“Has she got status?”: Gender based violence and the needs of migrant women

Published 12/12/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

A tailored approach is needed to protect vulnerable migrant women, who can often be “unaware of their rights; or of what constitutes abusive behaviour”. This was the findings of the Senedd’s Equality and Social Justice Committee, following an inquiry into Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (VAWDASV) and the needs of migrant women.

Violence against women disproportionately affects migrant women. The Committee found they face multiple forms of abuse including domestic violence, sexual violence, ‘honour-based’ violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and trafficking.

Migrant women experiencing abuse encounter challenges when attempting to both report abuse and access support. This article considers three of the key issues ahead of the Senedd’s debate on the Committee’s report on 14 December.

NRPF and its impact on migrant women experiencing abuse

A person will have ‘no recourse to public funds (NRPF)’ if they are subject to immigration control. This immigration status will have direct consequences for women experiencing abuse, as they will not be entitled to certain benefits.

Research by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales shows that abusers will use a victim’s insecure immigration status to exert control over them.

The Committee learnt that a woman’s immigration status can mean they’re unable to access public funds. This can restrict their access to vital support, including a place in specialist-supported accommodation.

While immigration is a non-devolved policy area, the Welsh Government has a responsibility to make sure migrant women experiencing abuse can access the specialist support they need. Its Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence: strategy 2022 to 2026 states that it will:

Provide all victims with equal access to appropriately resourced, high quality, needs-led, strength-based, inter-sectional and responsive services across Wales.

BAWSO, a charity which provides support to Black and ethnic minority backgrounds and individuals in Wales affected by abuse, violence and exploitation, explained that migrant women experiencing abuse, and subject to the NRPF condition, aren’t being offered secure accommodation. Instead they frequently continue to live with the perpetrator. BAWSO also said that migrant women can be isolated, with no friends or family in the country, and often place themselves at further risk by sleeping rough.

A report by the Wales Migration Partnership and Cardiff University in 2013 highlighted these issues, and a subsequent review in 2021, concluded that:

…funding for refuge provision for women and girls is as big an issue in 2013 as it is in 2021.

The Committee heard the Welsh Government could do more to support migrant women access support. BAWSO and Southall Black Sisters (both of which provide specialist support to migrant women), suggested establishing a crisis fund. The fund could be accessed by service providers to support migrant women who are victims of abuse and are subject to NRPF.

Similar funds have been established via the UK Government’s ‘Supporting Migrant Women’s’ pilot, (BAWSO supported 85 women in Wales in 2021 via this pilot) and the Scottish Government.

During the inquiry the Welsh Government said a “Westminster backed scheme has to be the most sustainable way to meet the needs of those who currently have no recourse to public funds”. But in response to its report, the Welsh Government accepted the ESJ Committee’s recommendation to establish a crisis fund:

Officials are in the process of scoping options for a fund that would aim to support migrant victims of VAWDASV with no recourse to public funds.

Implementing the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act

The Committee heard that improved implementation of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 (the Act) could ensure the vast majority of migrant women with NRPF are able to access safe accommodation and support.

Welsh Women’s Aid and BAWSO told the Committee that social services support is not considered a public fund, and therefore very few categories of immigration statuses are exempt from this support. They said under the Act:

… social services have a duty to meet the care and support needs of children and adults if it is deemed necessary to prevent a risk of abuse or neglect.

They went on to highlight several examples to illustrate a lack of understanding of duties under the Act, where services have refused to meet the care and support needs of migrant women with NRPF. They said a ‘postcode lottery’ exists across local authorities.

Responding to the Committee’s recommendation to review the implementation of the Act, the Welsh Government has said:

… officials have already re-engaged Safeguarding Boards to share the Committee’s findings and to secure additional evidence of any experiences or challenges in their areas.

Reporting abuse: establishing a firewall

The Committee heard concerns that migrant women are often prevented from reporting abuse because they fear their data and immigration will be shared with the Home Office – an action which could lead to enforcement action being taken on them. The Committee heard calls for a firewall in Wales, which would mean a separation between immigration enforcement activities and public service provision.

The Welsh Government accepted in principle the Committee’s recommendation to establish a firewall, explaining that while many organisations who hold data are not devolved, it will:

… work with both devolved and non-devolved partners to understand the issues around data sharing, the impact on migrant victims and consider options for a firewall to restrict the sharing of data between agencies.

Next steps: recognising the distinct needs of migrant women

The Welsh Government has accepted 13 of the 15 Committee’s recommendations. It’s response to the Committee’s report demonstrates the Welsh Government’s commitment to “find appropriate solutions to meet the needs of survivors of VAWDASV with no recourse to public funds”.

However, as summed up by Welsh Women’s Aid, there’s a need to “check what is happening, and hold to account, and celebrate where it is happening so that we can build on good practice” and:

… take as first principles that idea of no women left behind, of a nation of sanctuary that is looking after those who are hurt and harmed, and providing proper support, and checking that that's happening and learning when it's not, we would be making great progress.

Going forward, the Committee concluded:

It is clear that more needs to be done to meet the specific needs of migrant women.

Article by Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament