The UK has long been advocating for better protection and support for the survivors of domestic abuse. Years of austerity have meant rapid decreases in financial support for specialized services over the past decade leading to many services being forced to shut. National lockdown due to COVID-19 has bought a renewed sense of urgency to this campaign with the Counting Dead Women reporting at least 16 domestic abuse-related killings in the first week of lockdown – the highest rate in over 10 years – and charity SafeLives found that up to 61% of survivors were unable to access support during the lockdown. In light of this, after 3 years of delays, the Domestic Abuse Bill finally reached its second reading in the House of Lords on the 5th of January. UK media is heralding the bill as a once in a generation opportunity for the best chance of better protection for survivors. Some major changes have been achieved; the bill will create a statutory definition of abuse, for the first time, to include physical, coercive, emotional, and economic abuse, local authorities will have a duty to provide accommodation to survivors, and it will outlaw the use of rough sex as a defense when women are killed. But many domestic abuse charities and activists are still fighting for changes to be made, with the last chance to make amendments quickly approaching the urgency in this call is hugely apparent. 

Boris Johnson’s announcement in the Queen’s Speech states that the bill is meant to “transform our approach to domestic violence and abuse to ensure that victims have the confidence to come forward and report their experiences, safe in the knowledge that the state and justice system will do everything it can to both support them and their children and pursue their abuser”. Yet the Bill as it stands currently does nothing to ensure women with insecure migration status have a safe route to report abuse nor access the support necessary to escape their abuser. A survey by Imkaan in 2010 found that 40% of 183 women with insecure migrant status stayed in their abusive relationship for more than 5 years out of fear of deportation. An alarming 92% of these women reported threats of deportation from the perpetrator. Current data-sharing between the police and the Home Office combined with a recent announcement from the Mayor of London, reiterating the police are duty-bound to report undocumented victims of crime, puts migrant women at increased risk, and actively closes legal routes to support. This practice undermines trust in the police and enables abusers to use women’s insecure status as a form of coercive control, leaving many women trapped in dangerous situations for fear of deportation to their home country where they may face exclusions or even persecution due to stigmas around divorce and other social issues. In addition to this, the current government no recourse to public funds policy means that migrant women are not entitled to any form of government support, they can not access the welfare system, housing, or many organizations offering refuge. Between 2019 and 2020 as many as 4 out of 5 women were turned away from refuges due to the no recourse to public funds policy. Reliance on spouses for migration status as well as financial support means women are left with an impossible choice of returning to their abusers or becoming homeless and destitute. This has been exacerbated by 12 years of austerity under the Conservative Government that has led to massive cuts to specialized services supporting victims of domestic abuse. This has disproportionately affected BME organizations and those specific to women with no recourse to public funds. 22 BME organizations have had their funding cut with many having to shut as reduced funding is given to generic services with the lowest bids. Migrant women are 10% more likely to experience domestic abuse than any other ethnic group, they are also less likely to use generic services due to cultural and language barriers, yet they are now being left with the least amount of support. Of 733 BME women that applied for refuge in London in 2015, only 154 were successful. Thus, it becomes strikingly clear that a lack of funding and specialized services combined with no recourse to public funds policies and inhumane prioritization of immigration control over the protection of victims leaves hundreds of women at risk.

Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) launched the Step-up Migrant Women Campaign in coalition with 50 other organizations to advocate for better protection for migrant women. Throughout each stage of the Bills passing through parliament, the government has promised to listen to the evidence presented by this campaign and to amend to bill accordingly. Yet, despite multiple reports detailing evidence of the specific issues affecting migrant women concerning domestic abuse the government has failed to include their recommendations. Instead, they have offered a £1.5million pilot scheme to cover the cost of accommodating women with no recourse to public funds, stating that there is not enough evidence to warrant further amendments. Yet Step-up Migrant Women has stated that this is wholly inadequate and that the Bill as it stands fails to meet human rights obligations as it does not protect without discrimination. 

For the Bill to protect all women equally it is important to join the Step-up Migrant Women Campaign in pressuring the government to listen to their calls. Their recommendations are clear:

Without these amendments, the Bill will fail to protect the most vulnerable migrant women and provide them with the life-saving support that they need. Pressure on the government to act on these recommendations will be vital in the coming last stages of the Bills review. You can find out more on how to help the campaign on the website and you can help their efforts by signing their open letter or by writing to your local MP pressuring them to argue for change. 

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