Exploring the intersections of domestic violence, migration and the COVID-19 pandemic with Latin America Women’s Rights Service
by Gabriela Loureiro. This blog was originally published on the Connecting During Covid website.
Our research, Connecting During Covid, is revealing how existing gender and socio-economic inequalities within and across migrant communities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year now. Of particular concern is the increase in domestic violence cases in the UK which has been described as ‘an epidemic beneath a pandemic’. In April 2021, the UK Parliament passed the Domestic Abuse bill which sought to tackle this heinous crime. However, women’s organisations such as the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), Safety4Sisters Northwest, Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA), Southall Black Sisters, the Angelou Centre and the End Violence Against Women Coalition have strongly criticised the Bill as proposed amendments for guaranteeing equal protection to all victims regardless of immigration status were rejected by the House of Commons.
Our project is revealing cases where migrant women have faced hostage-like situations during the lockdown across three communities. To gain deeper insight into this complex situation, we interviewed our Advisory Board member, Gisela Valle, and Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, from LAWRS. We discussed the challenges faced by migrant women in the UK, existing policy frameworks to protect them, the impact of COVID-19, and what the community can do to help. We present key excerpts of our Q&A below.
Gabriela Loureiro: Could you start by giving us a brief overview of the problem of domestic abuse amongst migrant women in the UK? What are the particular vulnerabilities that migrant women face?
Gisela Valle: There is a specific type of vulnerability that’s related to their immigration status. Essentially what we see a lot is that women are brought into the country under false pretenses, so they are promised that they’re going to have a relationship, start a family, start a life here. In many cases, for example, they’re asked to come on tourist visas and with the promise that the status is going to be solved in the country. Once this has not happened because the pathways to change immigration status once in the country are really limited, women become overstayers, without any sort of secure status. The abuse is centred on that immigration status, so that means that perpetrators tell them, for example, that they’re not going to be believed and that they’re not going to be protected because of their immigration status.
What happens once they are subjected to violence and abuse is that when they try to escape the situation these threats by perpetrators become reality because the hostile environment has meant that not only immigration enforcement, but other statutory services prioritize immigration status over the safety of the victim. So, when women are attempting to flee the violence, the doors are slammed in their faces: they are told that because they have no recourse to public funds there’s nothing that local authorities can do. We see cases that women trying to report abuse to police are told that their immigration status is going to be checked over the reports or where women are directly referred to immigration enforcement. For someone who doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t understand the system, they don’t feel safe to report, and that means they don’t come forward. It is a really worrying pattern because that means that it’s really difficult, for example, to know the extent of violence against migrant women and girls. They are not seen as victims, they are seen as potential immigration offenders and treated accordingly.
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez: The barriers that migrant women experience are often structural. So, we speak about the language barrier, but this language barrier is exacerbated and compounded by the lack of interpreter provision, despite the obligation that the government and frontline professionals have to offer this service, and that’s something that was worse during the pandemic and the lockdowns. So, when speaking about domestic abuse and violence against women and girls it’s important to identify the responsibility of the state in making this situation of vulnerability even worse and allowing perpetrators to act with impunity and in specific cases to target migrant women to abuse them because they know there are no consequences.
GL: Can you give some examples of cases that you come across in your work of the impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence?
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez: We knew that women in our community were experiencing a high level of domestic violence, as the national narrative was showing that. But the first couple of weeks we actually saw a decrease of women seeking help. We knew it wasn’t because they were not experiencing abuse, it was because it was more difficult for them to reach out for help. Our office was the safest space where they could come and speak, and we had to close it. Then more barriers have started to play out in the access of services and support. Digital poverty, for instance, because women might not have access to phones or the internet. At the same time, the response from the government in general to domestic abuse was slow. Funding took very long to be allocated in the specific services. And for women with intersecting oppressions, it was even more difficult to access safety. Information regarding domestic abuse wasn’t translated, there was no clarity, whether women experiencing domestic abuse, for instance, had to follow the regulations of lockdown.
It was a huge challenge for women to access our support and, as a result of that, when measures from the first lockdown were eased, the complexity of cases was also increasing. That meant that women were not calling to ask for advice, they were calling to say “I’m ready to leave”. It was very difficult because then you have these structural barriers such as the no recourse to public funds rule, it’s challenging to find emergency accommodation for women who were at high risk. There were also many difficulties for frontline services, such as doing risk assessments by the phone when sometimes the perpetrator was in the room next to the woman. There were multiple challenges that we faced and are still encountering as we are leaving the Easter lockdown.
GL: What is your opinion about the recent UK Domestic Violence Bill? What kinds of changes are needed to respond to the needs of migrant women who are abused?
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez: We set three different amendments that aimed to ensure that migrant women who experience domestic abuse were protected by what the government has hailed as a landmark piece of legislation. The difficulties were that we encountered a government that has this hostile narrative towards migration. They kept insisting at every single stage and every single debate that while they aimed to protect all victims and treat all victims as victims first and foremost but that they also had the obligation to maintain an effective immigration system. A system that in our view it’s part of what makes these women vulnerable. So, we campaigned for three amendments.
The first amendment that LAWRS was leading was on establishing safe-reporting mechanisms and having a clear separation between immigration control from reporting a crime or accessing support and safety. The second amendment that was led by Southall Black Sisters aimed for the extension of already existing peace provisions of safety as the domestic violence rule and the destitute domestic violence concession. They aim that the eligibility for these measures of protection was extended to all migrant women because currently these only apply to women who are on spouse visas. They also sought to extend the DDVC from three months to six. This measure allows these women on spouse visas to access public funds for three months, so they can access welfare benefits while regularising their status. They wanted to extend this from three to six months to give more time to very complex cases. And the third amendment, led by the End Violence Against Women coalition, was to enshrine a non-discrimination clause in the bill to mirror the Istanbul Convention because the government said that they aimed to ratify the Istanbul Convention by passing the domestic abuse bill.
And after a very long progress, the government rejected the three amendments as they stand. They argue that they needed more evidence. For that, they put together a pilot project that it’s going to be running very shortly, that will allow migrant women with no recourse to public funds to access emergency accommodation. However, evidence was already provided and this pilot project is only going to delay any changes in policy. The project has very limited amount of money to access emergency accommodation and does not consider the holistic support that migrant women need to access safety. Sadly, this bill will not respond to the specific needs of migrant women.
GL: Can you tell us more about the holistic approach to domestic violence that you mentioned that migrant women need that this bill does not accommodate?
Gisela Valle: Many women by virtue of the barriers that we were discussing before need wraparound support on a number of levels. As any other survivors of domestic abuse, they’re going to need casework and in a lot of cases counseling. But for migrant women, the support includes immigration advice which is really a key for a lot of women who become irregular as a result of the abuse, and we also provide translation services by a volunteer for them to access this immigration advice and other types of legal support that they need. It can only be done if you have translators accompanying them. But we also provide support around accessing welfare benefits, housing, and other measures. Information about their rights is really very key. We do a number of workshops to let them know what their rights are not only around domestic abuse but also, you know when it comes to housing when it comes to things like paying your Council tax.
We’re doing peer to peer support group as well in Spanish and Portuguese to help women to continue on that journey, where they are becoming more self-reliant and able to support one another by joining programs, such as Community organizing groups where they can get organized and advocate for the change that they want to see. We want to help them use their experiences as a tool for activism, instead of just something horrific that happened to them at some point.
GL: Could I ask you for an overview of policy frameworks that either help in terms of responding to the needs of migrant women or hinder them?
Gisela Valle: What happened as a result of the most recent immigration legislation – the overall, not Brexit focused, which was in 2014 and 2016 – is that there is guidance in which the police are required to treat victims as victims first except if the victim is a suspected immigration offender. This is really problematic because that means that this is a subjective assessment, where the police officer has to make a decision whether or not he suspects you are an immigration offender. And we have seen some of the numbers reflecting this: people from minority ethnic backgrounds are being most likely referred to immigration enforcement or have the information checked. They do this because there’s an understanding within, for example, local authorities that they need to make sure that they report immigration offenders, even if there is no clear legal duty to do so. It’s an environment where everybody feels like a border control person that needs to make sure that migrants do not use the system, even in breach of actual real duties.
GL: My last question is what can people do to help in terms of supporting campaigns, legislation, social change, or a type of action?
Gisela Valle: I think there are two key ways. One is supporting your local specialist service providers. There is fantastic work being done by mainstream services, and particularly the national charities, but they have other options of funding. So, support your local services, and that means organizations who are going to work primarily with women, but also with women from minority communities, women who are LGBT+ or Deaf and disabled women. We do have donations section on our website and it’s really key because this is a lifeline to making sure that we can continue to do our casework. I think we’re fortunate that we had really good support from the public, for example in our campaigns around domestic abuse field, but there’s going to be another opportunity coming relatively soon, it was announced in the Queen speech about the introduction of the Victims Bill, which will give us an opportunity to try and work with the government and enact some provisions supporting victims of crime. And generally, I would say engage also with your MP, we do need public support in contacting your MPs and advocating for migrant women. So, contact your MP and tell them migrant women need to be part of the upcoming victims’ bill, and they need to be supported.
Gabriela Loureiro is a research assistant at CDC and PhD Candidate at UWL primarily interested in the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, migration and decoloniality. Her PhD examines embodied emotions and collective struggle in digital activism in Brazil and her published work focuses on contemporary forms of feminist activism. She holds an MA in Gender Studies from the University of Leeds and has taught and supervised students in the Media department at UWL. Prior to academia, she has worked as a journalist at the BBC and in various outlets in Brazil, including Globo, The Huffington Post and Abril Group.