A recent report by the Human Rights Joint Committee (Sixth Report, Violence Against Women and Girls) highlights that women and girls could be disproportionately vulnerable to violence in the UK where there is uncertainty relating to their immigration status.
UK Government policies aimed at ending violence against women and girls are developed separately from immigration and asylum policy, with alarming consequences for women, who are left at a greater risk of experiencing domestic violence.
The report describes women with "insecure" immigration status, notably asylum seekers and refugees, as being "overlooked" by the system. Problems faced by individuals include insufficient access to childcare in immigration procedures, a lack of emphasis on the need for female interpreters and an increased risk of suffering violence.
The difficulty of escaping from a violent relationship is increased for women with an insecure immigration status as the option of fleeing the relationship often means running the risk of becoming destitute. An uncertain immigration status can mean women are not entitled to housing benefits and may be unable to access refuges. As a result, they are exposed to situations where they face an increased risk of violence as they are "sofa surfing" or being forced to return to the violent relationship in order to access food and accommodation.
Of considerable concern is that victims of domestic violence are often met with a "culture of disbelief" when bringing an immigration claim and they face an up-hill struggle in terms of getting the correct level of assistance and obtaining a just outcome as a result.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists emphasises the psychological difficulties facing women in disclosing histories of abuse. It is worrying that women who find themselves in these situations are still regularly caught up in the Detained Fast Track process (DFT), which provides extremely short time frames for interviewing applicants, submitting evidence and decision-making. The DFT process also includes rapid timeframes for appeal where asylum claims have been refused.
There have been a number of criticisms of the DFT process, including legal action taken by Detention Action leading to a court finding that the process, as it was, resulted in "an unacceptably high risk of unfairness." The procedure continues to raise concerns in the Joint Committee's report as women are being pushed into the process after the initial screening interview, an interview that is not intended to illicit details of past abuse - which can be an integral part of these types of claims.
For claims relating to violence there can be difficulties in gathering evidence, particularly as those with an uncertain immigration history may be less likely to seek help from authorities or the community due to immigration fears as well as issues relating to trust. Evidence from Amnesty International and Asylum Aid suggests that there is a much higher number of reversals in asylum refusals once women are able to access appropriate levels of services and advice.
The Immigration and Security Minister has attempted to explain the rate of reversals in asylum decisions for women in two ways:
1. By pointing out that new evidence is coming to light at the appeal stage, and
2. Attributing the reversals to a different view being taken on credibility at the appeal stage.
The first point, in respect of evidence coming to light at a later stage reiterates the argument in the report for the need to allow sufficient time and an appropriate environment for the gathering of evidencr, rather than hoping that it will be caught in time for the appeal stage.
The second explanation, that the courts are making different credibility findings which lead to successful appeals of first instance asylum decisions is suggestive of a "culture of disbelief" which is leading to the 'correct' decision not being made in the first place.
For individuals who are more vulnerable due to their immigration status the report suggests that they seek to regularise their status in the UK to allow them to access appropriate services and remove the additional barriers to seeking protection from violence. There could be a number of options available to individuals ranging from a human rights claim based on their private and family life in the UK or an application for leave if an individual has leave in the UK as the spouse or partner of the perpetrator of domestic violence. Discussing the immigration options available to victims of domestic violence can help empower them to not feel forced to stay in a violent relationship for fear of removal from the UK.
In relation to immigration policy the report includes a number of recommendations including the need for the Government to address the issue of who has responsibility for providing adequate protection for women without recourse to public funds, a review of the screening process, and to ensure that guidance for immigration officials is being properly followed. The report also contains wider criticisms of the Government's shortcomings in protecting women and children from violence in the UK. The full report is available here.