Britain’s Domestic Abuse Bill Still Leaves Migrants at Risk
After months of delay, Boris Johnson’s government has rejected amendments to the landmark legislation that would ensure support for some of the country’s most marginalized women.
Last month, Britain’s new domestic abuse bill finished its third reading in the House of Commons and began its journey through the House of Lords—the final hurdle before it becomes law. The bill is designed to provide better protection for domestic abuse victims. It includes the first statutory definition of domestic abuse and a legal duty for councils to provide safe accommodation for victims. Former Prime Minister Theresa May introduced it in July 2019, shortly before she departed No. 10 Downing St., describing it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
The domestic abuse bill was overshadowed by Brexit and beset with delays, including the suspension of Parliament last year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson reintroduced the bill in December 2019, and it will finally be enshrined as law at the end of 2020. But there remains one glaring omission: In the bill’s current form, it still leaves many migrants without protection, allowing some of Britain’s most marginalized women to slip through the cracks.
On July 6, 331 Conservative members of Parliament voted against introducing an amendment that would ensure all migrant women could access financial support to escape domestic abuse by creating an exemption to the “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) rule. The NRPF rule makes some migrants ineligible to receive financial benefits from the state such as housing assistance and tax credits—even some who have been legally working and paying taxes in Britain for years.
For domestic abuse survivors, this is particularly dangerous. Most shelters, reliant on housing benefits for income, are hesitant to provide space for victims with NRPF funding restrictions. The latest annual audit by Women’s Aid found that only 5 percent of shelter vacancies listed in 2019 could accommodate women with NRPF. This shortfall forces many victims with NRPF to choose between returning to their abuser or living on the streets.
The U.K. government recognizes that those whose immigration status is tied to their partner are particularly vulnerable to controlling behavior. Migrants suffering domestic abuse who have a spousal or partner visa can apply for indefinite leave to remain status, which grants foreign nationals the right to reside in the United Kingdom without restrictions and receive access to public funds for three months through the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession while their application is processed. But they also have to prove that their relationship ended as the result of abuse.
Those on other visas, such as students, workers, and visitors, cannot follow this route. To acquire their visas, they have already proved that they are financially independent; in the eyes of the government, they can therefore afford to escape their abuser. This does not take into account that they could still experience financial as well as physical abuse.
Gill arrived in the United Kingdom from Brazil in 2016 with her former partner, who holds dual British and Brazilian citizenship, and two young children. (She requested to use a pseudonym for her protection.) For five years she suffered physical, emotional, and financial abuse, which began when they lived in Brazil. When her U.K. tourist visa expired, Gill became undocumented; her partner promised to get her a partner visa, but he never did. Instead he used her insecure immigration status against her, threatening to get her deported.
After a physical assault, Gill went to the police. She showed them her bruises, but they accused her of inflicting the injuries herself. “I felt unprotected, disbelieved, inhuman. They confirmed what the perpetrator said multiple times: that they would not believe me,” she said.
The police told Gill that because of her immigration status, they could not help her: as she was living in the country without a visa, she was subject to the NRPF rule. The police directed her to the Brazilian Embassy in London without investigating the abuse. The U.K. Home Office told Gill that a voluntary return to Brazil would take a while to arrange. In the meantime, they couldn’t help with accommodation or support—so Gill and one of her children moved between temporary shelters and slept on the street for three days in mid-January.
Gill’s experience is not uncommon. In a 2019 report by the Step Up Migrant Women coalition involving more than 60 women from 22 different countries with experiences of domestic abuse and insecure immigration status, 45 percent said they were denied support by the police when they reported the abuse.
The exemption to the NRPF rule was introduced by the Labour Party MP Jess Phillips, who describes the domestic abuse bill in its current form as discriminatory. “Not including one section of society in the bill—from a moral perspective I don’t see how that’s possible,” she said. Front-line organizations and activists have long fought for legislation that provides for migrant women. But their frustrations have been compounded by a recent Home Office report on the support available to migrant survivors of domestic abuse.
Despite 24 organizations submitting evidence, the Home Office found that there wasn’t enough information to implement their recommendations, including extending the Domestic Violence Indefinite Leave to Remain immigration route to people on other visas. Minister for Safeguarding Victoria Atkins raised concerns that expanding the scope of the provision might lead to exploitation of the immigration system.
Instead, the government plans to allocate 1.5 million pounds (nearly $2 million) to a Support for Migrant Victims pilot scheme to be launched later this year. The scheme aims to cover the cost of support in a shelter for migrant victims with NRPF while building evidence for future policy decisions. But activists worry that it will prolong the process of legislative change. “It’s concerning as to whether this is a willful refusal and a tactic to delay any concessions being made within the bill. The evidence is there,” said Janaya Walker, the legal, policy, and campaigns officer for Southall Black Sisters, an organization that helps Black and minority women experiencing violence.
Based on previous experience with government funding, Southall Black Sisters projected that the scheme would only support 89 women over a one-year period—a fraction of the 3,630 women who would require it according to their estimate. The amount of allocated funding also concerns Phillips. “What happens if the 1.5 million pounds is spent on that pilot project by the middle of the year? Do we then just leave those women on the street?” she said.
Insecure immigration status can lead to a cycle of abuse and revictimization. Sochi, whose name has been changed, came to the United Kingdom from Nigeria in 2002 with her husband, who was on a student visa. On arrival, she was subject to the NRPF rule. After a few years, the relationship turned abusive. Her husband had control over her passport, and Sochi only discovered he hadn’t regularized her status after he abandoned her in 2012 and immigration officers showed up at her residence, informing her that she could no longer work.
Sochi was unable to pay the rent, and her landlord demanded sex in return for staying at the property. She escaped and stayed with a male friend, who after six months insisted that she marry a family member to regularize her status. When she refused, the friend turned aggressive. After one violent incident, the police arrived. Instead of questioning the perpetrator, they interrogated Sochi about her immigration status.
In 2018, Southall Black Sisters found that victims who reported serious crimes were frequently reported to immigration enforcement. This practice reflects the U.K.’s hostile environment policy, introduced by then-Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, which makes staying on British soil as difficult as possible for people without leave to remain.
The hostile environment policy has continued under Johnson’s government, with the prime minister’s own apparent ignorance of immigration policy thrown into the spotlight. In May, while being questioned in Parliament, Johnson appeared to not know about the NRPF rule, despite 97 MPs writing to him months before warning of its impact on thousands of struggling families during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even more telling is the country’s continued delay in ratifying the Istanbul Convention, a human rights treaty adopted by the Council of Europe in 2011 to combat violence against women and ratified by 34 countries. The U.K. signed onto the convention in 2012, but it has not ratified it, which would bind the government to uphold standards for preventing violence against all women and girls—regardless of their immigration status. One of the discussed amendments to the domestic abuse bill would have incorporated a nondiscrimination clause, making it compliant with the convention, but it was dropped before the latest vote in the House of Commons.
Other countries have recently undermined the Istanbul Convention. In July, Poland announced that it would pull out of the treaty, with the justice minister describing it as “harmful” because it required schools to teach children about gender. Turkey also appears to be taking a step backward on women’s rights, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also planning to withdraw—even as the country’s femicide rate soars.
Charlotte Proudman, a barrister who has represented migrant women in domestic abuse cases, said that the British government’s foot-dragging on the Istanbul Convention shows how there is a “lack of will” on the part of the government to provide protection for all domestic abuse victims—something that is echoed in the bill. “Migrants are not seen as people, or human beings who need access to support and safety, and I think that’s the real concern,” she said.
For now, the fate of migrant domestic abuse victims rests in the hands of the House of Lords, which can still make amendments to the domestic abuse bill before royal assent. It is the last opportunity for the U.K. government to show that it cares more about the rights of domestic abuse victims than their immigration status.