Increasingly, ASIRT finds itself working to support women and children with irregular immigration status who have experienced domestic violence and abuse, and who are struggling to access justice, or to escape from their abusive and dangerous family situations.
For a minority of women, who are resident in the UK on spouse visas, and who can provide ‘evidence’ of the abuse to which they have been subjected, legal aid and recourse to public funds, in the form of the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession, are available [ https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/application-for-benefits-for-visa-holder-domestic-violence ]
We know, however, that the vast majority of abused women do not fit these critera, and indeed that their immigration status and perceived lack of legal rights are used as weapons against them by the perpetrators of their abuse. This blog is an attempt to clarify the rights and entitlements of women and children in such circumstances.
Crucially, it is important to understand what domestic violence actually is. The Home Office’s definition is as follows:
“Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse: psychological, physical, sexual, financial, emotional. Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour. Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”
In the West Midlands context, this definition is incorporated into the September 2015 document, West Midlands Domestic Violence and Abuse Standards [ http://violencepreventionalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/WM-DV-standards.pdf ], a piece of statutory guidance which seeks to provide a framework for local authority, NHS and police authorities in Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton to ‘develop their professional practice, improve services, shape commissioning of future services and deliver the right response across all settings and sectors’.
The guidance set out in the Standards is helpful, recognising the powerlessness experienced by all too many victims of violence and abuse, and establishing minimum response standards for those agencies charged with a statutory responsibility to help them. The document commits regional statutory organisations to the following:
- We will prioritise the safety of victims and their children in every aspect of decision making and intervention.
- We understand that victims and their children are at most risk when they end a violent relationship or seek help and will work to protect them when they do.
- We understand that without effective intervention domestic violence & abuse often escalates in severity.
- We will make every effort to reach and identify adult and child victims earlier
- We will treat victims with respect and dignity.
- We will listen to them and believe their experiences of violence; take seriously their concerns and seek to understand and strengthen their safety strategies.
- We will seek to gain informed consent from victims where possible when there is an intention to share information.
- We will respect confidentiality and privacy wherever possible and understand the increased risks associated with information sharing in the context of domestic violence and abuse.
- We will maximise choices for domestic violence and abuse victims and empower domestic violence and abuse victims to make informed decisions about their lives wherever possible.
- We will actively work to develop competent services which are sensitive to the diverse range and needs of the individuals and communities we serve.
- We will send clear messages that domestic violence perpetrators are accountable for their behaviour and that victims are never to blame.
- We will work co-operatively with the range of services that victims need.
- We will recognise the importance of specialist independent domestic violence and abuse services in providing a voice for victims and children and guiding us on safe practice.
Welcome though these commitments undoubtedly are, ASIRT’s experience to date has been that their application in relation to families subject to immigration control and denied recourse to public funds has, at best, been patchy. One referral agency, for example, told us of a heavily pregnant woman approaching a local housing office for help, only to be told to return to the abusive situation she had been fled, and that the police would be called to evict her from the office should she fail to leave of her own volition.
A single mother supported by ASIRT was provided with a section 17 Children Act assessment record claiming that a service user’s account of sustained domestic violence had been ‘fabricated’ in order to obtain leave to remain in the UK ‘by fraudulent and deceptive means’. Another was evicted from the hostel accommodation in which she had been placed along with her three children, following a documented and established history of financial and emotional abuse, on the basis that should ‘work better together’ with the perpetrator of her abuse.
Such responses, clearly, are wholly unsatisfactory, and entirely at odds with the statutory guidance set out in the Standards. Moreover, responses of this kind fail to address precarious families’ needs for co-ordinated multi-agency support work, designed to regularise their immigration status and therefore to increase the options available to them, thereby reducing their vulnerability to abuse.
ASIRT is committed to working alongside regional voluntary and sector partners to develop a strategic response to the needs of victims of domestic violence who are marginalised as a consequence of their precarious immigration status, and to holding partner agencies falling short of the minimum standards set out in the statutory guidance to account.
We hope that reminding our partners of the commitments to which they are bound by the Standards is a helpful first step in the establishment of such a strategic response.