Hostile environment policy leaves abused women afraid to seek help due to risk of deportation, groups warn
Theresa May’s “hostile environment” immigration policy, which lay at the heart of the Windrush scandal, is being used by abusive and violent men to threaten and control their partners, a coalition of women’s groups says.
Women with insecure immigration status or reliant on a spousal visa are becoming so fearful of deportation they are not reporting crimes of domestic or sexual violence to the police, or seeking backing for an escape, the groups say.
The groups, including Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), Southall Black Sisters, and others supporting black and ethnic minority women at risk of violence, cite cases where rape victims have been arrested and domestic violence survivors denied refuge and forced to return to their abusers or deported.
Last year, a case emerged of a woman who reported being kidnapped and raped and who was arrested by police as she sought care in a care centre in London.
Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition(Evaw), said: “The public are rightly outraged by the devastating impact the hostile environment immigration policy has had on the lives of the Windrush generation. The same policy is also leaving many women at risk of violence and exploitation, scaring them away from seeking help and making it harder for them to access life-saving services.
“Abusers are weaponising the policy, using that fear, saying, ‘if you leave me, if you go for help, if you draw attention to yourself, you will be deported’.”.
Migrant women were disproportionately at risk from gender-based violence, including of a domestic and sexual nature, as well as “honour-based” violence, forced marriage, trafficking and female genital mutilation, she said.
“It is both a real and perceived fear,” said Krys. “They can see it happening around them.”
The Istanbul Convention On Ending Violence Against Women, which the government has committed to ratify, states that all women should be protected from violence, regardless of their immigration status
In a briefing paper to be launched on Wednesday at a meeting in parliament hosted by the Labour MP Rupa Huq, the group Evaw said the immigration policy had reduced the safe spaces where women could get help from public bodies, and led to an erosion of access to justice, because immigration control took precedence over reporting crimes.
“In one case a woman had gone to the police to report a rape and the first people they called were immigration officers,” said Krys. “We’ve had another case, reported by LAWRS and Women for Refugee Women, where a woman at risk of violence was deported. And we’ve had women being told by local authorities and the police if they are abused but have insecure immigration status they can’t get help.”
Many migrant women, including victims of trafficking, as well as asylum seekers and those with work visas, student visas or visas connected to their spouse, also have no recourse to public funds so are prevented from using refuges, she said. According to Women’s Aid, 7% of women with no recourse to public funds were accommodated in shelters in 2017 due to their immigration status.
In 2013, May, as home secretary, launched plans to create a “hostile environment” for illegal migrants to Britain, requiring the NHS, banks and private landlords to carry out immigration checks.
In parliament, women’s groups will ask MPs to support new measures to protect migrant women at risk of abuse, to be placed in the proposed domestic abuse bill. The bill is aimed at enhancing protection and support for victims of domestic abuse.
Evaw’s recommendations call for protection and support of victims to be prioritised over immigration enforcement, a “firewall” between public services and immigration control, and an extension of the “destitution domestic violence concession” (a temporary measure to help women with no public funds) to all survivors of domestic violence for at least six months. They also want all immigration legislation to be reviewed for the possible impact on women experiencing gender violence.