Strategies to support migrant victim-survivors of domestic abuse

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Health, Migration, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security

Amy Hill is a student at the University of Bath. Hannah Burke is a student at the University of Bath. Giulia Grogan is a student at the University of Bath. Jain Lemom is Senior Policy and Commissioning Manager (Violence Against Women and Girls) at the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. Tina Skinner is Associate Professor in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath.


Domestic abuse refers to incidents of emotional, psychological, economic, physical or sexual abuse, controlling, coercive, violent or threatening behaviour between partners, ex-partners, or family members (Domestic Abuse Act 2021 Part 1(1)). Victim-survivors can suffer serious physical injuries and psychological consequences, with survivors having high rates of mental health problems including depression and PTSD. There is also a financial cost, estimated at £66 billion in 2017 in England and Wales. Therefore, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is important legislation, yet it is flawed by failing to address additional challenges victim-survivors with insecure immigration status face. This brief will give recommendations to improve support for migrant victim-survivors.


Domestic abuse is a pressing issue, with around 2.3 million adults in England and Wales experiencing it in the last year, the majority being female. The coronavirus pandemic has made combatting it even more urgent, with increased demand for victim-survivor support services during lockdown, perhaps indicating more severe abuse during this period. Therefore, it is essential The Domestic Abuse Act, a ‘once in a generation opportunity’ to confront abuse, is effective. Whilst it contains extensive legislation to support many victim-survivors, it fails one particularly vulnerable group who face additional oppression linked to their immigration status.

One problem migrant women with insecure immigration status face is the ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF) policy – people subject to immigration control, such as those with leave to remain in the UK as a student, asylum seeker or spouse of a UK citizen, cannot claim public funds. Therefore, they struggle to gain places in refuges, as they cannot access housing benefit, so often must stay with their abuser or face homelessness.

Those on spousal or partner visas can apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK, under the Domestic Violence Rule (DVR), and those applying for this can access public funds for three months under the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC). However, those on other, such as work or student visas, cannot apply so are not protected. The Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill (2019) found this discrimination goes against requirements of the Istanbul Convention, which the government aims to ratify. As Article 4 states, measures should be provided to protect everyone from violence, without discrimination on factors such as migrant status.

Furthermore, victim-survivors with insecure status face challenges when reporting abuse. These result from language barriers – for example, interviews showed victim-survivors are reluctant to report domestic abuse if they do not know enough English to communicate with phone operators. Hence, they feel powerless in reporting as they cannot explain their situation coherently.

Additional problems in reporting relate to police guidelines stating if officers suspect a victim-survivor is an illegal immigrant, it is appropriate for them to contact immigration authorities who can take enforcement action. Migrants may have an insecure status resulting from abuse (perpetrators can lie about managing it or withhold essential documents from them) so this policy deters victim-survivors from reporting abuse in fear they will be deported. As well as harming victim-survivors, this is not in the public interest - perpetrators are less likely to be prosecuted, so more able to commit further domestic abuse crimes.

The Domestic Abuse Act (Part 7 81 and 82) aims to address this by guaranteeing a review of the processing of victim-survivor’s data for immigration purposes, that will be scrutinised by Parliament, and establishing a statutory code of practice relating to the processing of migrant victim-survivor’s data. This review, due to report on 29 July 2021, has been extended to 29 December 2021. The review “must have regard” to the Her Majesties Inspectorate of Policing, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS)  2020 recommendations in response to Liberty and Southall Black Sister’s super complaint. However, The Step-Up Migrant Women campaign states the Code does not yet have a clear purpose, with no commitment from the Government that it is to enable victim-survivors to receive protection without fear of immigration control. Therefore, the Act does not properly address these issues.

Practice context

In practice, these problems are damaging. An audit by Women’s Aid in 2020 found only 5% of refuge spaces were available to those with no recourse to public funds (NRPF). The Domestic Violence Rule (DVR) and Destitution Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC) are good solutions but are not applicable to everyone. Southall Black Sisters  found 57% of women who approached them between April 2019 and March 2020 for domestic abuse support were not eligible for the DDVC or DVR. Similarly, Women’s Aid reported two thirds of their users in 2016-17 with NRPF were not eligible for DDVC. Therefore, many lack support and may suffer poverty and homelessness.

The police response is also problematic. A freedom of information request by the BBC showed 60% of UK police forces refer victim-survivors to the Home Office for immigration enforcement. Interviews, surveys and focus groups involving over 60 migrant victim-survivors show the impact, finding fear of deportation was the most common factor preventing women reporting violence. Perpetrators used this for further control – 62% of victim-survivors had partners threaten them with deportation if they reported abuse.

Further findings suggested a lack of trust in police, with two in three migrant victim-survivors fearing police would not support them due to their immigration status, and 52% believing the perpetrator would be supported over them. This shows how current practice deters victim-survivors from reporting. This not only traps them in abusive situations, but HMICFRS 2020 found ‘significant harm is being caused to the public interest’ due to current data sharing policies as abusers are less likely to be reported.

McIlwaine and colleagues in 2019 also found police dealt poorly with migrant victim-survivors who did come forward, with only 39% saying they were treated well by police, 36% being neutral and a quarter reporting bad treatment, such as discrimination, or not being believed or given support. This could be because, as case studies by Liberty and Southall Black Sisters showed, police sometimes prioritise immigration enforcement over fair treatment of victim-survivors and view migrants as “potential ‘illegals’ first and as victims second”. This is contrary to the Victim Code, as victims of crime are entitled to be treated professionally, respectfully, sensitively, and without discrimination.

Whilst the review of processing of data for migration purposes carried out under the Domestic Abuse Act could address some of these concerns. The review is not guaranteed to address these concerns, nor are the review recommendations likely to translate effectively into police practice on the ground without appropriate funding for training, monitoring, enforcement and support.

In terms of translation services, independent organisations, for example the Domestic Abuse Helpline, and police services within the UK, do have these for reporting domestic abuse, with phone operators speaking many languages. However, many people are unaware of this. Furthermore, it is importance for victim-survivors’ to access translation services in order to understand and fill out legal documents such as applications for indefinite leave to remain and the DDVC, to elevate their understanding and control of the situation. The NRPF network provide language interpreters during applications, however this is not universal nor does it extend to other legal documentation services.

Alternative policy solutions

As a solution, the Government announced in July 2020 £1.5 million would be allocated to a pilot scheme to support victim-survivors with NRPF and gather evidence. However, Southall Black Sisters  stated £1.5 million is not enough, estimating the cost of supporting abused migrant women with NRPF for six months is around £18.6 million. Therefore, more urgent action is needed.

The DVR and DDVC should be extended to migrants on all visas, not just spousal, so all can access funds and therefore safety from refuges. This is supported by expert groups, such as Women’s Aid, the Step-Up Migrant Women Coalition, and the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill. The Government should also fund refuge places for those with NRPF, so they can access safety before DDVC is processed, and receive help in applying for it. MPs opposed to these changes have argued extending the DVR could lead to exploitation of the system, with people claiming domestic abuse purely to obtain indefinite leave to remain. However, a Government review suggested this is not the case currently, as the majority of applications they reviewed for indefinite leave to remain under the DVR had been in the UK for over two and a half years, and if the rule were being abused in this way, a higher proportion of applicants being in the UK for only a very short period of time would be expected. This suggests it would mainly be used for intended purposes.

Additionally, to improve police responses, a complete ‘firewall’ between police and the Home Office should be implemented, preventing data sharing for the purposes of immigration enforcement, which victim-survivors should be made aware of to encourage reporting. This is something that the review of processing personal data being undertaken under Part 7 (81) of the Act should be considering because it was one of the HMICFRS recommendations. This approach is taken in the Netherlands, with a ‘free in, free out’ policy, guaranteeing migrants the ability to report a crime then leave the police station without being arrested or detained, which is recognised by relevant stakeholders, migrant and human rights observers as essential to protecting migrants.

Additionally, introducing sanctuary policies in certain cities, limiting the cooperation of local law enforcement officials with immigration authorities, greatly lowered domestic homicide rates among Hispanic women in the USA, who previously reported fear relating to immigration control as a motive for not reporting domestic abuse. Amuedo-Dorantes and Deza suggest these policies could reduce homicides due to greater trust in police, so victim-survivors report incidents before they escalate, and offenders may be deterred from abusing victim-survivors due to a greater likelihood they will go to police. Therefore, this indicates positive impacts of implementing this policy.

The Government have previously suggested data sharing between police and immigration enforcement is necessary to safeguard victim-survivors and help with regularising their status. However, Liberty and Southall Black Sisters highlight there is no evidence for this, and immigration officers do not have expertise to offer advice and support, with their job instead being enforcing law on immigration offences. Therefore, instead of the Home Office, police should have a strong partnership with, and refer victim-survivors to services run ‘by and for’ migrants - for example, the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation, who help them secure their status. These specialist services are therefore vital but are underfunded, so the Government should commit to increasing their funding.

Furthermore, migrants should be made more aware of the translation services provided when reporting domestic abuse. Current campaigns such as The Change Project advertise the services for reporting domestic abuse on the internet and through training programmes. A review by Noar and colleagues explains large-scale media campaigns can positively shape beliefs and behaviors if campaigns are targeted well, suggesting rigorous campaigns may increase migrant women’s awareness of translation services available, increasing their confidence when completing immigration documents and reporting abuse. These campaigns are limited by a lack of funding due to cuts, so the Government should commit to increasing funding to domestic abuse services, providing sufficient money for vital campaigning.

Summary of policy recommendations

  • Extend the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession and Domestic Violence Rule to apply to migrants on all types of visas so all victim-survivors, without discrimination, can access support.
  • Fund refuge places for those with ‘no recourse to public funds’ so they can access support before their DDVC is processed.
  • The current review of processing of victim-survivors’ personal data for immigration purposes should follow the HMICFRS 2020 recommendations, including creating a firewall preventing data sharing between police and immigration enforcement to increase reporting of domestic abuse, creating a safer society for all.
  • Provide sufficient funding for the training, support, monitoring and enforcement of the new Code of Practice to ensure it translates effectively into practice.
  • Increase funding for services ‘by and for’ migrant women. Strong partnerships between police and these services should be developed, with police referring victim-survivors to them for specialized support.
  • Increase funding to campaigns raising awareness of translation services for domestic abuse victim-survivors so migrants can understand what services offer language translation, allowing them to report abuse and apply to DDVC and DVR with confidence.


Related: Read 'Independent legal representation is a necessity for victim-survivors'.

If you would like to help migrant victim-survivors who have no recourse to public funding, the following 'justgiving' link allows you to donate to a project that provides emergency care boxes to support the resettlement of Afghan refugees across the UK who have had to flee violence and conflict. Read about the project and chip in to support – if you can:

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Evidence and policymaking, Health, Migration, Public services, UK politics, Welfare and social security


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