We need a way out for Migrant women experiencing domestic abuse in lockdown

Date Posted: Tuesday 5th May 2020

The lockdown to curb the coronavirus pandemic is exposing and exacerbating another public health crisis: that of violence against women.

Vulnerable groups who faced higher challenges to access safety are facing the heaviest impact.

The figures from China reminded us early on that the home is not always a safe place for women and children. In the UK we are now seeing an increase of 49% in women seeking help and the Metropolitan Police has been arresting 100 domestic abusers per day. Sixteen women and children have been murdered in the three weeks of lockdown, double the average for same period in the last decade.

The impact is felt heaviest on the women and children (for it is overwhelmingly women and children) who already faced the highest barriers to reach safety. Migrant women, who too often cannot access public funds, who are marginalised and cut out from housing and homelessness assistance, will be more at risk of being trapped in abusive homes.

As Women’s Aid rightly points out, COVID-19 does not cause abuse, only abusers are responsible for their actions. But social isolation measures and the shutdown of most of society provide a flourishing ground for this other ‘opportunistic infection’. Abuse can escalate while routes to safety for women to escape are closed down.

Migrant women’s social networks are in some cases more fragile and smaller than those of British women, and their awareness of support available more limited. Women become more isolated from friends and family and find it harder to access support services safely, and frontline services struggle to reach women in traditionally more isolated communities.

Southall Black Sisters, a specialist domestic abuse support centre, is supporting a migrant woman whose abuser, her husband, was temporarily removed from the home by the police. However, the woman was told by social services that she would not be provided with alternative accommodation due to the guidance to ‘stay at home’. She was instructed to remain in the home and to ‘remain vigilant’. Her husband returned home unaccompanied early the next day, placing her and her child in great danger.

Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, says ‘Every day and every week, the frequency of these kinds of cases is increasing. Migrant women subject to abuse are at risk of serious harm across the UK as a consequence of men’s violence during this pandemic. But things are not made easier by the failure of the government to implement a coordinated response to VAWG – one which also recognises and removes the structural hurdles and discrimination that migrant women face in seeking protection

Refuges are life-saving havens for many women in abusive homes. But the persistent cuts under austerity have shrank available spaces and many of them cannot afford to take on migrant women who are barred from claiming housing benefit. In 2017 in England, there was only one space per region for migrant women with no recourse to public funds. Support organisations have also had to radically change the way they deliver support on shoestring budgets. BAME specialist services have been the most severely affected by cuts to funding in the last decade.

Unable to access social security, destitution is an even bigger threat for migrant women who are fleeing domestic abuse. Rent checks and no access to social housing mean the alternative to abuse is too often homelessness.

Support from the state exists, but the fast-tracking process for an indefinite right to stay is only available to women on spouse visas, so most migrant women are unprotected if they are victims of violence.

This crisis has exposed holes in our support system for one of the most vulnerable groups. The much-needed and long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill was reintroduced to parliament last week but MPs now need to make sure it doesn’t leave any women behind and migrant women are also covered by its provisions.

But to effectively eradicate domestic abuse, the government needs to go further. What we need is a cross-departmental strategy for the lockdown and immediate aftermath, one that includes not just the police and courts but also housing, health and most importantly, be matched by adequate funding, similar to what the Home Affairs Select Committee is calling for. Such a strategy shouldn’t forget migrant women, many of which are currently saving lives in our hospitals, caring for our older relatives, and ensuring food reaches our homes.