The government’s proposed Domestic Abuse Bill would fail migrant women by creating a ‘two-tier system’ with protections dependent on immigration status, campaigners heard this week.
Speaking at the Human Rights Lawyers Association on Monday, Radhika Handa, policy adviser at Southall Black Sisters (SBS), highlighted the paradox that migrant women are at the most at risk of domestic violence, but the least likely to report it. The Bill’s failure to address this, Handa argued, was epitomised by its ‘woefully inadequate’ allocation of only two out of almost 200 pages to migrant women. According to SBS, the Bill’s suggested grant of £500,000 to support organisations was only enough to assist 154 women for 12 weeks.
Louise Hooper, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers who has joined a delegation of the Council of Europe’s group of experts on domestic violence, argued that partners used residency status as a weapon, well aware migrant women were unable to access state support (‘no recourse to public funds’), meaning there is nowhere else for them to go. As a result, ‘migrant women don’t leave abusive relationships and such abuse gets worse over time,’ she said.
Debaleena Dasgupta, human rights lawyer at Liberty, emphasised migrant women typically did not turn to the police for fear of being reported to the Home Office. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request, made by Liberty on 26 July 2018, revealed such fears are justified. All 43 police forces in England and Wales confirmed they had no formal policy of data sharing with the Home Office. Despite this,another FOI request revealed, 27 police forces referred victims and witnesses of crime to the Home Office for immigration enforcement.
Dasgupta argued that such practice prioritises immigration investigation over the original criminal allegation, meaning ‘those who commit crimes against people with insecure immigration status are able to do so with near impunity’. Though immigration offences can be subject to criminal sanctions, the lawyer argued these are relatively trivial compared with the majority of abuse-related offences, thus this ‘puts migrants beyond the protection of the criminal law’.
These concerns have prompted SBS and the human rights charity, Liberty, to launch the first ever police super-complaint, calling for an end to these data-sharing practices. The ‘super-complaint’ system was launched in November last year and allows certain organisations to raise systemic problems on behalf of the public. The two organisations amassed more than 50 pages of evidence, which will now be reviewed by the College of Policing, the Independent Office for Police Complaints and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services.
Before the super-complaint was published, Dasgupta explained how the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) ‘rushed through a new policy’, which she argued was unclear and still allowed for data sharing with the Home Office. She closed by making clear that a robust ‘firewall’ was the only way to ensure data will not be passed on in such circumstances.
Paramjit Ahluwalia, barrister at Lamb Building, went on to highlight the ‘nexus’ between perpetrators of crime and victims of domestic abuse. She explained: ‘Abuse victims often only come to the police’s attention once they are charged themselves.’ However, once they are charged, they are pigeon-holed as ‘defendants’, with police ‘typically looking no further’.She cited the case of Sally Challenwhere the legal role of coercive control in murder is finally being addressed.
Ahluwalia noted that despite the Bill’s acknowledgement that 60% of women in custody have suffered domestic abuse, none of its provisions seek to address the link. The Prison Reform Trust is working on a possible defence akin to that available to trafficking victims.
Handa emphasised the Bill provides an opportunity to place the victim at the centre of legislation. In its current form, the panel argued, such an opportunity will go to waste.