Last year I visited a London shelter where migrant women – survivors of domestic violence – sought refuge from partners turned abusers.
Their stories of abuse, coercion, and gaslighting were all too similar to the stories of countless other women in Britain and around the world, with one distinction: their immigration status was used as a weapon against them.
Migrant women are often told by their abusers that they will not be believed by the police and that if they report abuse, they will be deported. They are reminded that their abuser holds their money, passports, official documents – everything they might need to forge their own life. Many abusers ensure that their partners immigration status remains insecure, to limit their options to escape.
In the words of one woman: ‘He tells me… you are in this country because of me, I have the power to get you out of the country. He controls me in every way’.
As the Domestic Abuse Bill comes to the House of Lords, three measures will make a real difference: extending existing safety net provisions to all victims domestic violence; guaranteeing safe reporting mechanisms; and ensuring that all survivors receive equally effective protection and support, regardless of their background or their status.
The first step should be to extend the Domestic Violence Rule (DVR) and Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC) other migrant women. These mechanisms provide a safe route to support and legal status for people who have come to our country and then been subjected to domestic abuse. At the moment, they only apply to migrants who arrive on a spousal or partner visa.
Yet there are many women in the UK on different grounds – such as via work or student visas, or because of family members – whose immigration status can be thrown into jeopardy by domestic abuse: for instance, if their partner holds all their official documents, or if escaping from abuse would also mean having to leave their job. Extending the DVR and DDVC would mean that they too can get help and address their legal position free from the control of their abuser.
Second, we need to guarantee safe reporting. Too many women live in fear of going to the police. A joint study by King’s College London and the Latin American Women’s Rights Service found that 54 per cent of migrant women who had suffered domestic abuse thought that they would not be believed by the police because of their immigration status, and worried that reporting abuse would lead to deportation.
The result is that migrant women often experience multiple incidents of domestic violence before reporting it, and that almost a fifth of women included in the study did not formally report their abuse at all.
The personal data of a victim of domestic abuse, processed as the result of reporting abuse or seeking support, should not be used for immigration control purposes. This is a matter of common sense and of justice. When a crime is committed on the streets of Britain, we do not ask the victim their status. We seek to protect them and to punish a perpetrator. Crimes committed at home should not be treated any differently.
Third, the Bill should ensure that all victims of abuse are treated equally. The government have supported this principle in Parliament. During the committee stage of the Bill the minister agreed that “victims of abuse should first and foremost be treated as victims”. But words alone are no help to women being abused: the principle should be enshrined in law.
Some people suggest that the system will be manipulated, and that claims of domestic violence could be used as a route to remain in the UK when the applicant should be returning to their country of origin. But such manipulation as there is of the current system is by abusers using immigration status as a means to control their victims, not by people falsely claiming abuse. The standards of proof are stringent, and false claims of abuse are unlikely to be encouraged by the people who would be cast as abusers.
Offering the DVR and DDVC to more visa types would not make manipulation of the system more likely, but it would provide a legal route for them to escape from their abusers’ control. Likewise, separating the police and immigration enforcement would not prevent the latter doing their job, but would increase the police’s ability to do theirs.
The Government have also said that there is not enough evidence to justify these changes to the law. But groups such as the Southall Black Sisters, who work with victims of domestic violence every day, have provided copious evidence of the problems with the current system. Not listening to evidence is not the same as it not existing. Domestic violence, and the abuse of migrant women, are pressing problems, made all the more so by the coronavirus pandemic — these simple changes would go a long way to helping.
The Government’s ambition with the Domestic Abuse Bill has been admirable. In order to make that ambition match reality we must make sure that everyone is covered by the full protection of the law.
Extending the DVR and DDVC, ensuring safe reporting mechanisms, and guaranteeing equal treatment for all victims of domestic abuse are small steps for ministers to take. Their financial impact will be negligible, their impact on immigration figures almost unnoticeable. Yet for the women whose lives will – quite literally – be saved by being able to trust the police, access help, and begin new lives free from abuse, the impact will be immeasurable.
It is the duty of government to protect the most vulnerable members of society: the Domestic Abuse Bill, and these steps, offer a clear and simple way to further that goal.