Tectonic plates are shifting. There are new parameters to domestic abuse set out in the bill that would bring the law into line with the long-held understanding of women’s advocates, family safeguarding practitioners, independent domestic violence advisers, academics and the like. Emotional, financial and psychological abuse – along with coercive controlling behaviour – are recognised. There is a new champion of preventative measures and the provision of support to victims proposed in the form of a domestic abuse commissioner. Among other protective legal steps, the bill proposes an end to the practice of perpetrators cross-examining their victims in court.
The bill is a positive step forward. Yet, if the law ought to protect all its citizens equally, the government’s current proposals are found wanting. According to Women’s Aid,2The survivor’s handbook, ‘Women from Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities’.
BAME communities and women with lower socio-economic status are less likely to report domestic abuse. Asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants on a spouse visa
are likely to live in these spaces and face additional barriers to seeking support.
Migrants and refugees experiencing domestic abuse may struggle with:
•feeling isolated – they may be unfamiliar with local resources and peer support networks;
•believing they depend on the abuser for their status, with sponsorships used as a tool to control;
•feeling that they will not be eligible for support services or benefit entitlements;
•being unable to speak the language of others or to understand what is being said;
•feeling unable to access income sent to household accounts controlled by the abuser;
•due to family or cultural beliefs, feeling afraid or stigmatised for considering separation; or
•feeling unable to access their passport or identity documents safely, or to replace them easily.
The ‘hostile environment’
In a world where the professionals expected to address a migrant’s or refugee’s needs are tasked with monitoring, reporting and discouraging those seeking help, it is little wonder that many struggle to leave abusive relationships. Fears of being separated from your children, arrested or deported are all strong deterrents to disclosing abuse.
What is more, the funding for safe and local spaces available to all – such as children’s SureStart centres – has continued to diminish. These have been vital to many, as staff often enquire or raise the alarm, privately, to potential victims of abuse who use the services. They are some of the few spaces to which abusers do not accompany their victims. The fall in the number of these safe spaces is another lost opportunity to support these hard-to-reach victims.
Available legal options
There are legal options available to migrants experiencing domestic abuse. Some people report that they are staying with abusive partners until they have lived in the UK for more than five years, when they can apply for indefinite leave to remain. A partner experiencing abuse while in the UK can extricate their immigration status from their British partner by curtailing their spouse visa and, if they are able to prove the abuse, they may be able to settle in the UK independently.
The destitute domestic violence (DDV) concession can help applicants on partner visas with three months’ leave to remain and financial support. This support framework is a lifeline for migrant victims who are frequently left with no money and nowhere to go.
These are complex pathways for international citizens to navigate, especially from within the restrictive context of abusive relationships. However, there are also grounds for concern over the future of EU citizens post-Brexit. EU citizens who fail to apply for settled status before the deadline – through no fault of their own – will find themselves with an illegal immigration status to add to the risks and fears they face every day. Those who have fled a relationship may fall short of providing the appropriate documents and evidence that go towards achieving settled status.
Lack of funding and resources
The law is ineffective without funding, resources and trust for victims of domestic abuse. There is arguably a conflict of interest between the government’s more nuanced understanding of abuse of late, and the cuts it has made in funding to legal aid and women’s refuges, children’s services and early help, coupled with a political climate of hostility towards immigration.
We might ask what use a change in the law can be when essential frameworks enabling that law to function have been largely stripped away. The government’s bill could signal an increasingly dissociated system of ‘two-tiered’ provision between UK citizens and those who have arrived from abroad. The latter continue to be even less able than the former to safely leave abusive relationships – and the least able to raise their voices and call for help.