge accommodation. 
Women who are dependent on their partner’s status in the UK, who are unaware of their residence, or who are – for example – claiming asylum are all ineligible. Women’s organisations have repeatedly called on the government to repeal the rule, calling it a ‘discriminatory barrier to safety’ that forces women to choose between remaining in an abusive household, or destitution.  
Women in this position are reliant on the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC). Under this, an application can be made by victims of abuse whose immigration status is dependent on their partner. This potentially gives a very short three-month ‘grace period’ of eligibility for public funding, and the opportunity to make an application for further leave to remain the UK. However, the concession is only available for partners of British citizens and settled persons where the applicant is on a spouse, civil partner, unmarried partner or same sex partner visa. All other migrant women are excluded. 
The Bill will not deliver the full protection needed by all women, without significant amendment.  These ‘gaps’ could be just that - gaps, or mistakes. However, they are the latest in a series of decisions and policies which form the hostile environment for migrants. 

The Hostile Environment 

The hostile environment was a series of measures designed to reduce immigration and force those without leave to remain in the UK into destitution. 
Southall Black Sisters report:
“Since 2014, we’ve seen a steady rise in cases where the police have arrested women or reported women to the Home Office as potential illegals rather than deal with their reports of violence and rape.”
It has created a culture of fear and victim blaming for abused migrant women. Victims report being unable to seek vital assistance due to fears of questioning, arrest, and deportation. 
Doctors, police officers social workers, and even support workers can be required to report service users to immigration enforcement, regardless of their vulnerability. 
Liberty has evidence of data-sharing between the Home Office and:
  • Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and NHS Digital
  • Department for Education
  • Cifas
  • DVLA
  • Department for Work and Pensions
  • Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC)
This can leave migrant women feeling unable to report their perpetrator and often unable to access emergency services. Even where support is sought - only 5.8 per cent of refuge vacancies posted to Routes to Support in the year 2017-18 would even consider a woman who had NRPF - migrant women are left with nowhere to turn.  

COVID-19 and the pandemic of violence 

And now, a pandemic. Enforced lockdown is a reality for so many, but COVID-19 has made dangerous home environments an even graver risk, particularly for migrant women. 
The disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has had on non-white communities is well-documented. Local lockdowns have been predominantly in towns with high BAME communities where people are more likely to work in high-risk frontline jobs and are more likely to contract, and die as a result of COVID-19.  
Existing inequalities and barriers to justice have been accentuated. Women’s groups report increased requests for advice and urgent assistance (including refuge accommodation); a rollback of vital services and repeated failings in the investigation of reported domestic abuse by the police. 
The government must acknowledge, and address the dangers faced by victims of abuse during COVID-19 and engage with the evidence that the risks are increased, and different in nature, for black and minority women. Specific support and provision must be made without delay. 

How can I support migrant victims of abuse? 

Every person can make a difference and contribute to the protection of victims of abuse.  
  • Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 – support the amendments. Step Up Migrant Women and Southall Black Sisters both have vital campaigns to which you can add your voice. 
  • Donate to women’s organisations – particularly those which support migrant women. These include: Imkaan; Refugee Council and Southall Black Sisters
  • Contact your MP, confirming your support for the amendments, and other vital domestic abuse issues. 
  • Educate!  Some resources are:
  1. Nowhere to Turn: a report from Women’s Aid on the No Woman Turned Away project 
  2. Access to Justice for Women & Girls during the COVID-19 Pandemic 
  3. The Impact of the Dual Pandemics

A version of this blog was first published on Centre for Women's Justice on 23 September, 2020.