Speaking out about domestic abuse is an incredibly difficult thing for any woman to do and it takes a lot of courage. For migrant and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) women in the UK, getting the right kind of support can be even more problematic and, according to the charity Safe Lives, they tend to stay in abusive relationships 1.5 times longer than white British women. This is because BAME and migrant victims of domestic abuse often face a lot of complex barriers that make them unable or unwilling to ask for help. Even if they do have the courage to come forward, they do not always receive the support they desperately need.
There are many reasons why BAME and migrant women who are subjected to domestic abuse are reluctant to seek support. The charity Women’s Aid found that many vulnerable women are trapped in arranged marriages and suffer abuse not just from their spouse, but from their wider family network. As is common for victims in an abusive relationship and a precarious environment, they often feel they have no one they can turn to. Women in this situation are usually completely financially dependant on their abusers and feel that they have no choice but to remain where they are. Escaping could mean they would risk ending up homeless and destitute.
For migrants domestic abuse victims, this fear of ruin is compounded further by the fear that divorce or separation from their abuser could result in them losing their right to remain in the UK. After seeking a Spouse Visa curtailment (a divorce), migrants usually have to return home – an option which many survivors of abuse do not wish to, or can’t safely pursue. Even in domestic abuse situations, Amnesty International claim that the UK government believes the best option for victims in this situation is “returning [them] to their country of origin.” As a result, many women seek a Spouse Visa extension just to amass their ‘continuous residency’ of five years. Finally, after suffering with the abuse in silence for this period, migrant partners are then able to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain, granting them freedom from their ‘UK Sponsor’ – their spouse.
The government’s drafted Domestic Abuse Bill that was released this January has been widely praised for its focus on the victims, rather than the abusers. However, it does not offer sufficient protection and support for migrant women with a UK Spouse Visa, who also do not have adequate access to public funding or social housing.
The coalition Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW) welcomes the Government’s draft Bill as a step in the right direction. However, SUMW point out that the Bill does not extend its protections to migrant, refugee and BAME survivors of domestic violence. Little has been done to prevent victims being deported rather than supported and the Domestic Abuse Bill barely recognises that migrants require additional and specialist support due to their insecure immigration status.
The government does offer a Destitute Domestic Violence (DDV) concession with financial support in place for migrant victims for a 3-month period whilst their case and visa status are being reviewed. However, this is only a temporary measure with no guarantee of continuing support or being granted Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK at the end of the review period. The process is also a long and complicated one that requires the provision of substantial evidence documenting the breakdown of the relationship and the nature of the abuse, which is particularly challenging for women who face a language barrier and have to rely on interpreters.
As it stands, the Domestic Abuse Bill would not protect EU women facing uncertainty over their immigration status post-Brexit either: failure to apply for Settled Status before the deadline could mean they fall through the cracks later on.
What has to change?
The UK government has a moral duty to protect every single person in the UK who suffers from any form of domestic abuse, regardless of their nationality, cultural customs, religion or immigration status. Every person has the right to live a life free from danger and harm and no one should be left to suffer physical or emotional abuse – or remain trapped in a horrendous situation because they feel they have no one to turn to or they may be forced to leave the UK if they speak out.
There needs to be more specialist support in place to help migrant and BAME victims of domestic abuse and greater access to financial aid and housing so these women can build a life for themselves away from their abusers in safety and comfort. The Government needs to stop turning its back on women in this situation and do everything it can to support them, rather than trying to make the problem go away by stating that they would be better off leaving the UK. The Government needs to mirror the great work that is being done by charities who support women suffering from domestic abuse. Government policy on domestic abuse needs to provide greater clarity and certainty for migrant women to encourage more victims to speak out and feel confident that if they do, they will receive the emotional, practical and financial support they deserve.