Written by: Pia Subramaniam (UK’s Immigration Advice Service).
Domestic violence and abusive relationships are prevalent all over the world. Five women are killed by their abusers every hour while one woman dies within the four walls of her home every three days in the UK alone. There has been a shocking increase in sexual harassment, forced marriage and human trafficking as of late, too.
However, on January 21, 2019, the UK Government released its draft Domestic Abuse Bill which gave campaigners and human rights activists new hope for better protection for our women, girls – and men – enduring domestic abuse. The draft offers to extend and change existing policies that have heavily doubted and overlooked victims in the past. It contains a new statutory definition of domestic violence that includes non-physical, emotional, and financial abuse as well as a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner, extended protection orders, victim-centred considerations, and finally, the prohibition of cross-examinations of victims by their abusers in family courts.
As much as the bill has made positive changes and contributions, the coalition Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW) has pointed out that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), refugee and migrant victims are more or less excluded from these new reforms and protection. Migrant women, as well as women of colour are mostly affected by domestic abuse and face additional barriers as a result, yet they receive less support from the UK government. One of the reasons for this is because these survivors often require more financial, as well as intensive and/or specialist support due to the type violence they face. With their insecure immigration status, migrants have no access to public funding nor social housing. When they do find a way to escape the misery, fleeing their UK Sponsor’s home potentially jeopardises their legal residency and the terms of entry into the country. This is because migrants on a Married Partner Visa must be accommodated for and financially supported by their British partner. Survivors on a UK Spouse Visa therefore fear to speak with the authorities as they worry the Home Office might threaten them with deportation – which the police have been reported to practice. In a 2015-2016 statement, 27 out of 45 victims who reported their abuse were sent to immigration enforcement by local police forces. According to Amnesty International UK, the Government feels victims “may best be served by returning to their country of origin”. However, this will never be an option for refugee women as they claimed asylum in the UK due to persecution and life-threatening living conditions in their home country.
Several victims of domestic violence feel trapped and keep the abuse they face a secret. For some migrants, domestic abuse is often seen as a taboo subject in wider parts of the world – simply returning them to their country of origin actually puts the victim in harms way as families may blame the victim or turned to ‘honour-based violence’ to shame them. And, more often than not, many are even unable to identify their relationship as abusive or fear the authorities won’t care about their case. There is a plethora of reasons why migrant women sweep their hardships and abuse under the rug, but large proportions of migrants stay quiet due to inadequate or unconfident English language abilities, and even fear of prejudice and racism by police forces. Some even seek a Spouse Visa extension to strengthen their immigration claim as they would be eligible for Indefinite Leave to Remain – and their freedom – after five years continuous residency with their spouse. The overarching result is women are putting up with life-threatening violence while hoping for a secure, independent and happy life in the distant future.
A solution for a faster achievement of their justice and freedom is to seek a Spouse Visa curtailment and inform the Home Office of this decision as soon as possible. This way, migrant victims of abuse can still achieve Leave status after a divorce and their legal residency in the UK would not be at risk. After this crucial step, they can apply for the Destitute Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession in which survivors may receive financial support and housing for up to three months, providing they can submit evidence of their financially destitute situation and of the abuse they faced. Unfortunately, these escape routes are barely known to many migrants, which serves the best interests of the abusive offender.
A worrying event that is approaching in the near future are the drastic changes and reforms of EU immigration laws after the UK’s departure from the European Union. The new reforms may most likely lead to less support and protection for European victims. At the moment, if EU nationals are unable to provide the necessary documents and therefore fail to achieve Settled Status before 2020, they may fall through the cracks of the system. In years to come, victims of abuse may be confronted with harsh and stricter immigration rules or even punishment if found to be residing in the UK unlawfully.
While the draft Domestic Abuse Bill does mark a monumental change and progress in its support for victims of domestic violence, equality and justice for all women remains in the distant future. The UK government has massively reduced Legal Aid and closed refuges and crisis support teams all across the country which all serves as damning evidence that the current rights and protection for women and girls are not even close to sufficient.
The new bill is indeed a positive step forward, but human rights activists and campaigners continue to strive and fight for reforms, further funding to local refuges and advanced specialist support. A reexamination and consideration of the misery and life-threatening violence migrants face is desperately required in order to protect the lives of our most vulnerable, as we are all citizens of this planet and need to help one another.
Pia Subramaniam is a content writer and correspondent for the UK’s Immigration Advice Service. IAS is an organisation of leading immigration solicitors, providing free legal advice to victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking across the country. |@IASimmigration
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