Long Reads

How the current domestic abuse bill fails migrant women – and what you can do to help

The domestic abuse bill is currently progressing through parliament, but it does not protect migrant women who are experiencing abuse. Here, Pragna Patel – founding member and director of domestic abuse charity Southall Black Sisters – explains why this is so dangerous. 

On Monday 6 July, the long-awaited domestic abuse bill will finally reach its report stage, meaning that it will be debated by MPs in the House of Commons. All MPs have an important opportunity to examine and make amendments to what is seen as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ bill that will enshrine measures of protection for survivors of domestic abuse.

We at Southall Black Sisters (SBS) are deeply concerned that, as things stand, the bill does not provide sufficient protection for migrant women: one of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in the country. They will remain trapped in abusive environments with no access to the welfare safety net or pathways to protection.

The bill’s omission 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 which has laid bare pre-existing economic and racial inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic; and the Black Lives Matter movement that has been given a new lease of life following the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of police in the US.

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The latter has dramatically exposed the deep racial fault lines that persist not just in the US but also in this country. Both events show that racism is not simply the product of individual bigotry but is deeply embedded in the very institutions of our society, shaping the allocation of power and resources. It exists within the police, education, courts, the health and immigration systems and the welfare state, resulting in exclusion, inequality and injustice. All of this context shapes our efforts at SBS to support black and minority (BME) women whose experiences of abuse sit at the intersection of gender, race and economic inequality. 

Black Lives Matter protest in London, June 2020
The domestic abuse bill’s failure to protect migrant women comes as profound racial and economic inequalities are being laid bare by Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement

SBS was established in 1979 as an anti-racist feminist campaigning group. In 1983, we expanded to provide front line advice, advocacy and support services to women whose needs were more often than not neglected by community and state institutions. From our very inception, the bulk of our work has been directed at assisting women and children assert their fundamental rights and freedoms in the face of inequality and discrimination.

Many arrive at SBS having experienced violence and abuse and related problems of homelessness, mental illness, poverty and insecure immigration status. Our task is to facilitate their access to justice and to empower them to live independent and safe lives. This task is made more difficult for migrant women who do not have settled immigration status, since the normal routes to safety and protection that are available are simply not open to them. 

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How migrant women in the UK are locked into abuse

At least 60% of the women with whom SBS works have insecure immigration status. Some are dependent on their partners or spouses for their immigration status, while others arrive in the UK through other immigration routes. Most also are subject to No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF). The NRPF is a legal restriction imposed by the UK Border Agency on people subject to immigration controls, preventing them from accessing most forms of welfare benefits and social housing. Breaching this condition puts a person’s current or future right to be in the UK at risk.

Precisely because of their insecure immigration status and the operation of the NRPF rule, many migrant women are at risk of the most serious and prolonged forms of abuse, exploitation and harm. Some of the most common experiences reported by women include being abandoned; imprisoned in their home with no contact with their own families or the outside world; subject to extreme forms of servitude, neglect and cruelty; having their documents and valuable possessions taken away from them; and being threatened with violence and deportation if they report abuse to any outside bodies. 

Almost all women tell us that they are too scared to report their experiences because of their insecure immigration status and the NRPF condition. These rules make them economically dependent on their abusive partners who use their immigration status as a weapon of coercion and control. Migrant women find themselves locked in abuse in which violence often escalates and there is no way out.

This experience will be appreciated by many women who have felt similarly suffocated by the lockdown measures introduced to deal with the current Covid-19 crisis. The difference is that migrant women’s experience of entrapment is not temporary. Their immigration status is exploited by perpetrators who are able to abuse with impunity because their victims fear violent reprisals, destitution, detention and deportation if they try to escape. 

southall black sisters
A Southall Black Sisters protest in the 1980s

No recourse to public funds = no safety for migrant women

We struggle on a daily basis to support women with NRPF because the normal routes of safety are simply not available to these women. They cannot go to the local authority (unless children are involved and even then it is difficult) or to a refuge, because refuges rely on rental income and because they often do not have the experience or expertise to support migrant women with complex needs.

Many women are forced to rely on charity and hand-outs from strangers and in the process subject themselves to the risk of other forms of abuse and harm. As a consequence we see high rates of destitution, poverty, indebtedness, trauma and mental illness among abused migrant women and children. 

In the weeks after the lockdown was announced, as a result of an outcry from the women’s sector, the government made various funding announcements to support abused women. But there was no explicit commitment to protect migrant women with NRPF, nor any provision for ring-fenced funding for BME specialist services supporting migrant women.

Throughout the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, the government has refused to suspend the NRPF condition or other restrictive immigration rules, unlike other European countries which have – albeit temporarily – given foreign nationals rights associated with permanent resident status including access to health and other public services.  

cracks in pavement
The domestic abuse bill as it currently stands will allow migrant women experiencing abuse to fall through the cracks

The domestic abuse bill needs to change

The denial of safety and protection for abused migrant women has severe consequences for women. It also means that perpetrators go unpunished. The lack of adequate protection for abused migrant women effectively guarantees their silence. It creates a climate of impunity for perpetrators and punishment for victims. Ultimately this situation undermines the government’s goal of protecting victims and prosecuting and preventing violence against women and girls.

This is why we are calling for changes to the domestic abuse bill currently going through parliament. The bill provides a long-awaited opportunity to redress the injustices faced by migrant victims of domestic abuse. So far, the government has refused to listen. It has made clear that immigration enforcement takes priority over protection for women. This is highly discriminatory: it creates a system of support for women based on assumptions about those who are ‘deserving’ of protection and those who are not. 

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Ultimately, our campaign is not just about migrant women and NRPF. It is about racial equality and justice. What connects the Windrush affair, Black Lives Matter and Covid-19 is that the arc of all three bends towards institutional racism and inequality. They are profoundly connected. 

If ever there was a time for change, it is now. The question is whether we have the courage, imagination and humanity to see it through.

How you can help

Read more about the experiences of migrant women in Southall Black Sisters’ domestic abuse bill briefing paper. You can also write to your MP to request that they vote for three key amendments to the domestic abuse bill that would protect migrant women. Find a template email and details of how to contact your MP at southallblacksisters.org.uk

Anyone who requires help or support can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline which is open 24/7 365 days per year on 0808 2000247 or via their website nationaldahelpline.org.ukThe National Centre for Domestic Violence also offers a free, fast emergency injunction service to survivors of domestic violence regardless of their financial circumstances, race, gender or sexual orientation. Text NCDV to 60777, call 0800 9702070, or visit ncdv.org.uk

Images: Getty Images; Southall Black Sisters