Domestic abuse is a pivotal issue within today's society, and is often not realised to be exacerbated by poor policy and support. After years of development the Domestic Abuse Bill returned to the House of Lords in the UK on the 8th March 2021 to complete its report stage, one of the final stages before being enshrined in law.
The Bill is expected to provide new guidelines and laws in relation to domestic abuse to improve the current responses that policy enacts to domestic abuse amongst a variety of services. Its main features include placing safe accommodation service funding on a statutory footing and outlawing threats of non-fatal strangulation, post-separation abuse and sharing intimate images. It also intends to ban the direct cross-examination of survivors by their abusers in court and will importantly give the first ever legal definition of domestic abuse.
However, the Bill unjustly leaves women with insecure immigration status and No Recourse to Public Funds with little to no protection. Currently, those with No Recourse to Public Funds face barriers particularly in accessing refuge accommodation. This is because they are ineligible to claim benefits which many survivors rely on to financially support their stay in a refuge.
Further explaining the issue whilst in the House of Lords, Baroness Meacher stated, "Migrant women with insecure immigration status are, in my view very understandably, reluctant to report domestic abuse to the statutory services". This occurs as a result of the hostile environment policies enacted by the Conservative government that allow data sharing between the police and the Home Office for immigration control purposes. This puts migrant women who are reporting domestic abuse at severe risk of deportation, therefore impeding on their confidence in the system when reporting the crime.
Meacher stated on this, "This reluctance [to report] is due to the current data-sharing agreements between statutory services, including the police and the Home Office, for immigration control purposes. This means that women affected cannot seek support or a safe place to go, with the most appalling consequences, as one can very easily imagine. Perpetrators are not being brought to justice.'
Studies have found that since the policy of data sharing was created, the number of women deported after reporting domestic abuse has risen from 12% to 30%. This is worrying, as it reinforces a trend of criminalising the victim of domestic abuse for speaking up, rather than the perpetrator for their actions. It most importantly showcases, that migrant women fears are fully justified.
The Lord Bishop of London mirrored this anxiety, stating, "I fear that this blind spot enables offenders and abusers to use police involvement as a threat to their victims, rather than the source of protection that it should be. Various countries around the world have demonstrated that firewalls can be and are being implemented in different ways to create separation between public services and immigration enforcement".
On the 15th March, the House of Lords voted on two amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill. These amendments would stop the use of data sharing between the police and the Home Office, and would also grant migrant women escaping domestic abuse temporary leave to remain and give them access to public funds and services. These amendments were both voted in favour. However, the current Conservative government all voted against the amendments, except from 3 ministers, showcasing a worrying lack of dedication to women's safety by the party.
Furthermore, the Bill sadly does not cover other issues such as the way benefits are paid to women fleeing abuse. Universal credit is currently paid by default into one account when claimed jointly with a partner. Some argue it instead should be paid separately to each claimant by default, to prevent abusers from perpetrating economic abuse. These issues compound with other blanket issues such as budget cuts to refuge centres, making it hard for migrant women to escape abuse and gain support.
It is clear that the current government has a priority in upholding the hostile environment policies that they have in place, even if it comes at the risk of putting migrant women's safety in danger. In terms of hostile environment policy, this is effective. It makes life incredibly hard for migrant women, who are having to choose between staying in situations of domestic abuse, or suffering potential deportation.
However, it is entirely inhumane. It is unjust and the priority on immigration control needs to change. Migrant women who live within the UK have been forgotten, left behind and completely overlooked in a piece of legislation which should be designed to promote the protection of all women.
Although the amendments to the Bill have been added, pressure must still be applied to ensure that they remain within the Bill right through to its final stages. The voices of those that this is impacting must be amplified, and awareness must be spread of the risk that the passing of the Bill could pose if amendments are not made.