How The UK Treats Refugee Women Suffering Domestic Abuse

Photo: Aini Amira Fadzil / EyeEm
The first time the blows swung down on her, Lucinda was quick. Her arms drew the duvet around her like a protective shield as she used the split second of cover to reach for her phone. When it happened again, it was almost instinctual. Fingers trembled over 999 but she told herself, “I am in England now”, assuming security as she encouraged herself to dial. But what she couldn’t have prepared herself for was the hiss, “Who is going to help you now? You aren’t even meant to be here.”
In the United Kingdom, it is reported that the police receive over 100 calls relating to domestic abuse every hour, making it an almost commonplace crime. More often than not, incidents will take place in the home, causing organisations such as Women’s Aid to speculate that the true statistics remain largely hidden. When survivors find the strength to speak, it is often to a friend, a doctor, helpline service or police, but what about the women who are left outside of these networks, who have no recourse to public funds? To whom can they turn?
When the culture of silence that shrouds domestic abuse is combined with the precarious position of those with insecure immigration status, the results are toxic. In the case of Rebecca, her partner used the threat of detention to keep her in the relationship: "He cut me off from all my friends as he used to tell me that I should be careful of talking to anyone in case they reported me, and maintained that I should keep everything secret." Slowly, she gathered the strength to speak to other people and recognise the pattern of abuse. However, the situation took a turn for the worse: "I went for a weekend to visit a friend in Germany, but coming back into the country, I was detained because my ex-partner had written to them [the Home Office] the night he was hitting me that I was violent to him. Immediately, the Home Office revoked my five-year visa. They did not serve me a letter; I was only given it at the airport, and then taken to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre. I was there for five months."
Four years ago, Theresa May, as home secretary, vowed to "create a really hostile environment" for illegal migrants. As a consequence, Doctors of the World have reported that pregnant women are too scared by the threat of deportation to seek vital medical treatment. To some, this might seem shocking. Yet according to one representative, "this is far more frequent than people may think", as are stories of the same women sleeping on buses and in graveyards while pregnant as they are unable to access shelter. "It is much more than leaving women vulnerable," frowns Leah Cowan, the policy and operations coordinator at Imkaan. "The successive Immigration Acts in 2014 and 2016 have transformed everyday people in the UK into de facto border guards – now landlords, healthcare workers, teachers, and staff at banks are expected to check and monitor the immigration status of the people they provide services for. Out of this is a web of systems and frameworks which [leave migrant women vulnerable] and construct barriers to accessing support and leaving situations of violence."
Cowan’s words weigh particularly heavily this week after it emerged that a rape survivor was arrested on immigration charges after reporting the crime to UK police. Not only is this suggestive of where the British government’s priorities lie, it also establishes a worrying framework in which abusers can escape punishment if their partner has insecure status. When I raise this with Rebecca, she nods sadly and says: "I met many women in the removal centre who were detained as a result of their husbands reporting them when they wanted to get rid of the women or they thought they’d go to the police. Many of the women struggled as English was not their first language and they ended up being deported."
At a glance, Theresa May appears to be an advocate for survivors of domestic violence. From the beginning of 2017, she sought to mark it out as an issue that she was particularly passionate about, saying not only that it was something she attached "personal importance to" but also that it was a "hidden scandal" of our country. To remedy this, she very publicly launched a new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, which was warmly received by some campaigners. But beneath the words of reform and promises of harsher criminal sanctions, there is a very different picture. For example, the current plans to stop domestic violence refuges being funded by housing benefits. This directly removes financial support for some of the most vulnerable survivors and places the burden on the refuges themselves, many of which are already overstretched. From the perspective of Charlotte Kneer, a survivor and chief executive of Reigate & Banstead’s women’s refuge, "the promise of harsher punishment doesn’t mean very much when some of the most vulnerable women are literally being forced into destitution by these cuts".
While the national situation for domestic violence refuges is dire, women with insecure status are often locked out of these provisions due to not being British citizens in the first instance. Unable to call the police or find suitable shelter, many are left bitterly disappointed by a country whose moral standing they believed in and respected. Predatory behaviour was part of the package for Lucinda, who recalls an expectation to act like a servant and clean a man’s dirty underwear, although it flew in the face of her religious beliefs. In the case of Rebecca: "I used to pay all the rent as he made me do it as a payment, or debt, for me being under a spousal visa under him. When I tried to report him or complain, he used this against me, which is how I ended up in Yarl’s Wood." For these women, domestic violence is far from being eradicated. In fact, the pressure applied by the government to be harsh on immigration is encouraging a situation in which some of the most vulnerable women in the United Kingdom are left open to abuse.
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