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17 June 2022

“No justification” for suspending rights of migrant abuse victims, peers say

Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention insists no woman should have to remain in an abusive relationship to keep residency. The UK is refusing to sign up.

By Ben van der Merwe

Peers have called on the government to reverse its plan to exclude migrant victims of domestic abuse from the protections of a landmark international treaty.

In a report published today (17 June) the cross-party International Agreements Committee said that it “could not see any justification” for the government’s plan to opt out of Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention, the first legally-binding treaty on fighting violence against women and girls. The article requires signatories to ensure that no woman is ever forced to remain in an abusive relationship to maintain her right to residency, for example if she were on a spousal visa.

“Migrant women should not be put in a position where they have to choose between reporting the abuse and seeking help, and protecting the perpetrator on whose residency status they rely for fear of losing their own legal immigration status,” Dianne Hayter, the Labour peer who is the committee’s chairwoman, said.

The government has been under growing pressure to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which it first signed more than ten years ago. The UK is the only country in Western Europe not to have ratified the treaty. In May Priti Patel told parliament that the government would ratify the convention by the end of July but that meeting that deadline required temporarily opting out of Article 59 while the UK’s position remained under review, pending the results of a policy trial. The policy trial in question, the Support for Migrant Victims scheme, ended in March. A final report had been due in June, though it is now likely to be delayed until later in the summer.

“It’s just been constant delays,” said Robyn Boosey, co-director of IC Change, which campaigns for the UK to ratify the Istanbul Convention. “The UK publicly states that it’s an international leader in tackling violence against women but it’s taken us ten years to ratify, and even then we’re doing it partially. They’ve already delayed ratification for over a decade, so it seems odd they wouldn’t want to wait for a couple more months for those results to come out so that they can ratify fully.”

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The opt-out could be extended indefinitely, and the government has yet to set out the conditions under which it would be withdrawn other than to say it is awaiting the results of the pilot scheme.

Peers and activists have pointed out that there is no clear link between Article 59 and the pilot, calling into question the government’s commitment to reviewing and eventually withdrawing the opt-out (known as a “reservation”). The pilot deals solely with matters of financial support and provision of services, while Article 59 is concerned with helping victims to avoid deportation.

“Of course, the reservation has got nothing to do with the pilot,” said Hayter. “So, I’m very concerned that this won’t be temporary. They seem to have no intention of withdrawing it.”

“There’s not a direct connection there,” added Boosey. “It’s just being used to justify the reservation.”

Kate Ellis, a solicitor at the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “I can’t see a justification, because it’s a completely different thing. It’s very hard to understand where they’re coming from with Article 59 other than if their concern is just that they don’t want the strain of having to commit to supporting all migrant women.”

Hannana Siddiqui. helped to run the pilot in her role as head of policy, research and fundraising at Southall Black Sisters. She told the New Statesman: “I think this more about keeping their options open in case they do not extend residency rights to undocumented victims or those on non-spousal visas.”

In fact, the pilot relates to a separate part of the Istanbul Convention, Article 4(3), which requires signatories not to discriminate against migrants in the provision of accommodation and support services. That raises further questions about the government’s reasoning. Though the government says it cannot sign up to Article 59 until the pilot has been evaluated, it has agreed to sign up to Article 4(3).

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The government considered its compliance with that clause to be “under review” as recently as November. The Home Office refused to tell the New Statesman whether it now considered the UK compliant. States cannot opt out of Article 4(3).

“I think they’ve probably come under a lot of political pressure to ratify and are finding a way around it,” Siddiqui told the New Statesman.

“I think it’s all about optics really,” said Ellis. “They’re already under pressure to ratify with the ten-year deadline coming up and this is a way they can get around their obligations and still look like they’re ratifying.”

The Home Office declined to explain to the New Statesman the link between Article 59 and the Support for Migrant Victims scheme, or to elaborate on what results might lead the government to abandon its opt-out. Peers have now called on the government to answer these questions.

The Support for Migrant Victims scheme was established after a 2019 parliamentary report found that “some women with insecure immigration status are faced with the choice of staying with a perpetrator of abuse or becoming homeless and destitute because they… may not be entitled to support and may be at risk of detention and deportation”.

The government responded by putting the UK’s compliance with Articles 59 and 4(3) “under review” and starting the Support for Migrant Victims pilot. Issues relating to Article 59 were not addressed specifically, and then the government started floating the idea of opting out of the clause.

Peers were highly critical of the suggestion and tried to resolve the issue by granting all migrant victims of abuse a route to apply for indefinite leave to remain. However, these proposals were rejected by the government on the grounds that many victims may not have come to the UK with a “legitimate expectation” of settling.

“It feels a bit like smoke and mirrors,” Boosey said. “There isn’t really a reason to put down the reservation. They just want to avoid international scrutiny on it and maintain a two-tier system of support.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “​​Anyone who has suffered domestic abuse must be treated as a victim first and foremost, regardless of immigration status. The Istanbul Convention will still be ratified, but we are evaluating our approach to supporting migrant victims of domestic abuse and will make a final decision on Article 59 once that is concluded. However, this does not affect victims’ ability to get support and regularise their stay here, and we have recently provided an additional £1.4m for migrant victims of domestic abuse.”

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