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Domestic Abuse Bill: Migrants Falling Through the Cracks

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About The Author

Olivia Bridge (Guest Contributor)

Olivia Bridge is the political correspondent and commentator for the Immigration Advice Service. IAS is an organisation of leading immigration solicitors, providing expert immigration advice, OISC training courses and free legal counsel to victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking. While Olivia writes on all aspects of immigration, she has a keen interest in asylum law and is driven to shed light on the many injustices migrants face while in the UK.

We need a Bill that doesn't leave migrant women behind. We need safe reporting pathways, appropriate support, and a fair chance for migrant women to be able to break free from violence.

Lucila Granada, Director of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service

Domestic abuse costs the UK economy £66 billion annually, which is more than cigarettes, obesity and alcohol and drug misuse combined. Upwards of two million people endure domestic violence in the UK every year, accounting for near 6% of all adults. Although the nature of this abuse is disproportionately served against women, men are also common victims of domestic violence.

The law has achieved little at tackling what is clearly a growing crisis: offenses have risen by 63% in the past seven years in London alone. In addition, campaigners fear that both London and the UK have a “widespread sexual violence” problem that is mostly kept hidden behind doors.

The Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill

In a bid to finally address the issues survivors face while living with violence, a three-month public consultation began last year and resulted in the draft Domestic Abuse (DA) Bill on the 21st January 2019. 

The DA Bill offers some landmark changes to the law and radical reforms to policies, including the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse. This definition includes economic abuse - where an offender withholds access to bank accounts, benefits or even employment - as well as non-physical abuse that involves emotional, coercive or manipulative behaviour.

The case of Sally Challen has captivated public interest and is evidence of how important such a definition is.  Challen killed her husband in 2010 as a result of years of coercive and emotional abuse. Only now has Challen had her murder conviction quashed, demonstrating how the courts’ and the general population’s understanding of domestic violence has evolved.

Alongside a new Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the DA Bill offers reformed protection notices and protection orders. Domestic Abuse Protection Orders (DAPO) will be easier to obtain and will allow the authorities to impose harsher restrictions on offenders, such as limiting their movements and communications, by either enrolling them in treatment programmes or electronically monitoring them. Unlike before, victims’ wishes will now be centred in any decisions made when a DAPO is breached. Whereas women frequently suffer in silence rather than reporting abuse due to the severe penalties that breaches involve, under the DA Bill, DAPO breaches will range from two months as a civil offensive to five years as a criminal offence, granting further flexibility for the victim.

Special measures will also be granted to victims when providing evidence, such as speaking behind a screen or in a video-recorded interview. The DA Bill sheds further light onto what’s known as 'Clare’s Law' or the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme in which the public are granted the and the local authorities are granted the ‘right to know’. ‘Right to ask’ means partners can request disclosing information from the police while the latter provides the police with the right to disclose information to partners as a preventative safeguarding measure.

Arguably the most pivotal point of the DA Bill is the end of what Women’s Aid has described as an “abhorrent practice” in which victims are cross-examined by their abusers in family courts. This has been called “another form of abuse” by MP Victoria Atkins since the abuser can interrogate and exert “control and fear over their ex-partners” while in court.

The Government is also rolling out 120 additional commitments, including non-legislative measures that will provide up to £8 million of support to children affected by domestic abuse as well as further funding to assist disabled, elderly, LGBT and male victims.

Crucially left absent from the Government’s sympathies, however, are Black and Minority Ethnic (BME), migrant and refugee survivors. While the Home Office has expressed willingness to strengthen its expertise on volume of migrants requiring crisis support in the UK and the obstacles faced by them, only £300,000 is going to Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) organisations. According to Amnesty International UK the amount will go “little way to support a sector that is hugely underfunded”.

Lack of support for migrants

The DA Bill fails to recognise the increased hurdles faced by migrant victims of abuse. A combination of cultural and social isolation, a lack of confident English-speaking ability, few close family members in the country (if any at all) and often diminished understanding of the law all work as a vehicle to push migrant victims into total silence. The charity SafeLives has found that BME individuals and migrants typically stay silent 1.5 times longer than white or British survivors of domestic violence.

Exacerbating matters further, non-British spouses have no access to public resources, fuelling the fear that fleeing an abusive relationship exposes the victim to total destitution. Migrants on a UK Spouse Visa similarly fear that seeking shelter in a refuge breaks the conditions of their visa and jeopardises the legality of their immigration status.

Under human rights law, the Government is bound by duty to protect every citizen in the UK, irrespective of immigration status. However, despite stringent guidance to prevent punishing victims, police forces have been found to be sharing data with the Home Office. One report found that 27 out of 45 migrant victims were handed over to immigration enforcement from local authorities in 2015-16. In fact, rather than ensuring victims are protected, the Government claims some migrants “may be best served by returning to their country of origin and, where it is available, to the support of their family and friends”. Unfortunately, this approach is only deterring vulnerable people from reporting the violence they endure. Perpetrators often exploit their partners’ insecure immigration status as an additional method of control. The Government’s stance sustains the power of the abuser over their victim.

Escaping violence while on a UK visa

The Spouse Visa requirements dictate that the non-British spouse lives with their UK Sponsor, or else they risk breaking the conditions of their visa. In accordance with UK immigration law, a Spouse Visa curtailment (a divorce) will usually result in the migrant being returned to their country of origin. Women in this situation have sought a Spouse Visa extension as a result, choosing to tolerate the abuse until surpassing the five-year threshold that renders them eligible for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). Unlike a Married Partner Visa, Leave to Remain status grants freedoms to migrants since they are no longer under the jurisdiction of their UK sponsor and abusive partner.

The DA Bill sheds little light on this problem: five years is evidently too long to deal with violence and abuse. In 2002 a ‘hostile environment’ designation was created to allow victims to apply for ILR and settle in the UK as a victim of domestic violence; however this lifesaving pathway is flawed. Since the ‘hostile environment’ designation was introduced, 1,325 victims failed to gain protection as a victim of domestic violence out of 5,820. The refusal rates for this particularly unique route doubled from 12% in 2012 to 30% in 2016.

The steps which victims must take to qualify for these designations and stay within the legal guidelines of their visas are outdated. A survivor, after informing the Home Office of their Spouse Visa curtailment along with evidence of the abuse, such as medical records or a letter from a GP, can apply for short-term leave under the Destitute Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession which, if successful, grants the applicant three months leave to remain and access to public funding. However, failure to secure the DDV Concession and Leave to Remain infers hefty costs –which have only doubled since 2014. Applications for Indefinite Leave to Remain cost £2,389 plus an additional £2,389 for every child (The Home Office axed discounts for children in 2014). Scottish Women’s Aid warn that they have become aware of cases where local authorities had advised victims to stay with their abusive partners since they were simply ineligible for help.

Underfunded refuges

Migrants in the UK on an insecure immigration status have few other options: refuges across the UK have been riddled with underfunding and mass closures since councils starting cutting financial support in 2010. Over £7 million in funding has been lost for these vital life support centres, resulting in 94 women and 90 children per day being turned away from a safe place to sleep in 2017. For the first time ever, all four rape crisis centres across London were forced to close their waiting lists in 2018. Meanwhile, Sunderland became the first British city to have no women’s refuge at all and Devon became the first UK county to cut all its refuge funding and support.

European victims of violence

In addition, concerns are amplifying over the DA Bill for European nationals as we approach Brexit. EU victims of domestic violence may find themselves trapped as a result of Brexit since the EU Settled Status scheme requires applicants to submit evidence that they have lived in the UK for five years. While the scheme accepts bank statements, bills, tenancy agreements and employment history as proof, women with childrearing or caring responsibilities and who have therefore not been working while in the UK, may struggle to gain Settled Status. Perpetrators of domestic violence frequently withhold vital documents from their partners too, potentially leaving many without a legal status after Brexit.

DA Bill must protect non-British victims

A coalition of over 30 groups, Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW), has urged the Government to provide equal protection for migrant survivors of violence. Director of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, Lucila Granada said:

“This is particularly alarming as the Bill itself recognises the ‘significant vulnerability’ of migrant victims who fear deportation as a result of coming forward. … Deterring migrant women from reporting crimes gives impunity to perpetrators. We need a Bill that doesn’t leave migrant women behind.” 

As it currently stands, the law barely stretches its sympathies to victims of abuse, let alone non-British victims. The latest DA Bill barely challenges the barriers migrants and BME survivors face and, although the Bill is welcomed as a step in the right direction, migrants are still left with the impossible choice of destitution, staying with their abusive partner until freed from the conditions of their visa or coming forward to the authorities where they could face deportation. Laws must lend its support to the extremely vulnerable and marginalised in society, and this is exactly where the Bill fails most miserably.

This article has been written by Olivia Bridge who is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service. IAS is an organisation of leading Immigration Solicitors that provides free legal advice to migrant victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking.

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Tagged: Criminal Law, Equality, Immigration, Wills and Succession

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