Britain Will Protect Victims of Domestic Violence—Unless They’re Migrants

Theresa May sought to burnish her legacy by introducing landmark legislation on domestic abuse before she stepped down. But like her hostile environment immigration policy, it leaves women without papers with nowhere to turn.

Britain's then-Prime Minister Theresa May talks with a survivor of domestic violence on a visit to a charity providing support for victims in west London on May 13, before she stepped down.
Britain's then-Prime Minister Theresa May talks with a survivor of domestic violence on a visit to a charity providing support for victims in west London on May 13, before she stepped down. VICTORIA JONES/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The day Aisha decided to leave her husband, immigration officers showed up at her home with a warrant for her arrest.

Arriving in Britain on a visitor visa following an arranged marriage, with little understanding of immigration law, Aisha (whose name has been changed) was financially and emotionally dependent on her husband, who became increasingly physically aggressive and emotionally manipulative. For years she was blackmailed—told that if she left him, there would be no one to help her, and she’d be detained or deported. She finally left her husband after discovering that he had called the immigration authorities himself. It left her helpless, she said.

Aisha sought support from domestic violence organizations and her doctor, but she was denied benefits and accommodation due to her immigration status. “At the end of the day I am a human being,” she said. “The way I have been turned away from social services and everywhere was discrimination.” For five months she was homeless before claiming asylum as a last resort, which she eventually received. She now has a roof over her head and money for food. Not everyone in her situation is so lucky.

In her final days in power, outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to be fulfilling a promise she made to tackle “vile crimes” of domestic abuse. In a major step forward to provide legislative support for victims of domestic abuse, British lawmakers introduced a landmark bill in Parliament on July 16, more than two years after it was first announced—including a first-ever statutory definition of domestic abuse, including economic forms of abuse, controlling and coercive behavior, establishing a domestic abuse commissioner, and prohibiting the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in family courts, among other measures.

Following a public consultation that saw more than 3,200 responses, a draft of the bill was published in January, and last month, a joint committee published a report on the proposed legislation. But while human rights organizations and local domestic abuse service providers welcome certain elements, they also condemned the bill’s failure to include protective provisions for victims irrespective of immigration status—women such as Aisha.

As the legislation came under scrutiny, local domestic abuse service providers and human rights organizations called on the government to establish a “firewall” between public services and the Home Office so that victims of domestic abuse can safely report abuse without fear of immigration enforcement and access services such as shelter accommodation—in line with existing measures in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland. For many victims in the U.K., the government’s assertion that “some victims are best served by returning to their country of origin” offered little consolation.

Indeed, May’s moves to secure her legacy have been largely overshadowed by previous austerity measures, a decadelong program of spending cuts following the financial crash, and hostile environment policies that required banks, workplaces, and landlords to verify immigration status, facing the threat of financial penalties if they failed to do so.

Though all domestic abuse victims are in a powerless situation, there are unique dangers to those without legal status, as they often lack a strong command of English, fear returning home, or don’t know anyone nearby beyond their abuser. Often, women without legal status are treated as criminals prior to being offered support for fleeing domestic violence: More than half of police forces in England and Wales confirmed sharing victims’ details with the Home Office for immigration control purposes. Women at risk not only include those without legal status, but also those at risk of becoming undocumented, including family members of European citizens in the U.K., asylum-seekers, refugees, women on spousal visas, and those with pending applications.

In 2002, a domestic violence concession was introduced in the Immigration Rules to enable individuals who had arrived on a spousal visa to be granted indefinite leave to remain during a two-year probationary period as a result of domestic violence. However, domestic abuse survivors have long faced a Sisyphean battle to secure adequate support.

Since 2010, local authorities across England decreased funding for domestic violence shelters by 24 percent, resulting in reduced housing benefits and specialized support services for ethnic minority women. The cuts in spending came despite an increase in domestic violence cases reported by local councils, and a recent government report estimated the cost of domestic abuse to be nearly $84 billion in the year ending March 2017 across England and Wales.

Earlier this year, May’s government announced a number of partial solutions: Accompanying the bill’s announcement on July 16, the government disclosed separate plans to support asylum-seekers suffering domestic abuse by ensuring they have access to shelters and support including translators, immigration specialists, and experts on culturally specific forms of abuse—shelter support measures that had been previously outlined in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and international protections from the European Council in 2003.

May’s bill provides some guidance on helping victims, but fails to provide the most basic legal protection for many migrant women, especially those who haven’t claimed asylum.

The document provides guidance to caseworkers and Home Office accommodation providers in handling victims seeking or eligible for asylum—as if they were trying to make up for the fact that other migrant victims were excluded from the new protections outlined in the bill; the supplementary plans highlight support measures but fail to provide the most basic legal protection for many migrant women, especially those who haven’t claimed asylum.

Last month, the Ministry of Justice vowed to abolish the “same roof” rule, which previously denied victims of violent crimes compensation by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority if the attacker was a family member they were living with at the time. In May, the government committed to end the so-called postcode lottery—which affords varying levels of access to services for victims based on where they live—by making councils liable for providing shelter.

Yet even as the government vaunted the bill as a landmark move, critics argue Britain is far behind on an international scale. In 2011, the member states of the Council of Europe introduced the Istanbul Convention, an international standard legal framework on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron made the United Kingdom one of 45 countries, along with the European Union, to sign the treaty—declaring the commitment to ratify as soon as possible—but successive British governments have failed to do so, leaving the U.K. among a handful of signatories who haven’t ratified it, rendering them noncompliant.

While other countries such as Denmark, France, and Spain have made the decision to ratify and enact laws in compliance with the convention, it’s not entirely clear why the U.K. government hasn’t acted on its promise—Brexit and government leadership campaigns seem to have completely diverted national attention. “I think calling it a landmark bill is pushing it,” said Hillary Margolis, a researcher for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “If this were Central Asia, then yes, but for Europe and the U.K., I don’t see it as being that progressive.”

The convention outlines measures included in the government’s bill, such as a definition of domestic violence—as well as other measures that the U.K. has failed to enact, including provisions prohibiting discrimination on the basis of refugee, migration, or any other status. The government’s failure to provide protective measures for abused migrant women is not only a violation of the Istanbul Convention but also the U.K.’s ongoing (for the moment) obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

When faced with increasing reports of domestic and sexual abuse going unreported due to victims fearful of immigration controls last year, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the capital’s victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, urged the Home Secretary to act. They demanded reinstatement of legal aid services for immigration cases, financial support and safe accommodation for victims of violence irrespective of immigration status, and prioritizing safety and support over immigration offenses.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly announced cabinet does not bode well for migrant women’s rights. Although he appointed Priti Patel, a woman whose family came to Britain as migrants, as home secretary, there is no guarantee that she will push for the protections that today’s migrant women need. Patel has drawn ire for her previous political positions; she has voted for a stricter asylum system, backed May’s hostile environment policies, and voted against allowing same-sex couples to marry.

May’s government’s reluctance to broaden the law’s provisions to include all victims stems from the ongoing debate on foreigners and migrants in Europe; most governments are hesitant to do anything that could be politically fraught among their supporters. Creating avenues for immigrant women to flee violent relationships without losing the possibility of continuing their lives in the U.K. would have led to a better law, said Morten Kjaerum, the director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. “The U.K. traditionally has been good in creating that sort of legal framework—here so far, they’ve missed the opportunity,” he said.

May’s farewell bill is notable, but it remains flawed. She introduced this nascent domestic abuse bill, but it now has to make its way through Parliament with a new government that includes a foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who has called feminists “obnoxious bigots.”

The U.K. has the opportunity to establish a leading legal framework to include all victims, irrespective of legal status. But as it attempts to move away from Europe through Brexit, the government seems focused on other priorities and less interested than ever in establishing a legal framework to prevent violence against society’s most vulnerable women.

Geneva Abdul is a global news assistant at the New York Times in London. Twitter: @GenevaAbdul

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