Lucia* came to LAWRS as she was experiencing gender-based abuse in what was assessed as a high-risk case. With the support of her caseworker, she reported her perpetrator to the police. But instead of investigating her perpetrator, the police prioritised her undocumented status and referred her to the Home Office. A few days later, Immigration Enforcement sent her a deportation letter. Terrified by the letter, Lucia disengaged from support altogether. According to her caseworker:
She was never seen as a victim. She was treated as an undocumented migrant from the beginning. To her, now the police and border offices are the same services. Where will she go then next time she needs help?“
With this terrible case in mind, to commemorate the first anniversary of the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act, we reflect on how we have experienced the government’s refusal to guarantee equal protection to migrant women in what was called a once in a generation opportunity to address domestic abuse.
The Domestic Abuse Act was passed last year, as the country experienced a sharp rise in domestic abuse in light of the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic, which increased the complexity of supporting victims and survivors trapped with abusers while organisations worked remotely. As the Bill was scrutinised, campaigners from the ending violence against women (VAWG) sector dedicated significant efforts to advocate to ensure this long-promised piece of legislation responded appropriately to the needs of different groups of domestic abuse victims and survivors. Over these years, gaps in the Bill were spotlighted, and the concerns about the lack of support for migrant women were voiced.
Despite the wealth of evidence presented, the government, in line with their hostility toward migrants, undermined the urgent need to enshrine protections for all victims/survivors without discrimination. Finally, the Act passed excluding migrant victims/survivors from protection, even at the expense of fulfilling some of the original aims of the Act, such as the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. On this first anniversary, we, as specialist frontline organisations, have sadly confirmed that for victims and survivors with insecure immigration status, there is no before and after the passing of this piece of legislation. As the Angelou Centre has said:
The exclusion of migrant women victims/survivors from the Domestic Abuse Act signals a further extension of the Hostile Environment. It has failed to provide the most vulnerable victims/survivors, who are on the very edge of exclusion, with the support and protection they have an equitable right to. It has sent a clear message to migrant women that their safety, protection and rights will not be fairly upheld, and it has robbed the specialist sector of additional legislation to rely on to challenge violence against Black and minoritised women and girls.”
Over this year, at the frontline, we have witnessed the growing vulnerability of migrant victims/survivors resulting from barriers built by the state, such as the lack of safe reporting mechanisms and the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy. These barriers prevent women from being safe and force them to stay or return to abusive relationships and risk further harm (including femicide). Our organisations often see women being disbelieved (seen as gaming the system), having their cases dismissed, being told they don’t have rights and being treated as potential immigration offenders instead of being protected. Overall, the Act institutionalised this systematic exclusion, discrimination and institutional abuse inflicted on them based on their immigration status. Reflecting on the impact of this refusal to protect migrant women, Al Hasaniya MWC argues that:
The Act has failed Migrant women. Working on the front line in supporting traumatised women with no recourse to public funds, destitute women is one of the most challenging elements of our role. Witnessing women being forced to return to the abuse and horror because they cannot access benefits or housing is something we as a nation should be ashamed of. We will continue to work with our partners in demanding changes to Migrant women’s rights so they are able to leave an abusive relationship without fearing what will happen next. The law MUST protect all victims. Immigration status lottery MUST stop.”
As the now Act moved through Parliament, the government committed to assessing the needs of migrant victims and survivors to influence future policies. On the one hand, a pilot project was established to provide accommodation for those women subjected to the NRPF policy (Support for Migrant Victims Scheme) which has fallen short of addressing the urgent need for protection for victims/survivors with insecure legal status.
On the other hand, the Home Office conducted a review of the data-sharing arrangements between the police and Immigration Enforcement to explore alternatives. This review resulted in a worrying proposal, the Immigration Enforcement Migrant Victims Protocol, which seeks to institutionalise the involvement of Immigration Enforcement with the police in the reporting of crimes. We have argued that this proposal will have a detrimental effect on victims and witnesses with insecure immigration status.
Despite the difficulties and the increasingly hostile anti-immigration government’s agenda, today, as the Act’s first anniversary is commemorated, we commit to continuing working to ensure all victims are protected, regardless of their immigration status. And as SBS expresses:
The DA Act is welcomed, but legal reforms for migrant women were excluded. Give access to benefits to women with NRPF and leave no one behind. All victims have a right to be safe and supported.”