Domestic Abuse Bill lacks protection for migrant women

, by Aaron Gates-Lincoln

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Domestic Abuse Bill lacks protection for migrant women

After years of development and turmoil, the Domestic Abuse Bill returned to the House of Lords in the UK on the 8th March 2021 to complete its report stage, one of the final stages before being enshrined in law.

The Bill is expected to completely transform the effectiveness of current responses to domestic abuse among a variety of services. Its main features include placing safe accommodation service funding on a statutory footing and outlawing threats of non-fatal strangulation, post-separation abuse and sharing intimate images. It also intends to ban the direct cross-examination of survivors by their abusers in court and will importantly give the first ever legal definition of domestic abuse.

However, the Bill unjustly leaves women with insecure immigration status and No Recourse to Public Funds with little to no protection. This comes as a result of its ignorance of the issues that exist within accessing the current British welfare system, which can exacerbate economic abuse.

Currently, those with No Recourse to Public Funds face barriers, particularly in accessing refuge accommodation. This is because they are ineligible to claim benefits which many survivors rely on to financially support their stay in a refuge.

Campaigners are also hoping the government uses the Domestic Abuse Bill to change the way benefits are paid to women fleeing abuse. Universal credit is currently paid by default into one account when claimed jointly with a partner. Some argue it instead should be paid separately to each claimant by default, to prevent abusers from perpetrating economic abuse. These issues compound to make migrant women less likely to report domestic abuse, as they know they will struggle when leaving their abusive situation.

Explaining the issue while in the House of Lords, Baroness Meacher stated, “Migrant women with insecure immigration status are, in my view, very understandably reluctant to report domestic abuse to the statutory services”. This is because, as a result of the current hostile environment policies that have been in place since 2012, police routinely share personal data about domestic abuse victims with the Home Office for immigration control purposes. Many members of the House of Lords support an amendment that would prevent this from occurring.

Meacher stated on this, “This reluctance [to report] is due to the current data-sharing agreements between statutory services, including the police and the Home Office, for immigration control purposes. This means that women affected cannot seek support or a safe place to go, with the most appalling consequences, as one can very easily imagine. Perpetrators are not being brought to justice.”

This fear to report is justified. Studies have found that since the policy of data sharing was created, the number of women deported after reporting domestic abuse has risen from 12% to 30%. This is worrying, as it reinforces a trend of criminalising the victim of domestic abuse for speaking up, rather than the perpetrator for their actions.

The Lord Bishop of London mirrored this anxiety, stating: “I fear that this blind spot enables offenders and abusers to use police involvement as a threat to their victims, rather than the source of protection that it should be. Various countries around the world have demonstrated that firewalls can be and are being implemented in different ways to create separation between public services and immigration enforcement.”

In response to one of the issues discussed, the UK government announced a pilot scheme to assess the needs of migrant women and provide those with No Recourse to Public Funds with emergency accommodation. However, some have argued that the scheme is unnecessary, as the needs of the migrant women are the same as that of every other woman, yet it is the immigration system restricting their access to support.

The blind spots in the Bill relating mostly to migrant women showcases a key issue within the current British government. Priority is too often given to controlling immigration, and in most cases, preventing it; seen through the continuation of hostile environment policies. This has resulted in migrant women who live within the UK being forgotten, left behind and completely overlooked - even in a piece of legislation that should be designed to promote the protection of all women.

The issues highlighted are extremely important, and the Domestic Abuse Bill is a chance to protect millions of women who are currently being overlooked. The voices of those this is impacting must be amplified, and awareness must be spread of the risk that the passing of the Bill could pose if amendments are not made.

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