Domestic Abuse Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Refugee Council (DAB14)

Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-2021– Public Bill Committee

Refugee Council Submission

1. About Refugee Council

1.1 The Refugee Council is one of the leading charities in the UK working with refugees and people seeking asylum. As a human rights charity, independent of government, we work to ensure that refugees are given the protection they need, that they are treated with respect and understanding, and that they have the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities as other members of our society.

1.2. Refugee Council has worked for many years to improve the outcomes for women seeking asylum who have experienced, or are at risk of, violence and abuse after arriving in the UK.

1.3. In July 2018, the Refugee Council and the Asylum Support Appeals Project published a report 'Women seeking asylum: Safe from violence in the UK?' [1] , looking at how the UK government responds to women facing domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence after arrival in the UK and during their time in the asylum system.

1.4. Following the publication of our report, the Home Office revised their guidance on responding to reports of domestic abuse from people seeking asylum. The revised guidance includes a number of new safeguards including a new funding mechanism enabling people seeking asylum to access specialist refuge accommodation and support services.

1.5. These new safeguards help to address some of the key concerns outlined in our report. However, there remain a number of ways that support could be improved for our clients through the Domestic Abuse Bill, as set out below.

2. Executive summary and areas for amendment

2.1. Women who become appeal rights exhausted should be able to access domestic violence services as any other woman in the UK can do; this can be achieved by an extension of eligibility for the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC) and the Domestic Violence Rule. This would ensure that every migrant survivor can access routes to regularise or confirm their immigration status and can secure public funds (which must be provided for at least six months) while doing so. Appeal rights for the Tribunal for Domestic Violence Rule applications should also be reinstated.

2.2. In addition to the above, there must be a provision to ensure all victims of domestic abuse can access public funds and vital, often life-saving support and routes to safety; and that no survivor, whatever her immigration status, is treated as being in breach of immigration laws or the immigration rules for accessing those funds.

2.3. Women with insecure immigration status fear reporting domestic abuse because they believe this could affect their status or asylum claim. To ensure women are accessing services when they need them, Government should establish safe reporting mechanisms and an end to data-sharing for immigration enforcement purposes between vital public services and the Home Office, to ensure all survivors can safely report abuse to police and other services without fear of immigration control.

2.4. Secure housing is needed for survivors of domestic abuse to ensure their safety, and to avoid putting vulnerable people in transactional and exploitative relationships. We welcome the Government commitment to ensure all survivors are automatically in ‘priority need’ for the purposes of housing. That change now needs to be made explicit within the bill, and members should consider the details of that amendment.

2.5. To fully ensure all migrant survivors are protected and supported within the provisions of the bill, a principle of non-discrimination that mirrors the language of Article 4(3) of the Istanbul Convention.

3. Women seeking asylum who become appeal rights exhausted (ARE)

3.1. The Government states that all victims of domestic abuse should be treated first and foremost as victims, and all the measures in the Bill apply equally to all victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales, irrespective of their immigration status.

3.2. Currently the bill fails to address the needs of women who are forced to exit the asylum support system as a result of having their asylum claim refused and becoming appeal rights exhausted (ARE), with no recourse to asylum support or any other public financial support.

3.3. Women who become appeal rights exhausted are extremely vulnerable to homelessness and destitution, which in turn can expose them to an increased risk of abuse and exploitation. There is a particular risk of sexual exploitation when women have no alternative but to rely on friends, acquaintances, or strangers for accommodation.

3.4. If government action to tackle domestic abuse is truly to treat people as victims first, regardless of their immigration status, then support for women who are appeal rights exhausted must be brought forward.

3.5. To do this, the Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC) should be widened so that all women with insecure immigration status in the UK can access it, including refused asylum-seeking women, rather than just those entering the country on spousal visas.

3.6. Those accessing the DDVC also need more time than the three months of leave that it currently provides, in order to ensure they can access appropriate support and to regularise their immigration status by accessing legal representation and advice. The DDVC should therefore provide leave for at least six months.

3.7. To this end, MPs should support amendments that widen the scope of the DDVC and increase the length of leave that is provided.

4. Barriers to disclosure for women seeking asylum

4.1. Women seeking asylum often fear reporting abuse because they believe that it could affect their immigration status or asylum claim.

4.2. They are often unaware of how the criminal justice system functions in the UK and are suspicious of state bodies and authority figures, due to their experiences in the countries from which they have fled. Perpetrators use these fears as a tool to isolate and control women.

4.3. The bill should create a safe reporting mechanisms and an end to data-sharing for immigration enforcement purposes between vital public services and the Home Office.

4.4. This would ensure that women whose asylum claims have been refused can seek help without the overhanging threat of immigration enforcement.

5. Housing support for refugee survivors of domestic abuse

5.1. Refugees regularly struggle to secure safe and secure housing once they acquire status in the UK, and refugee survivors of domestic abuse can be even more vulnerable to homelessness.

5.2. Indeed, there is a real risk that women may be coerced into abusive relationships on the basis that the perpetrator is providing them with shelter, making it even more difficult to flee domestic abuse.

5.3. We were therefore very pleased to a new commitment from Government to allow for ‘priority need’ status for the purposes of homelessness to automatically be granted to survivors of domestic abuse.

5.4 We are awaiting for full details on this commitment and how it will be enacted, but the bill should allow for individuals fleeing domestic abuse to be automatically considered in priority need for the purposes of the being housed by the relevant local housing authority, as has been recommended by the APPG on Ending Homelessness and the APPG on Domestic Violence and Abuse.

5.5. This change could be achieved through a simple amendment to the Housing Act 1996 that moves survivors of domestic abuse into the priority need category.

6. Ratification of the Istanbul Convention

6.1. The measures contained in the bill are not compliant with Article 3(4) of the Istanbul Convention which states that ‘provisions of this Convention by the Parties, in particular measures to protect the rights of victims, shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as […} national or social origin {…or…} migrant or refugee status’.

6.2. As such, the bill leaves women with insecure immigration status, including asylum-seeking women and those who are appeal rights exhausted without the protection required by the Convention.

6.3. The government should take the opportunity presented by the bill to put in domestic legislation to ensure full compliance with Article 3(4) of the Istanbul Convention, to provide greater protection for women with insecure immigration status, including asylum-seeking women and those who are appeal rights exhausted.

May 2020

 

Prepared 11th June 2020