BME victims are at risk due to refuge closures. Photo: Getty
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“Hierarchy of death”: cuts to refuges are putting black and ethnic minority women in danger

As the only refuge in Britain especially for Latin American women is under threat, it's time councils stopped treating women from ethnic minority backgrounds as a low priority.

When Latin American Women’s Aid (LAWA) was told in November that its funding was being cut, a 27-year partnership between the charity and local council all but crumbled over the course of a phone call.

As the only UK refuge solely catering to the needs of Latin American women – a shelter with just six spaces, where an average of ten women and their children are turned away each month due to a lack of available rooms – that the service could be deemed as extraneous seems, frankly, wrong. But they are being forced to compete with what LAWA trustee Gabriela Quevedo calls the “Hollywood attitude” to such services: a disproportionate focus on the big, headline-grabbing figures generated by larger organisations that overshadow the important work done by smaller charities, whose limited resources render them unable to measure up.

This approach denies the many achievements specialised refuges like LAWA offer that general services cannot: providing a non-English speaking domestic abuse victim with an interpreter, for example, simply isn’t the same as placing them in a safe space with others of the same ethno-cultural background, or giving them legal assistance that carefully considers their needs.

Legal aid, too, a lifeline for so many, is becoming increasingly elusive, with just 40 per cent of advisers reporting that specialist support is “adequate”. Without access to the right services, many give up on their hopes of seeking help altogether, and have no choice but to remain in the dangerous environment from which they were trying to escape, often resulting in further abuse, and ultimately, more fatalities.

Statistics from IMKAAN, an organisation addressing violence against black and minority ethnic (BME) women and girls, highlights the extent of the problem: of its 16 refuges run by and for women from these communities, one has been forced into closing down, while every other shelter has faced government cuts of between 20 and 100 per cent. Six other refuges have lost local authority funding, while others are either campaigning to retain financial aid, are upheld through private donations entirely, or have been merged with pre-existing general domestic violence services.

They accuse London’s Islington Council of taking “imperfect decisions, not perfect solutions”, and LAWA’s refuge is not high enough on its list of priorities to be saved. While it continues to provide financial support for the charity’s advice centre, the withdrawal of their annual contract means the safe house will be unable to stay afloat.

That savings need to be made is the sad reality of an austerity government, but these sustained financial attacks on domestic violence services are at odds with its continued promises to both support victims and bring perpetrators to justice. The £40m pot ringfenced to tackle the issue has run dry: under-funded charities are now desperately battling to secure money from the emergency £10m promised by the Department for Communities and Local Government in November last year. With the cuts running so deep, though, the fund is at risk of looking like a band aid that may stem, but cannot solve, the problem.

It is telling that the most recent effort to address domestic violence-induced deaths has come not from the political sphere, but one woman with a blog. Karen Ingala Smith – who began Counting Dead Women in 2009 and recently launched her findings as the Femicide census – has spent five years recording these fatal incidents and notes that when it comes to BME victims, finding media coverage of their murders remains a challenge. This “hierarchy of death”, as she terms it, where the narrative follows a “pretty young white girl killed by an ugly man” continues to perpetuate the idea that minority women suffering from intimate partner abuse are less worthy of our attention.

For those fighting for better provisions for women in need, the possible closure of another specialised refuge is disquieting – particularly as the general election approaches. LAWA has begun renting out desk space in its office and applying for additional grants in a bid to stave off the economic turmoil it could find itself in come 31 March, when its contract with the council officially expires. For Quevedo and the rest of the organisation’s staff, shutting down the refuge does not bear thinking about. “We’re determined to keep this refuge open no matter what,” she says. “To lose it would be extremely painful.”

Follow Charlotte Lytton on Twitter @charlottelytton

Update, 25 February:

Islington Council have responded to this article. Councillor Janet Burgess, the executive member for health and wellbeing, said:

We’re committed to helping women escape from domestic violence, and are continuing to provide refuge spaces for women from all groups, including Latin American women, by funding SOLACE Women’s Aid with £205,000 a year. We must make sure our resources are targeted to have the most impact for Islington residents, especially at a time of big Government cuts, when many councils have cut domestic violence services completely.

No Islington residents are currently supported in LAWA’s refuge. It provides national support and should be supported nationally, for example through the London Councils’ Grants programme to which we contribute. The council will offer help and support to any Islington woman currently supported by LAWA. Their contract with the council ended in March 2013 but we agreed to extend funding to them for an extra two years and during that time we helped them write a bid for £100,000 Government funding. LAWA will still receive some Islington Council funding as part of a consortium of similar organisations.”

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.