Shut out from safety – the survivors of domestic abuse with no recourse to public funds

As part of the 16 Days of Activism Laura Rainsford Services Development Officer reflects on the myriad of additional barriers to safety faced by migrant women experiencing domestic abuse, due to current immigration policy.   

Leaving an abusive relationship for any woman, we know, is incredibly hard and statistically, a dangerous time. The latest Femicide Census report[1], published last week, tells us that of the 888 women killed by partners or former partners over the last ten years at least 43% were known to have separated, or taken steps to separate, from the perpetrator. Migrant women however, face a myriad of additional complex interlocking barriers, which can see them shut out from safety, forced to choose between either staying with an abuser or risking destitution.


In the UK, many migrant women have no recourse to public funds (NRPF), a condition imposed on their immigration status, which prevents them from accessing public funds. Consequently, they are denied access to the vast majority of welfare benefits and to the safety net of being able to present as homeless.


Crucially, due to the way the UK’s network of life-saving refuge accommodation is currently funded, dependant as it is on housing benefit, which is a public fund, women with NRPF can face long searches for places. Though some services may be able to accept a small number they can often only do so by dipping into their reserves. According to the latest No Women Turn Away Project Report only 4% of refuge vacancies in the UK in May 2020 could accept those with NRPF[2]. Though women who become destitute with children or who have significant health needs can seek support from social services, the road to this support can be hard and is likely only to get harder given the dwindling funds of many local authorities. For many migrant women trying to reach safety, and the frontline specialist workers standing alongside them, NRPF ties both their hands behind their backs. Due to NRPF many women will stay and endure many more weeks, months and years of control and violence whilst others will leave with no-where to go. I have supported women with NRPF sleeping in their cars and on stranger’s sofas, one whom worked continuous night shifts and even one who slept on the floor of a police station.


The imposition of NRPF and the hostile environment affords perpetrators another tool with which to control their victims. NRPF formalises victims financial dependence on their abusers, leaving them with limited access to independent income with which to flee or meet their or their children’s basic needs.


I have supported women with NRPF forced to steal to feed their children, another whose children became malnourished and others unable to buy sanitary products, shoes or basic clothing including winter coats. The hostile environment immigration policy has made the doctors, teachers and other public sector workers to whom victims may once have disclosed, responsible for immigration checks. Women with insecure immigration face a perceived and real risk of being detained rather than supported if they disclose abuse – all this when we know a great many of perpetrators will threaten women with deportation. Many women I supported were coerced to have sex with violent abusers following threats to cancel their visas. Others I have known had visas and passports withheld, stolen or destroyed, whilst others were lied to about their immigration status.


A number of women I supported who entered the UK legally became undocumented migrants due to abusers, whilst others were tricked into travelling abroad then deliberately abandoned without money or passports and their visas cancelled.


Migrant survivors who flee abuse have limited options to remain in the UK. If a woman came to the UK on a spouse or partner visa, she may apply for indefinite leave to remain under the Domestic Violence Rule and for financial support through the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC). The Domestic Violence Rule application however requires evidence of abuse, which the most controlled of survivors will struggle to gather.


One survivor I supported had been held so extensively in the marital home since arriving in the UK, with no outside contact, she didn’t know how to call 999 or use public transport, let alone disclose her abuse to anyone or have her injuries recorded. There are also thousands of survivors who are shut out from these paths entirely, simply because they have different types of leave to be in the UK – such as visitors, students, workers or parents – or because they never had any formal status. Legal aid for immigration cases is extremely limited, reserved only for DV Rule applications, asylum, trafficking or modern-day slavery claims. Home Office application fees are exorbitant, £2,389 currently for the DV Rule application whilst the level of destitution needed to be proven for a fee-waiver is very high. Many areas of England and Wales are also legal aid immigration advice deserts, where survivors face long journeys to reach advice. Sometimes in my experience this requires travel back into women’s risk areas to see male solicitors who have little understanding of domestic violence or experience of the immigration law surrounding it.


The Istanbul Convention, which the UK has signed but not ratified, requires that survivors of violence against women and girls can access protection irrespective of their immigration status. We know that migrant women are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence – they are also more likely to face a language barrier, to be abused by multiple perpetrators and face specific forms of violence including forced marriage and so-called honour-based violence. Current immigration policy including the imposition of NRPF however directly increases the risk migrant women face by emboldening perpetrators with further control and increasing victims’ fears of reporting whilst also shutting them out from public services and making it harder to access specialist support. This at a time when we expect the number of European victims of domestic abuse who become undocumented with no recourse to public funds due to Brexit, to soar.


The UK must stop treating migrant women who experience abuse as second-class victims. The no recourse to public funds rules must be abolished and paths to secure immigration status and safe reporting established for all survivors. The lives of many women and children depend on it.


Welsh Women’s Aid is campaigning for the Domestic Abuse Bill, currently going through Westminster, to include provision to enable equal access to support and safety for migrant women. We are also asking the Welsh Government to take action under its commitment of Wales being a Nation of Sanctuary. We believe the Welsh Government can create a destitution fund to enable women with NRPF to access support. You can read more about our recommendations in our briefing here.


If you are a migrant woman reading this, we understand why for you telling someone about what is happening or thinking about leaving is especially difficult. Despite what your abusers may tell you, you do have rights and there are people who can help you. Please call the Live Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to talk about your rights. We can speak to you with a translator.


For every story I have told you of women who faced barriers to safety I could tell near equal ones of those who eventually escaped, accessed the right support and are now living free from abuse with their children. You are not alone. You have the right to live fear free.