Migrant Women: Failed by the State, Locked in Abuse

A group of feminists have put together the below policy statement detailing what the government and local authorities must do to support migrant women and girls fleeing violence during the pandemic.

We are building on an earlier open letter of March 2020 on this issue, organised by the Step Up Migrant Women Colaition, as we wish to continue highlighting this issue. We wish to disseminate the policy statement and open letter to government officials, the public and the media. We are aware that, given the fast moving nature of events, time is of the essence.

Who we are:

Sandhya Sharma is Group Coordinator at Safety4Sisters, a Manchester based feminist and anti-racist organisation focused on working with women with no recourse to public funds who are fleeing gender based violence.

Chitra Nagarajan is a researcher, programmer and writer focusing on the human rights of women and girls and conflict mitigation. 

Lola Okolosie is am a teacher and writer for The Guardian who has focused on violence against women and girls. 

Carys Afoko is the former Executive Director and co-founder of Level Up, a feminist campaigning organisation and on the board of the End Violence Against Women coalition.

Maya Goodfellow is a writer and academic, and the author of Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Became Scapegoats. 

Shaista Aziz is a journalist and Labour councillor for Rose Hill and Iffley, Oxford City Council and a former international aid worker with extensive global experience of working with women and girls impacted by abuse and violence.

Marai Larasi is the former Executive Director of Imkaan and former co-chair of the EVAW board of trustees.

We have been locked up by abusers and family, we have been locked up by the Home Office and now we are locked up again – how much can we bear?’  – asylum seeking woman, Manchester

COVID19 is not only a public health crisis but a human rights one. We are told to “stay home” to keep safe. Yet, violence against women and girls (VAWG) is on the rise. Women and girls are reporting increased sexual and racialised harassment in public spaces and online. They are trapped with abusers in conditions ripe for increased sexual, domestic and honour-based violence. VAWG reports may well increase further after restrictions are lifted as women and girls, who see few options during lockdown, are more able to access help.

For migrant minoritised women, many who have insecure immigration status, language barriers and/or disabilities, escaping violence is even more difficult. This paper takes the approach that highlighting the needs and barriers of the most vulnerable includes others and so focuses on this group, one of those most subjected to harm. It calls for universal protection against and response to violence against women and girls (VAWG) regardless of immigration status.

Women fear reporting will lead to immigration detention

Many migrant women fear reporting violence may negatively impact their immigration cases, resulting in detention and/or deportation. This is a threat abusers instil as a significant form of coercive control and meets their experiences of years of the hostile environment. Government response to the pandemic, including police and immigration powers to detain people believed to be infectious, potential use of the military to add to police capacity, and the rise in surveillance further add to this fear. As a result, women justifiably fear accessing support and are prevented from escaping the increased violence they face during the pandemic. 

No recourse to public funds keeps women experiencing violence

Migrant women are told by abusers and the state alike that their insecure immigration status means they have no recourse to public funds (NPRF) i.e. cannot access state welfare and housing support. Local authorities and central government view such women through the prism of immigration rather than as victims and survivors of violence. Consequently, women face a stark choice: to live with violence and its consequences or to seek help and risk destitution and possible deportation. Without a clear message from central and local governments, women will fear coming forward. 

While concerns about domestic abuse levels have been raised within the government, including by the Home Secretary, we have yet to see explicit commitment to ensuring all victims/survivors are able to access support needed. It is critical that women and girls who are subjected to immigration control have access to safety and support, including the newly established emergency accommodation released under COVID-19 measures.

A week into the lockdown, Safety4Sisters in Manchester supported a woman with a 3-year-old child to leave her abusive husband – after social services told her to stay but ‘remain vigilant’. The police, whilst temporarily removing her husband from the property, failed to move her to a place of safety as they interpreted lockdown guidelines as meaning she could not move out. Her husband was subsequently free to return. As violence against women increases under lockdown conditions and with an already at least 16 killings of women by men in three weeks, such responses risk women and children’s lives.

COVID-19 pushes migrant women further into poverty and destitution

Many migrant women are asylum seekers living on £37.25 per week or are destitute without any money at all. This means they cannot buy in bulk or buy the more expensive brands which are often the products left on shelves. Women report skipping meals as they have run out of food or say they are observing religious fasting more rigorously to manage lack of food.

Abuse frays social networks and exacerbates mental health issues

Many migrant women, subjected to multiple discrimination and violence, had poor mental health even before the pandemic. Restrictions have led to more acute isolation, lack of contact with support agencies, and increased ability of abusers to prohibit contact with family members, friends and colleagues. Women report feeling helpless to maintain control over their lives. Lockdown conditions are heightening previous experiences of trauma with some women scared to go out as they fear racism and being blamed for COVID-19. 

Services working with migrant women escaping violence struggling to survive

Small minoritised and migrant women’s organisations have been severely under-resourced for years. Funding is short-term and piecemeal, making survival let alone sustainability fragile. The recent government announcement of funding is welcome but woefully inadequate, particularly as such funding has tended to go to bigger organisations. Recent weeks have seen huge increases in workloads as services deal with women in increasingly distressed states whose cases are complicated by multiple refuges denying access. There is a pressing need to resource smaller specialist organisations and ensure funding is spread across the regions.

Demands for action

Urgent action needs to be taken by the government, nationally and locally, to ensure all women – regardless of immigration status – are protected in this time of unprecedented crisis. Moreover, the Domestic Abuse Bill and local VAWG strategies should include these measures.

1Put in place a firewall so women coming forward to the police and any other public service do not have data shared with the Home Office and clearly communicate this to migrant women to assure them they are safe to report violenceHome OfficeMinistry of JusticeMinistry of Housing, Communities and Local GovernmentDepartment of Health and Social Care Local Authorities
2Abolish no recourse to public funds for all women escaping violence Home Office
3Work with specialist EVAWG services to house all migrant women escaping violenceHome OfficeMinistry of Housing, Communities and Local GovernmentLocal Authorities
4Suspend all healthcare charges, not just ones related to COVID19Home Office Department of Health and Social Care
5Launch a communications campaign that is accessible and produced in different languages to ensure all women experiencing violence know what help is available Home  Office Local Authorities
6Increase the allowance paid to asylum seekers to £57.75 (an extra £20) in light of increasing costs and in line with increases in universal credit Home Office
7Include measures to prevent and respond to VAWG in development of all national and local COVID19 strategies, including when it comes to easing of restrictionsPrime MinisterCouncil LeadersMayors
8Adequate fund VAWG services, including black and minority ethnic and migrant women’s organisations, to ensure all women can access lifesaving servicesHome OfficeMinistry of Housing, Communities and Local Government


  1. Sandhya Sharma, Safety4Sisters
  2. Pragna Patel, Southall Black Sisters
  3. Satbir Singh, JCWI
  4. Priya Chopra, Saheli 
  5. Women Asylum Seekers Together (Manchester)
  6. Gisela Valle, Director, Latin American Women’s Rights Service 
  7. Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, Coordinator, Step Up Migrant Women
  8. Baljit Banga, Executive Director, Imkaan
  9. Zubaida Haque, Interim Director, Runnymede Trust – agreed to sign the letter
  10. Nazek Ramadan, Director, Migrant Voice – agreed to sign the letter
  11. Ellen Waters, Director, Doctors of the World UK – agreed to sign the letter
  12. Rosario Guimba-Stewart, Chief Executive Officer, Lewisham Refugee and Migrant Network
  13. Natasha Walter and Priscilla Dudhia, Women for Refugee Women
  14. Dr Sara Reis, Head of Research and Policy, UK Women’s Budget Group
  15. Rosie Lewis, Deputy Director and VAWG Services Manager, The Angelou Centre
  16. Daf Viney, Director of Services, Hackney Migrant Centre
  17. Suna Parlak, Harmful Practices and Domestic Abuse Officer and Educator, Asian Women’s Resource Centre (AWRC)
  18. Caz Hattam, Project Co-ordinator, Unity Project
  19. Gabriela Quevedo, Director for Advocacy and Influencing, Latin American Women’s Aid 
  20. Abi Brunswick, Director, Project 17
  21. Frances Timberlake, Communications Coordinator, Refugee Women’s Centre
  22. Sally Daghlian OBE, CEO, Praxis 
  23. Susan Cueva, Kanlungan Filipino Consortium
  24. BLM UK
  25. Rose Ssali, Chair of Mama Health and Poverty Partnership (MHaPP)
  26. Nadia Siddiqui, Director, Women’s Voices CIC
  27. Gail Heath, CEO, The Pankhurst Trust (Incorporating Manchester Women’s Aid)
  28. Dr Kay Lalor, Senior Lecturer in Law, Manchester Law School
  29. Becky Clarke, ‘Sites of Resistance’ Manchester Metropolitan University
  30. Atiha Chaudry, Chair Greater Manchester  BAME Network
  31. Denise McDowell, Chief Executive, Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit
  32. Dr Peggy Mulongo, Head of Health and Wellbeing Programme – NESTAC 
  33. Zita Holbourne, Co-founder and National Chair, BARAC UK
  34. Huda Jawad, EVAW
  35. Jacqui Gitau, WOW Space, Oxford.
  36. Cllr Dr Kindy Sandhu, Coventry City Council 
  37. Cllr Amna Abdullatif, Manchester City Council
  38. Cllr Lucy Caldicott, Lambeth Council
  39. Cllr Sara Hyde, Islington Council
  40. Cllr Sheila Chapman, Islington Council
  41. Cllr Kelly Grehan, Dartford Borough Council
  42. Cllr Emma Ben Moussa, Dartford Borough Council
  43. Cllr Victoria Oguntope, Dartford Borough Council
  44. Cllr Alina Ben Moussa, Dartford Borough Council
  45. Cllr Liz Brighouse, Oxfordshire County Council
  46. Cllr Shamshia Ali, Redbridge Council
  47. Cllr Deborah Mcilveen, Oxfordshire County Council
  48. Cllr Sobia Afridi, Oxfordshire County Council
  49. Cllr Linda Smith, Oxford City Council
  50. Cllr Susanna Pressel, Oxford City Council
  51. Cllr Jamila Azad, Oxford City Council
  52. Cllr Lubna Arshad, Oxford City Council
  53. Cllr Dr Hosnieh Djafari Marbini, Oxford City Council
  54. Cllr Marie Tidball, Oxford, City Council
  55. Cllr Nadine Bely- Summers, Oxford City Council
  56. Cllr Sian Taylor, Oxford City Council
  57. Cllr Louise Upton, Oxford City Council
  58. Cllr Mary Clarkson, Oxford City Council
  59. Cllr Christine Simm, Oxford City Council
  60. Cllr Nigel Chapman, Oxford City Council
  61. Cllr Tom Hayes, Deputy-Leader, Oxford City Council 
  62. Dionne Nelson, Deputy Director, Women’s Resource Centre 
  63. Lisa-Marie, CEO, FiLiA
  64. Liz Jones, Lead for Domestic Abuse, Oxford City Council
  65. Caroline Pinder, Chair, Board of Trustees, Oxford Against Cutting
  66. Ubuntu Women Shelter, Glasgow
  67. Jo Evans, Head of Operations, A2Dominion
  68. Liz Horn, Chair of Trustees, Sunrise Multicultural Project
  69. Mindy Meleyal, LGBT Foundation, Manchester
  70. Gemma Nash, BreakthroughUK
  71. Katherine Bendall, Trustee, Trafford Rape Crisis Centre
  72. Jill Caldwell, CEO, Endeavour Domestic Abuse Services

If you are interested in signing this letter, please contact:
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez: elizabeth@lawrs.org.uk
Lola Okolosie: lokolosie@gmail.com

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