A search for ‘domestic violence ILR’ on immigrationboards.com, a popular online forum where migrants share advice and support, returns hundreds of results. Isolated women who have no access to proper legal advice post here to try and make sense of Home Office rules and regulations.
One user, inamuddle, wants to leave a violent relationship but is worried about her insecure immigration status and the cost of the application for leave to remain.
I am trying to save enough to apply for indefinite leave based on domestic violence. I am leaving an abusive marriage with very little but I do have pension and so am not destitute and cannot ask for the fee to be waived. The application fee is over £2000 and I will not have it saved for about six months. The Home Office states that I must apply as soon as possible after leaving the situation. Is six months too long, does someone know please?
The abuse is 8 years long, the length of the marriage. It has been sexual and verbal. It has recently escalated to physical abuse […] There is no way I will ever be able to afford legal help so must do this on my own.
‘inamuddle’ is one of thousands of survivors every year forced to choose between staying in a violent relationship and risking deportation.
If you come to the UK as the partner of someone already settled here and experience domestic violence in that relationship, you don’t have an automatic right to the protections and safe spaces most women take for granted.
Women on spousal visas, student visas, and asylum seekers are trapped in violent situations by the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) rule. This bars them from accessing most state benefits, including housing benefit. As most beds in women’s refuges are funded through housing benefit, the vast majority are forced to turn NPRF women away.
“The current system effectively creates deserving and undeserving victims”, says Radhika Handa, policy and campaigns officer at Southall Black Sisters, an Asian women’s organisation that works with migrant survivors.
“We keep hearing Theresa May say domestic violence is a personal priority for her. But this is totally meaningless as survivors with insecure status are quite literally sacrificed to harsh immigration controls.”
The hostile environment that May designed means surveillance and border enforcement are creeping into schools, hospitals, and the rental sector. Domestic violence services were never going to be immune.
“We’ve seen a number of cases where a woman has gone to the police after being abused, desperate and in need of protection, and they’ll tell us they have no choice but to report her to the Home Office because her status is irregular”, Handa says.
Rockhaya Sylla is a migrants’ rights specialist who supports women and families with NRPF. She too paints a picture of institutions which are supposed to protect the vulnerable being steadily invaded by an all-seeing border force.
“Many women I work with won’t even try and get support when they’ve suffered abuse because they know they face immigration checks in social services. They won’t go to hospitals if they’ve been physically hurt because they’re worried about NHS charges.”
A lot of the work Southall Black Sisters does involves helping women with NRPF apply for the ‘domestic violence rule’ and the ‘destitution domestic violence concession’, a related grant which gives them temporary access to public funds.
The theory is that no one should have to stay in an abusive relationship to ensure they stay in the UK, providing a safe route to settled status. In practise, the strict eligibility criteria and extortionate cost mean this safety net is often just out of reach.
To qualify for the domestic violence rule you must meet a long list of criteria. You must have entered the UK on a spousal visa, and you must have experienced abuse at the hands of that partner. The further you scroll down the 37-page application form, the vaguer the criteria get: survivor must not be “of bad character”, have no unspent criminal convictions, or owe money to the NHS.
If you can’t prove you are destitute, which the Home Office takes to mean “total and necessary reliance on a third party for essential living costs, such as basic accommodation and food”, an application costs £2997, plus an additional £2997 for each dependent child. The fee has nearly trebled in the last few years, from £1093 in 2014.
Ultimately, rejection rates are high. A New Statesman investigation found a quarter of all applications for the destitution domestic violence concession have been rejected since it was first introduced, and the proportion of applications rose every year since its inception.
Handa says that while Southall Black Sisters is generally pretty successful at getting support for women under the domestic violence rule, the Home Office is often too eager to believe an abuser who discredits a woman’s story.
“What we see sometimes is that the perpetrator, who has settled status, gets to find out that the woman is making an application. And so they will approach the Home Office, tell them it’s all a bunch of lies. And we’ve worked on cases where the Home Office has rejected comprehensive evidence of abuse in favour of his word over hers.”
Even if a survivor jumps through every Home Office hoop and successfully gets access to public funds under the domestic violence rule, her safety isn’t guaranteed. A 2016 Women’s Aid report found that even where a woman is eligible for public funds, cash-strapped refuges worried about non-payment still routinely turned these survivors away.
Organisations like Southall Black Sisters campaigned hard for destitution domestic violence concession and the domestic violence rule, concessions which have helped thousands of survivors leave abusive relationships.
But that’s just what they are – small concessions to a small group of women. According to Handa, the only real solutions are wholesale: funding refuge places for all migrant women and supporting specialist BME services, extending the domestic violence rule and destitution domestic violence concession to all, regardless of how they entered the country and, ultimately, abolishing the NRPF rule.
“The domestic violence rule has been an overwhelming success. But it’s just stop-gap provision, tinkering around the edges of the problem, when what these women need is an overarching policy that prioritises safety.”
“We are constantly having to carve out concessions from the general rule, which is that migrant women don’t deserve anything at all.”