Meet the women forced to choose between domestic abuse and poverty

Visa requirements are forcing hundreds of women a year to choose between abuse and deportation.

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When Mina arrived in the UK from Iran, she finally expected her basic human rights to be protected. Instead, she was choked and beaten in front of her children by the man she married.

Her husband, a British citizen, sponsored her visa to come to the UK. Its requirements stated that she could not access public funds such as benefits and social housing, a position he exploited by controlling every aspect of her life from her finances to when she could leave the house. She feared that if she protested he would put her out on the street or have her deported. But worst of all, she feared that he would take her children away.

Mina speaks very poor English and was told to distrust the British authorities by her husband. But, after one particularly nasty attack, she desperately dialed 999 and the police forced him out of the house. Then things began to look up.

The Northern Refugee Centre referred Mina to Ashiana, a specialist women's organisation based in Sheffield. When they first met she suffered from panic attacks, severe anxiety, and had no self-confidence. Ashiana fitted alarms in her house and arranged an anxiety and stress-management plan with a GP. Her children, aged between 9 and 18, began to feel better now that their abusive father was gone.

Rachel Mullan-Feroze, the service manager of Ashiana, has worked in domestic violence for 24 years. She tells me: "We don’t have domestic violence refuges any more so we cannot provide accommodation, but we support women to ensure they are no longer destitute or forced to live with violence."

Mina’s final step was to apply for indefinite leave to remain here which would sever the tie to her abuser. Ashiana took Mina to an immigration solicitor and they applied for something called the Destitution and Domestic Violence (DDV) Concession. This was introduced in 2012 after a long-term campaign by women's organisations, and it enables abused women on marriage visas the right to access benefits and social housing for three months while they apply to stay here. It was the lifeline she desperately needed.

But the Home Office rejected her application. Mina, along with her three children, had run out of options. She had no choice but to go back and live with her abuser where she remains, trapped and vulnerable, to this day.

Now exclusive Home Office figures show that Mina's case is not an isolated one. Almost a quarter of all applications for the DDV concession have been rejected since it was first introduced. Out of a total 4,385 applications, 1,055 have been unsuccessful. More worryingly, the proportion of applications that are being rejected is rising year on year. In 2012 it was 16 per cent and in 2014 it was 43 per cent.

Why is this? Well there are a host of requirements that applicants must meet and some are striking. For example, you are ineligible to apply if you owe over £1,000 to the NHS. Given that this concession was introduced to protect those who suffer abuse there is a real risk that women will be rejected for suffering too much physical violence. 

Victims are also ineligible if they have failed to provide information when asked. This may seem straight forward, but the majority of applicants, like Mina, have very poor English skills. If you fail to make an interview or medical examination without a reasonable excuse, then your application is scrapped. It should be emphasised here that many of these women are prevented from leaving the house by their abuser which makes attending any sort of appointment extremely difficult.

The results of all this are bleak. A campaign survey by Southall Black Sisters, who led the campaign for the concession, showed that for the period between 1 November 2012 and 31 January 2013, 64 per cent in a sample of 242 women did not qualify for the concession at all.

It is clear that a large number of women with an insecure immigration status experiencing violence remain totally unprotected.

Vivienne Hayes, the CEO of the Women's Resource Network, the leading national umbrella organisation for the women’s sector, told me: "It’s a disastrous situation and the whole barrier of access needs to be removed. It is a women’s human rights issue."

This barrier of access actually makes women like Mina, who are here on marriage visas, the lucky ones because they have the DDV concession to fall back on. But there are many women with no such option trapped in the same position.

Rachel believes it has to extend to cover other forms of visa, because: “it’s not only women who come on spousal visas that are affected by domestic abuse. Women on family reunion visas, for example, fall into exactly the same problem and won’t even have access to the concession.”

“I think that the Home Office are well aware that it doesn’t support the full range of women in that situation.”

A spokesman for the Home Office tells me that: “Migrant spouses who are in the UK on a different basis, for example as the partner of a temporary migrant, are not eligible to apply under the domestic violence provisions, but may be eligible to apply for a different form of leave or request help to leave the UK.”

But returning home is an unattractive prospect, when, as is the case for many of these women, it has been flattened by conflict. As Rachel says, “their situations in their country of origin are so unbearable. It’s unsurprising that they would wish to have a safer and better existence here. They choose migration as an alternative to potential death.”

The government's refusal to help these women places the burden onto women’s organisations and charities. Ten years ago, Maureen Storey, director of Vida Sheffield, set up a fund in response to the government’s lack of action to ensure migrant women weren't forced to live with their abuser. It was meant as a “short-term stopgap” but is still active today in the absence of any viable solution.

She tells me that some spouses don’t bother applying for indefinite leave because they know that the woman can’t escape. “It leaves women trapped and dependent on their abuser. They’re left completely destitute.”

“They face a stark choice between staying with their abuser or being deported and separated from their children.”

This is the harrowing position that many women, the majority of whom are suffering beneath the radar, find themselves in. They are trapped between abuse and deportation and it is an impossible choice to make.

Some names have been changed.