Yesterday the Home Office introduced a concession allowing victims of domestic violence who have entered the UK on spousal visas and have no recourse to public funds (NRPFs) to access benefits and public housing while they apply for settlement under what’s known as the ‘domestic violence rule’.
The Campaign to Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds, which involves over 27 leading women’s and human rights groups including IKWRO, welcomes this concession. It represents a major victory for the Campaign, and for the rights of migrant women at risk of gender based violence and exploitation.
However, there are many other vulnerable victims who remain without a safety net. These include women in the UK on other visas, overstayers, and migrant domestic workers, who experience gender based violence or abuse and exploitation at the hands of their employers. Women who have been trafficked into the country are also not adequately protected. These women are still forced to make a stark choice between staying within an abusive relationship – risking their lives and their children’s lives – and leaving, facing destitution and in many cases also deportation. Monitoring data collected by just a handful of agencies found that during the period 24 October – 18 November 2011, 137 women and 74 children with an insecure immigration status were looking for accommodation and support because of abuse . Of these, 52 were accommodated and supported, and 54 were provided with support only. Disturbingly 31 (29%) women and 16 children were unable to access any support, and only 48 (35%) were eligible for Sojourner funding. This means that a shocking 65% of women were ineligible for help from the Sojourner Project, and were either dependant on limited support elsewhere or destitute. Under new proposals, such women will also not be entitled to legal aid to make an application to stay in the country or to appeal against refusal.
The Campaign is also dismayed by the Government’s new proposals on family-related migration, including plans to increase the probationary period for spousal visas from two to five years, and changes to the Immigration Rules which require applicants for settlement under the domestic violence rule to be free of unspent convictions, despite the fact that many victims of abuse act in self-defence or are falsely accused of crime by abusive partners and family members. These changes undermine women’s ability to escape abuse and gain access to safety and support. The Campaign calls on the Home Office, and where relevant, the Department of Works and Pensions and local authorities, to ensure that there is:
1. Effective implementation of the new benefit and housing scheme for victims of domestic violence on spousal visas. This includes ensuring that victims are fast tracked through the benefit system and tracked by the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) for monitoring purposes. Training should also be provided to officials within the DWP, the UKBA and local authority housing departments on the new scheme, delivered in conjunction with campaign members, and that victims have access to telephone (where interpretation is available), rather than online-only application processes. This also means that women’s organisations, particularly specialist BME women’s services, should be adequately funded to provide advice and assistance to enable victims to access benefits and housing under the new scheme.
2. Provide benefits and public housing, and the right to permanent settlement, for all victims of gender based violence and exploitation. In the interim, a pilot should be established similar to the Sojourner Project for such victims.
3. Provide legal aid for all victims of gender based violence and exploitation with immigration problems.
4. Exempt victims from the unspent criminal conviction regulations.
5. Withdraw proposals in the recent family migration consultation, such as the extension of the probationary period for spousal visas from 2 to 5 years, which will force more women to stay in abusive relationships without recourse to protection.
6. Abolish the probationary period as it keeps victims in vulnerable and abusive situations.
The Campaign to Abolish No Recourse to Public Funds has over 27 members, including IKWRO. It is chaired by Southall Black Sisters and hosted by the Women’s Resource Centre.
Read a BBC report on the new support scheme for migrant women here.