The woman who has recently arrived in the UK from Pakistan to join her husband after marriage…the domestic worker on an Overseas Domestic Visa…the tourist who came for a month but began a relationship and stayed longer……the young woman who has come to study at college in the UK…the Bulgarian woman who worked in the UK during her first six months in the UK but has now fallen ill…the niece who has come to visit family in the UK…
All these women are affected by the no recourse to public funds requirement. What this means is that they are prevented, because of their insecure immigration status, from accessing welfare benefits in the UK. These benefits include housing benefit, child benefit and income support: in a nutshell the benefits that allow someone with no income a degree of financial independence.
Without these benefits, women who have come to join a partner are in a position of economic dependency upon them: particularly acute if they are unable to access the job market due to family commitments, their level of English or a lack of available opportunities. For domestic workers, this (coupled with the condition of their visa whereby they must stay with a named employer) means a high level of economic dependence on their employer. This is an unacceptable position for any woman to be in, denying independence and the freedom to leave a situation they are unhappy in.
For women facing violence in a domestic setting, whether the perpetrator is a partner or employer, the no recourse to public funds requirement forces women to make an incredibly stark choice: continue to stay in the violent situation or face homelessness, destitution and/or exploitation by ‘friends’ and religious organisation offering ‘support’.
Refuges, established to provide a place of safety for survivors of domestic violence, rely on a woman being able to claim housing benefit to cover the cost of their stay. The very principles underpinning the refuge movement are subverted by the immigration restrictions.
Incredibly, women’s organisations have reported cases whereby the police suggested a place in detention for women without recourse to public funds who were facing violence and unable to access a refuge place.
Cuts to public services and to the women’s sector make the situation even more acute. Widespread cuts to ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses take away the opportunity for many migrant women to learn English and to meet and share their experiences with others who they trust. In addition, cutting interpretation services in doctor’s surgeries – many surgeries ask migrants who are not confident speaking English to bring a family member with them to interpret- means that women may not be able to disclose their abuse, even when given the opportunity to do so by their doctor or midwife. Cuts to legal aid make it impossible for many women to access the legal support that is necessary to challenge local authority decisions (which are often unlawful). Alongside this, many women’s organisations have had budgets cut to the extent that they are facing closure, including organisations providing specialist services for BME and migrant women.
Under the Domestic Violence rule, women who are on spousal/ civil partner visas, and who can prove their relationship has broken down because of domestic violence, can be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK. This rule is incredibly restrictive. Firstly, it only applies to one of the groups subject to the no recourse requirement. Secondly, whilst a woman has the legal right to apply for indefinite leave independent of the partner, the application process takes months if not years and she is not eligible for benefits in this period. Thirdly, the evidence required to ‘prove’ that the violence took place is largely dependent on the woman having reported it to the police.
The UK government is highly selective about when it concerns itself with violence against women. Its ‘concern’ about the issue of forced marriage was recently used to justify further restriction on the migration of spouses to join their partners in the UK: predominantly women, and predominantly those from South Asia. In 2008, the government announced its plans to increase the age at which a person could come to join their spouse/ civil partner from 18 to 21. The then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith claimed that this move would help ‘stamp out’ forced marriage, and the physical and sexual violence faced by women in such a marriage.
This ‘concern’ does not however extend to migrant women in the UK who do not have access to public funds. For women in this situation who are facing domestic violence, the ‘choice’ could not be more desperate: continue to face the violence, or risk destitution by leaving, and deportation (for those not on spousal visas). The government chooses not to provide the housing benefit and income support necessary for women in this situation to escape their violent relationships in order to ‘maintain the integrity of the immigration system.’
Where is the integrity here? Our immigration system, and the successive governments who uphold and extend its severity, have neither integrity nor humanity.
Immigration restrictions are not in the interests of any woman. They divide us into citizens/ non-citizens, legal/illegal, wanted/unwanted, relatively safe/ precarious. As feminists, we must fight against these dividing lines, against racism and against borders, for the independence and safety of all women.