The ‘Forgotten’ Victims of the UK’s Domestic Abuse Bill

Photo credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

Across the globe, at least one in every three women has been beaten, physically or emotionally abused, or coerced into performing sexual acts. To ensure the safety and security of women is universally protected, we must continue to fight to elevate the rights of all – including migrant women. We have only truly achieved equality when all of us are free.

According to the crime survey for England and Wales, in the year ending March 2018, an estimated 1.3 million women experienced some form of domestic violence. Considering the sensitive nature of this issue, and the fact that a large majority of cases remain unreported, it is likely that this statistic is even higher. The UK Government’s release of the draft Domestic Abuse bill on the 21st January 2019 sparked hopes for increased support for victims by including an extended definition of domestic abuse to incorporate forms of non-physical abuse and economic abuse, preventing abusers being able to cross-examine their victims in court, and implementing a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner. However, the reality is that migrant and refugee women, one of the most vulnerable groups of victims, still fall short in terms of protection from the government’s amendments to the law.

In the draft bill, little aid is outlined for refugee, migrant and BAME victims, who already seem to receive inadequate treatment in terms of support and escape. The Step-Up Migrant Women (SUMW) alliance warn that, although the government recognises the ‘specific vulnerability’ of migrant victims, their current proposals will fail to provide them with the support and refuge they urgently require.

Many migrant women reside in the UK on a Spouse Visa which appears to offer minimal support or escape to those struggling with domestic abuse. The ‘two-year rule’ provides a probationary period for all marriages to non-British spouses, meaning if the marriage breaks down before this period is over, the partner is returned to their country of origin. For the first five years, victims are unable to access support services such as public funds and will not be eligible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. It is feared that a large proportion of migrant women have applied for a Spouse Visa extension and have chosen to stay in their abusive relationships in order to impede the possibility of deportation and strengthen their immigration claims further down the line.

However, migrants can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain through divorce, also called a Spouse Visa Curtailment, which will not compromise the victims right to reside legally in the UK. In addition to this, if the victim can supply sufficient evidence to attest that they are impoverished and a victim of abuse, they can be granted access to financial support from the government for up to three months; this is known as the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDV).

Despite this, it is reported that as many as a quarter of applications for the concession are rejected annually and, according to the Newstatesman, these figures are increasing year on year. The rigorous application process is a serious impediment to applicants as those who fail to provide the appropriate paperwork or attend a meeting on time, can face immediate rejection. Women who find themselves the victim of domestic abuse may be prevented from retrieving their personal documents or leaving their residence, leaving them dependent on their abuser and further perpetuating their cycle of abuse. Many women on a UK Spouse Visa also fear disclosing their situation as they may be threatened with the risk of deportation by their abuser. Equally, this is an unimaginable prospect for many asylum-seeking victims who have fled destruction and conflict to seek refuge in the UK. Additionally, statistics indicate that incidents involving the police handing vulnerable women over to immigration enforcement rather than assisting them are common; one report from 2015-2017 stipulates that as many as 27 out of 45 survivors were reported. These issues collectively construct an unsettling concept for victims, which may leave them feeling trapped and powerless to seek support from authorities due to a combination of abuse and manipulation, and an absence of faith in the authorities themselves.

With Brexit fast approaching, it is feared that the UK’s departure from the EU may generate increased hardship for migrant and refugee women. For example, victims who find their personal documents withheld by their abuser and are unable to supply these by 2022 to secure their EU Settled Status, could encounter stringent immigration rules and regulations further down the line. In addition, a report from the Equality and Diversity forum reports that the government has made no concrete commitments to substitute the billions of pounds of funding currently offered by the EU to support some of the most vulnerable groups in the UK, including those suffering from domestic violence.

The Rights Equality and Citizenship Programme has a current budget of £343 million designated for the whole of the European Union, with over a third of this funding being offered to the UK. The Government’s lack of assistance to non-British women who fall victim to domestic abuse has put increased pressure on services such as support groups, many of which receive funding from the programme. According to the charity Women’s Aid, the number of support groups decreased by as much as a fifth between May 2017 and 2018. This decline in support is already disconcerting for victims but the prospect of a rising decline post-Brexit appears increasingly unnerving. Further still, local authority spending for refuges has been slashed from £31.2m in 2010 to £23.9m in 2017, painting an even bleaker picture for these vulnerable groups who already face additional hardship when seeking shelter and aid from domestic abuse.

Despite the Government’s draft bill offering some benevolent and rejuvenated approaches to addressing the issue of domestic abuse, increased protections and support are desperately needed for these victims if we are to ensure that they are treated equally, compassionately, and humanely in the face of such adverse treatment. The fact that victims of abuse feel they must remain in a situation that potentially jeopardizes their life, to retain their legal residency in the UK, highlights something dangerously wrong with our system that if not rectified soon, could continue to enable abuse and present increased hardship for survivors.

This article has been written by Bethany Morris, a content writer for the UK’s leading Immigration Advice Service. | @IASimmigration

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