Four years after the Domestic Abuse Bill was first announced in the Queen’s Speech, it finally became law on 30th April 2021. A year on, Good News Shared speaks to campaigners about whether the Act has gone far enough to protect one of the most vulnerable groups in society: migrant women.

Discussions regarding violence against women and girls (VAWG) have escalated since 2021 following the tragic kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens, Sabina Nessa, a young South Asian woman killed in a south-east London park, and countless other women who have fallen victim to gendered crime.

Refuge, the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, reported a 700% surge in calls to its helpline in a single day since the start of the lockdown. From using social isolation as a tool for abuse to “lockdown aggravating pre-existing behaviours of perpetrators,” the Domestic Abuse Act came at a crucial time.

Whilst the Act has been welcomed by campaigners, activists and survivors for going beyond criminal justice reforms alone, the legislation was a missed opportunity to fully support migrant women who have experienced domestic abuse. 

No Recourse to Public Funds

Many migrant women have NRPF or ‘no recourse to public funds.’ This means that they are excluded from claiming benefits and therefore, have no access to social security, housing, or women’s refuge services. By virtue of immigration status alone, these women are economically vulnerable. They are few refuges and shelters to accommodate them, hence, compared to other women, their options are scarce. 

Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, Policy and Communications Coordinator on VAWG at the Latin American Womens Rights Service (LAWRS) explains how the legislation has excluded migrant women from safety and protection:

“The government has institutionalised this two-tier system in which your immigration status defines the way you’re going to be treated, and whether you’re going to have access to support. Elizabeth added, “Perpetrators perceive that they can continue abusing migrant women with impunity.”

Insecure immigration status is weaponised by perpetrators making migrant women reluctant to report domestic abuse to statutory services. 

A change of culture

Vital changes in the Act include a legal definition of domestic abuse and new criminal offences – including post-separation coercive control, non-fatal strangulation and threats to disclose private sexual images.

Although these changes have been welcomed by the sector, more work needs to be done to shift society’s way of thinking about domestic abuse. Elizabeth believes a change of culture must accompany legislation, “In order to tackle domestic abuse and violence against women and girls in general, we need to go to the root causes, and we need to think about prevention.” 

Emily Florence Hutchings, Trustee and Ambassador of Solace, echoes this view:

“Generally, I think our attitude needs to change in society. We allow microaggressions and inappropriate comments in the workplace and other places and that’s how actually things escalate to violence, because underneath all this there are these ingrained attitudes that violence and harassment are acceptable, and they are not.”

“As someone who’s gone through the judicial process and experienced these ingrained attitudes of minimising behaviour or blaming victims, I know this happens across society, from our employers, landlords, solicitors, police officers, judges, doctors and mental health practitioners – a range of different professions who sometimes are just not understanding the dynamics and complexity of domestic abuse.”

“We need to be continually alert and we need to recognise the signs of abuse. I think we need to get away from thinking that the signs are always a black eye and bruises. Abusers are getting cleverer. They’re not always leaving a mark somewhere visible, or they’re not leaving a mark at all. Abuse can be emotional, psychological, and financial, so we need to be keeping an eye on other signs that show people are withdrawn, or that something is amiss. It’s about being aware of those signs and feeling concerned and comfortable enough to try and broach it sensitively with them. We’re still seeing the well-known stereotype of a woman cowering in the corner. Yes, of course, that is based on some sort of truth, but that’s not always what domestic violence looks like. It does take different forms. Through activism – and the arts, in which I am trained – I want to try and dismantle the myths around domestic abuse. It is important everyone joins the fight – men too, and people from different ages and backgrounds.”

Lack of trust in the system

Racialised reporting on domestic abuse further adds to the skewed perceptions of the issue. Elizabeth notes that:

“Ethnic minority communities are seen as more violent and have a larger patriarchal understanding. And there’s this approach of ‘we need to report migrant perpetrators.’ Whereas, what we’ve seen is that a huge number of perpetrators are white British citizens.” 

What’s more, is that the police continue to perpetuate racism and state misogyny to a devastating degree. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that over 1000 police officers and staff accused of domestic abuse are still serving in law enforcement. Eight out of 10 kept their jobs after allegations were made. Between the lack of support for migrant women compounded by the lack of trust in the police, many of whom are guilty of domestic abuse themselves, marginalised women stand alone in the face of male violence.

As Elizabeth says:

“The women we support are not only abused by perpetrators, but by the system and the state and the and the institutions themselves.”

An anonymous CEO of a UK-based CIC supporting homelessness tell us how the Act is an extension of the hostile environment:

“The Domestic Abuse Act does not prevent the police from sharing the details of migrant women who report domestic violence, to the immigration office. This risk of deportation can ultimately make reporting an abusive partner more dangerous than staying with said partner. This can isolate migrant women even more than they already are, leaving them feeling like they have no one to turn to for help and safety.” 

Community Interest Companies like these provide housing and empower marginalised communities facing homelessness. A change welcomed by the sector was the legal duty of councils to provide safe accommodation for survivors of domestic abuse.

The CEO says, “This means we can work with local authorities to ensure safe accommodation for families in need. When someone has experienced domestic abuse, they often need so much more than just somewhere safe to stay for them and their family. The act allows us to continue providing our wrap-around support, where we can work with our residents to rebuild their confidence and ultimately rebuild their lives. We can provide both emotional and practical support to help with the healing process, from mental health to CV workshops, we are happy that we can continue to equip our residents with all necessary life skills.”

Quality of accommodation

However, Erin Mansell, Public Affairs Manager at Solace notes housing issues make it difficult to provide safe accommodation, especially in London. “The housing crisis, particularly in London is one of our barriers. Even though we might be adding capacity in that kind of crisis and emergency for three to six or nine months in a refuge – women and families still need somewhere to go after that.“ 

Likewise, Elizabeth notes that the need for suitable accommodation is vital to fit the complexity of different cases. “There’s been a push from the sector to ensure that this accommodation is suitable because it’s not only taking women out of their abusive household – it’s ensuring that these women who need holistic, especially support to rebuild their lives. And that means they need to be in a safe space such as separate refuge with a safe environment to support women and children.”

Extension of support

Erin, who works at Solace, which provides life-saving support for both women and children, notes how the Act extends to children. “We welcome the fact that the Act recognises children as victims of domestic abuse for the first time. Even if they’re not the primary target of abuse, but have perhaps grown up in a household where there is abuse, they are now recognised as victims. I think there’s a lot of scope for expanding services and ensuring they get support.”

Further to this, the sector is pleased to see the introduction of the Domestic Abuse commissioner. Nicole Jacobs, the first designated Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales, has the access and resources to oversee the services across the country, and identify where the gaps are.

We asked Refuge, the largest specialist provider of services for survivors of gender-based violence and abuse, for comment.

Ellie Butt, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Refuge said:

“A year on from the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act, we are just now seeing aspects of the Act come into force. While it remains to be seen how effectively and consistently they’ll be applied, I’m hopeful that the Act will be an important stride forward in properly supporting survivors and victims of domestic abuse.

“It was the hard work of campaigners across the sector that led to landmark changes in the law, like the criminalisation of threats to share intimate images that Refuge campaigned for, or the abolition of the ‘Rough Sex’ defence, or economic abuse being recognised as a form of domestic abuse and defined in law for the first time. Importantly, The Act finally recognised children as “victims in their own right”, acknowledging the impact of domestic abuse on children, something those with an understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse have long called for. It cannot be overstated how important these changes are in finally recognising many forms of domestic abuse in law, which is vital for survivors seeking justice for the abuse they have faced.”

“The duty on local authorities to commission domestic abuse safe accommodation, including refuges, is hugely important and comes with significant new funding for these vital services. While the detail of how the new duty will be implemented is crucial, it has the potential to put refuges on a stable financial footing for the first time.

“Despite the progress the Act represents, there are still shortcomings which the government has failed to address. Migrant women face immense barriers to reporting abuse and seeking support. If the UK wants to be a leading voice in eliminating violence against women and girls, they must make commitments to allow migrant survivors recourse to public funds, and to establish a ‘firewall’ between the police and immigration enforcement so survivors feel confident that a report of domestic abuse won’t lead to their deportation.

“The Domestic Abuse Act must be seen as a starting point – the beginning of a conversation about how to effectively tackle a culture which enables perpetrators, so all victim-survivors can live in a world free from abuse. Refuge continues to be the country’s largest single provider of specialist domestic abuse services and runs the National Domestic Abuse Helpline –  the gateway to support for survivors across England. We will continue to campaign for vital legislative changes to ensure that ending violence against women and girls remains a priority.”

Conclusion

Collective solidarity between women’s refuges, campaigners and services has made the Act possible. These organisations have shone a light on this specific issue in regards to migrant women and how often this marginalised group are overlooked in the decision making process. It’s now on the government to go beyond lip service, listen to campaigners and take action.

To find out more and support the incredible organisations that have tirelessly campaigned and supported migrant women, visit the following links:

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About Author

Uzma Gulbahar holds a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University College of London. She is particularly interested in exploring untold stories surrounding marginalised groups, identity and culture.

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