Thandie Newton, Dua Lipa, Naomie Harris and Gemma Chan are among those highlighting the lack of protection for migrant women in the domestic abuse bill.
The long-awaited domestic abuse bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, has the potential to revolutionise how the crime is handled in the UK. But while the legislation contains many important changes, from appointing a domestic abuse commissioner to banning the ‘rough sex’ defence, it falls short in other areas – such as its failure to protect migrant women from domestic abuse.
Now, more than 40 celebrities have joined calls for the domestic abuse bill to protect all women equally, regardless of their immigration status. Women including Thandie Newton, Adwoa Aboah, Keira Knightley, Jodie Whittaker, Dame Judi Dench, Naomie Harris and Olivia Colman have thrown their support behind a petition by Amnesty International and the coalition group Step Up Migrant Women, which was delivered to Home Secretary Priti Patel with over 30,000 signatures.
“Too many women are left trapped in abusive relationships and unsafe situations because they can’t access the support they need,” said actor Gemma Chan, one of the signatories of the petition.
“It shouldn’t matter if you’re born in this country or not – all victims deserve the right to seek police help and to have access to refuges. I hope the government does the right thing and changes the law so that all domestic abuse victims are provided protection without discrimination.”
In early July, MPs voted 330 to 207 against a clause in the domestic abuse bill that would have made it safer and simpler for migrant women experiencing abuse to seek help. Currently, many women with insecure immigration status are blocked from support for domestic abuse due to a legal restriction called No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF), which can make it extremely difficult to access refuge accommodation and other public services.
Migrant women who seek help from the police may also be turned away and referred to the Home Office – a risk that means many never report domestic abuse due to fears of being detained or deported.
“Migrant women survivors of domestic abuse should be treated the same as all other women who go through this nightmare experience,” said Dua Lipa, another supporter of Step Up Migrant Women’s campaign.
“The fact that they’re blocked from life-saving services and safety is an injustice that we can’t be silent about.”
There is still time for provisions for migrant women to be added to the domestic abuse bill. Having progressed through the Commons, the legislation is now going to the House of Lords, where further amendments can be made.
Pragna Patel is director of domestic abuse charity Southall Black Sisters, one of over 50 groups that make up the Step Up Migrant Women coalition. In a recent article for stylist.co.uk, Patel observed that the domestic abuse bill’s failure to protect migrant women “is particularly glaring since it comes at a time when profound racial and economic inequalities have been exposed by two unprecedented but connected events: the Covid-19 crisis … and the Black Lives Matter movement”.
Many migrant women, Patel explained, are at risk of “the most serious and prolonged forms of abuse, exploitation and harm” by partners and relatives who use their insecure immigration status “as a weapon of coercion and control”.
Women who are financially dependent on their partners or in the UK on spousal visas are particularly vulnerable to being “locked [into] abuse in which violence often escalates and there is no way out”, she wrote.
In 2012, the UK signed the Istanbul Convention: a historic treaty designed to combat domestic abuse and violence against women across Europe. Under the terms of the convention, the government would be required to prevent violence against women and girls, support survivors and hold abusers to account, regardless of survivors’ immigration status.
But eight years after signing the treaty, the UK has yet to ratify it. The government has said that it already meets – or goes further than – most of the convention’s requirements, but will commit to ratification only when it is satisfied that it can comply with all articles. Now, however, there is a risk that the domestic abuse bill will pass into law without any specific protections for migrant women.
“I am clear that migrant victims of domestic abuse must be treated as victims first and foremost,” safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins told Stylist. “Throughout the passage of the domestic abuse bill, we have sought evidence from charities about the needs of migrant victims, so that we can build a sustainable programme of support for them.”
However, Atkins said that “the evidence base is not there yet on the scale and scope of the potential needs” of migrant survivors of domestic abuse. The government will be launching a £1.5 million Support for Migrant Victims scheme later this year, she continued, designed to gather data that will “provide the evidence we need to develop support for the future.
“We all agree that these victims need help and the government is working on ways to deliver this.”
To find out more about how you can support the campaign to protect migrant women from domestic abuse, visit stepupmigrantwomen.org.
Anyone can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000247 or via nationaldahelpline.org.uk. Anyone experiencing domestic abuse who is also concerned about their immigration status can find advice and support at southallblacksisters.org.uk
This article has been updated to include a statement from safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins.