Women’s lives are at risk from domestic violence because of their immigration status – and the Home Office must take urgent action, claim leading human rights experts.

The calls for policy change follow a major UK-wide investigation by The Ferret into the ‘hidden crisis’ of abused women with insecure immigration status.

Asylum seeking women have been told by legal advisors that they should consider staying with abusive partners rather than risk losing their right to remain the UK, according to evidence uncovered.

Lawyers, psychologists and campaigners claim that Home Office guidelines, stating that women have to prove they have been abused, mean that women are often forced to stay in dangerous situations because they are scared of being sent home.

Refuges are not an option, because asylum seekers – along with those who have legal right to remain but no recourse to public funds, such as women joining refugee husbands through family reunion – are unable to access refuge accommodation because of their immigration status.

“Sooner or later someone else is going to be seriously harmed, or even killed, because we have failed to ensure that there is adequate protection there,” said Nina Murray, women’s policy officer at Scottish Refugee Council.

“The courageous stories we have heard from women across the UK trapped facing violence and abuse as a result of what should be a completely irrelevant factor – their immigration status – are shocking. They shine a light on the unacceptable safety gap for women in danger, here in the UK, right now. How can a UK Government that has firmly stated its commitment to ending violence against women and girls around the world, deny women right here in our communities the help that so many rely on?”

“The number of women affected in these stories is small – but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg and many cases are hidden. The UK Government must monitor and publish information about how many women are affected.”

The Ferret found that many women face homelessness if they leave their partners, and even then they may still not be safe from their abuser.

The culture of disbelief is threatening women’s lives, it is claimed, with Refugee Councils in both England and Scotland warning that unless urgent action is taken, asylum seeking and refugee women remain in peril. Ferret journalists have uncovered a series of disturbing cases from England, Scotland and Northern Ireland (below).

Murray said that although there are good lawyers, some people are getting poor legal advice. “Research shows that the point at which women are most at risk is when they have tried to leave. So the fact that women are being told by lawyers to stay at this point is horrifying.”

Sarah Crawford, a lawyer with the Glasgow-based Legal Services Agency’s Women’s Project, has also worked on many cases causing her grave concern.

The service has worked with 45 refugee and migrant women reporting domestic abuse in the last year. It often finds that because support services are now so hard to access, staff are forced to help women find accommodation before even starting legal work.

Crawford is particularly concerned about the situation facing refugee women who join their husbands through the family reunion system. Though those joining British husbands can apply for leave to remain if they flee domestic violence, these refugee women cannot.

Now, the Legal Services Agency, supported by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is making a legal challenge to immigration rules, claiming that refugee women currently face discrimination.

“The system is stacked against women in such circumstances,” Crawford added. “The amount of evidence that is required is overwhelming, particularly for a vulnerable woman who has been abused.”

“This puts some women in a position where they have to decide if they are going to stay in an abusive relationship and have the right to remain, or try to make an asylum claim that may very well be unsuccessful.”

Refugee Council’s women’s advocacy manager, Anna Musgrave, said victims of domestic violence should be top priority for the government.

She added: “The Home Office pays little attention to women’s safety in its policies and practices. If a woman seeking asylum is suffering from domestic abuse, she will struggle to find ways to escape.”

“The Home Secretary urgently needs to acknowledge this hidden crisis and ensure the UK Government’s immigration policies never inadvertently jeopardise women’s safety.”

Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid as well as the UK’s expert on the European Observatory on Violence against Women, agrees. “This is a bureaucratic form of torture,” she said. “It re-victimises women and puts them in great danger.”

The Ferret’s investigation also found that women in England and Northern Ireland – who had been granted leave to remain but without public resource to public funds – were being routinely denied access to refuge accommodation or domestic abuse services.

England by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi

He stopped hitting her and left the house. Nabeelah* tried to move. She and her husband lived with his parents and a handful of relatives, but it was unlikely anyone would help if she called out.

There was a hierarchy in the house and she was at the bottom.

The family used her husband’s violence to intimidate and threaten her. Nabeelah was young, just 18 when the marriage was arranged. Before that she’d wanted to study medicine, but her parents believed the young man born and bred in England was a better proposition. She left the country of her birth and her family to live with him in the UK, where thanks to her quick mind she easily picked up English because his Urdu was so poor.

Her back was sore and she worried he would soon come back. I don’t want to die, she thought. For two years she’d been treated “like an animal”, sworn at and beaten up. He had isolated her from her family back home, told them lies about her. But it was the first time she thought he might kill her. She found her phone and sent a text to her only friend. A second later the phone rang:

“What happened?”

“He called his friends and he said he is going to stab me. He beat me up really badly. I can’t move my back. It’s swollen. I don’t know what to do. Just call the police. Please. I need help. I am in danger.”

***

Nabeelah and her husband were married in Pakistan and after a couple of years she moved to the UK with him. He got her an 18-month student visa, rather than a spousal visa. Her migration status was temporary and she had no recourse to public funds.

On International Women’s Day this year the Home Office published its strategy to end violence against women and girls (VAWG) in the UK and abroad. It spoke of the need to make domestic violence “everyone’s business”, dealt with by government, civil institutions and society at large. But the strategy offers no solution for women like Nabeelah, foreign national women living in Britain who are forced to choose between destitution and violent relationships because of their migration status.

Under immigration law a person given leave to remain in the UK may be subject to the condition that they are without recourse to public funds. These public funds are set out in the Immigration Rules and include a range of working age benefits including Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Child Benefit and Disability Living Allowance. People with permission to stay in the UK as a partner or spouse of a British citizen might have no recourse to public funds. If their relationship breaks down and they can prove it is because of domestic violence, they can apply for temporary indefinite leave to remain and to have the no recourse status lifted under the destitute domestic violence concession.

This concession is a result of several decades of campaigning by the Southall Black Sisters and other VAWG groups, who describe the original immigration rules as both racist and sexist. Their work was supported by Amnesty International in 2006, who joined the campaign and argued that denying women access to safe shelter and subsistence so they could flee abuse contravened a number of international treaties and domestic human rights law.

The latest incarnation of the domestic violence concession has been in place since 2012 and is limited to a handful of women with no recourse status. To qualify you must have entered the country on a spousal visa and be married to a British or settled person (this excludes refugees, an exclusion currently being challenged in the High Court), or someone in the armed forces.

Nabeelah, like hundreds of women without access to public funds under immigration legislation, falls outside of the concession. If she leaves her violent husband, there are no organisations in the UK with a statutory duty to help her.

Often insecure migration status is used as a form of control by abusive partners

Cash strapped domestic violence refuges rely on housing benefit, which Nabeelah can’t access. In 2014 Women’s Aid reported that 389 women were turned away from refuges because they had no recourse to public funds. But it is difficult to estimate the full scale of the problem; often insecure migration status is used as a form of control by abusive partners and women face the threat of deportation if they seek help.

If Nabeelah is deported her parents would force her back to her husband. “When I tried to tell my parents about his behaviour,” she says, “They judged me. They said I was wrong. I wasn’t being patient. I wasn’t being obedient. I wasn’t being respectful.”

The Home Office said in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Ferret that it held no central data on how many women apply to have their no recourse status lifted. Nor does government keep a record of how many women are granted temporary support under the Destitute Domestic Violence Concession. This makes it impossible to count the women caught in this protection gap.

Because of the growing number of no recourse migrants – ie asylum seekers, non EEA migrants, people in the country on a spousal/family visa, foreign students, over-stayers and people with limited leave to remain – councils across the country are developing special units to manage these cases. Outside of the domestic violence rules, other groups with no recourse can access limited public support under the Children’s Act, the Care Act, by proving destitution and under leaving care provisions.

We submitted FOIs to 34 local authorities in England and Wales, including all the councils who are part of the national No Recourse to Public Funds network, to find out if they held data on survivors of domestic violence with no recourse. Not a single authority held the data.

Most responded that they followed existing protocols around dealing with survivors of domestic violence. But this guidance, just as with the Home Office’s latest VAWG strategy, provides no guidance on dealing with women (without children) unable to access public funds and who don’t qualify for the domestic violence concessions.

One local authority employee working in social care who made contact on the condition of anonymity said that whereas 10 or 15 years ago councils would try to support everyone that presented without recourse, recent cuts make this difficult. Since 2010 the Treasury has cut local authority budgets by about 40%, with more cuts expected.

For domestic violence survivors with uncertain migration status and no recourse, there isn’t really a safeguarding mechanism in place. “Local authorities have to admit that they have no policy on how to deal with this. Police and social care have no expertise in this area,” the social care officer said. Services are turning people away because they have no duty to help them under immigration law, but this is giving rise to human rights breaches, she added.

Halliki Voolma is a PhD candidate at Cambridge and is researching domestic violence against immigrant women in Sweden and the UK. She argues that no recourse cases are an example of the tension between human rights and immigration control. In domestic violence cases, states put in place apparatus so that when a woman needs to flee abuse, she can, and her rights are fulfilled. “The no recourse to public funding quite directly takes away those rights from people with a particular status,” she said.

***

The police arrived and arrested Nabeelah’s husband. Meanwhile she stayed with her friend, while searching for somewhere to live unknown to and far away from her husband and his family (there is a two-year injunction against him, but a family member has contacted her).

Everyone Nabeelah approached, including several domestic violence refuges, turned her away. The first question was always: what is your immigration status? You need to find someone who deals with situations like that, they would say. But Nabeelah was alone with no money or knowledge of Britain’s complex immigration rules. “It wasn’t my choice to come here on a student visa,” she says. “I wasn’t even aware that I was going to be bought here on a student visa.”

She went to the police who sent her to victim support. By the time she arrived Nabeelah was in a state, shaking and crying, fearful of what would happen to her and certain that her husband would soon find her. The interview felt like an interrogation and she a criminal. “I just need a place to live,” Nabeelah said.

After all the questions, she was handed a piece of paper with organisations to contact and told, sorry but we can’t help you, until you get your immigration status sorted.

***

Nabeelah’s plight isn’t an isolated example. Migrant women across the country who find the courage to leave experience the same barriers.

Kim lives in Manchester and left her British partner of five years in December last year. He’d always been controlling, refusing to help her regularise her status as a way of keeping her dependent on him. When she became pregnant the abuse worsened; he would taunt her and at 8-months pregnant made her sit for hours on a hard stool in the kitchen. She wasn’t allowed to enter the bedroom without permission.

When Kim left her baby was just a few months old. Despite going to the police, she wasn’t believed. Social services refused to help and she didn’t qualify for housing benefit so couldn’t get a refuge space. Her baby was taken from her and she was placed in a mixed homeless shelter.

There were around 20 men and six women; she stayed there for three weeks. Eventually she came across Safety4Sisters, a Manchester-based group who helped find her new hostel and challenge social services decision to take her baby away.

Safety4Sisters began in 2008 over concerns about migrant women with no access to state benefits. They realised these women were caught in a trap where they could not escape violence without risking homelessness. They have come across dozens of women affected.

In November 2015 they set up the Migrant Women’s Right to Safety project, which runs a weekly group for women with no recourse or insecure migration status experiencing domestic abuse. There is practical support such as sign posting to specialist services, food parcels and emergency travel expenses, but also advice and advocacy. Here Kim met other women experiencing the same problems as her but from a broad mix of backgrounds.

The range of women Safety4Sisters work with indicates that the migrant women affected by domestic violence and denied support is not limited to no recourse cases.

Sonya*, a disabled woman, former law student and mother of five, still lives with her violent partner because he holds all the details she needs for her asylum claim. Her husband’s migration status is also insecure and the whole family qualifies for limited asylum support. However, the Home Office pays this money to him as head of the household.

She has tried to apply to the Home Office to separate their joint claim for asylum and to their asylum housing provider to put her name on the tenancy but to no avail. She struggles to feed her children because he controls the money and sometimes disappears with it. She relies on foodbanks and support from Safety4Sisters.

***

After being turned away by Victim Support, Nabeelah was referred for therapy by her doctor. Her psychologist was shocked at her situation and worried about Nabeelah’s mental health and so vowed to help.

It was through her that Nabeelah was referred to a specialist women’s refuge dealing with South Asian women with a small grant to work with no recourse survivors of domestic violence (their funding has since been cut). Here Nabeelah was referred to Solange Valdez, a legal aid solicitor at Ealing Law Centre in West London.

Working from the centre’s small high street office, Solange has many clients that fall into this category. A woman from South America who became homeless after being made to leave a refuge when her leave to remain ended. There is the Eritrean woman who came to the UK to live with her refugee husband, then experienced domestic violence. When Solange argued that this woman should be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain under the domestic violence concession, the Home Office said that the concession was only for the spouses of settled citizens, excluding refugees.

There is a fear inside of me. About seeing that man again. What is going to happen? What is he going to do to me? Nabeelah

There’s a tall stack of papers by her desk; this is the messy case of a heavily pregnant Egyptian woman fleeing an abusive husband without access to support.

Solange’s work is chronically underfunded, stymied at every turn by Home Office and social service bureaucracy. And there is no legal aid funding for this work, so it comes down to luck whether or not women like Nabeelah are able to access advice.

Solange was able to get Nabeelah’s no recourse status lifted temporarily while the case is challenged in court. Nabeelah has nine months leave to remain in the country during which time she can access benefits.

For Nabeelah the brief respite is a relief. At 24 she has lost her family and her peace of mind. She has regular panic attacks and is on a high dosage of anti-depressants to “help me sleep and cheer me up”.

The uncertainty around her migration application is tied up with feelings about her husband. “There is a fear inside of me. About seeing that man again. What is going to happen? What is he going to do to me?

“I just want peace. I just want nobody to be pushing me. I don’t want to be beaten up. I don’t want to be treated like I am nobody. If I go back to my parents’ house and obviously they are going to send me back to him. It is really hard living in fear of your life everyday and you don’t know what is going to happen next.”

Scotland By Karin Goodwin

Zinia lives in a tired low-rise block of flats in Glasgow, former council housing where the balconies are piled up with children’s bikes and have views on to dull, rain sodden suburban streets.

But when she answers the door, wearing a shimmering blue-green Shalwar Kameez from her native Bangladesh, her smile lights up the room. Inside she pulls up another chair, pours tea as though all is well with the world.

But things are not what they seem. Zinia has lived in this sparsely furnished temporary flat with her three children for almost a year, since leaving the husband she claims she was forced to marry aged 14; a man who she says beat and raped her for 18 years.

“Torture” is how she describes his treatment and it started from day one, when after having sex with her on their wedding night, he got up and left his underage bride – alone and scared – for a two-month business trip. When he came back, the verbal abuse started and after moving them to Dhaka, the capital, the beatings followed.

“Everybody in my family knew how he was treating me,” Zinia explains. “But in my culture once you are married you just have to be quiet and take it all.”

In 2014, due to political problems that affected his business, her husband fled to the UK to claim asylum, bringing his wife and children with him. His asylum claim was refused. The violence continued. “I would say all this time in an average month he was hitting me about 20 days of it,” she says.

Her GP noticed something was amiss and suggested her husband allow her to go to English classes. The couple started attending together at Govan and Craigton Integration Network (GCIN) where a volunteer saw the hold he had over her and persuaded him to allow her to come to the women’s group.

There she gently questioned her. “I just told her my story and showed her some pictures of when my husband hit me, “ says Zinia. “And from then onwards people started to help me.” The memory of relief makes her cry.

Staff at Govan and Craigton didn’t mess around. They made contact with Lyndsay Docherty, who specialises in refugee issues at Glasgow East Women’s Aid (GEWA), liaised with the police, lawyers and the Home Office and in the end, helped her to escape.

One worker set-up an interview with her husband in the office, keeping the coast clear for Petra Hardie, who co-ordinates the woman’s group, to help Zinia to load her belongings and children into a van and get to GEWA. When it turned out that refuge accommodation would not be offered due to her immigration status, they got on the phone and made sure a flat was found.

Her case, though harrowing, is far from unique. The small charity has worked with six women fleeing gender-based violence in the past year, while Docherty, at GEWA, has worked with around ten refugee women. In response Hardie invited officers from the domestic abuse unit to visit the women’s group.

“The idea behind this was for the women to learn and understand that domestic abuse is not acceptable in this country and what women can do who experience domestic violence or abuse in their situation,” she explains. It helped give women confidence to come forward.

Yet she remains concerned for others. “The overall service for asylum seekers, now provided by Migrant Help, is so much reduced,” she adds. “There is hardly any face to face contact or work through support workers.” GCIN and others like them pick up the slack. Most of the work is not funded.

The impact is clear in this tiny, chaotic head office, where development worker Owen Fenn is running an advice drop-in, helping people apply for support when they are destitute, handing out food vouchers, and sign-posting help with benefits. Every couple of minutes there’s another knock at the door. “The sector is struggling to cope,” he says. “The people that we see are all very isolated.”

Last year the charity provided 1134 advice sessions, made emergency food referrals for 1443 adults and 573 children and distributed almost £2k worth of destitution grants. The need is palpable.

For those who do overcome these substantial barriers, the frustration is that they are often not believed by the Home Office.

Zinia applied for asylum but was refused. According to her decision letter, she should have spoken up when she first arrived in the UK. Who could she have told, she asks. Her credibility is also undermined because she backed up her husband’s refused asylum claim.

Her statement was made in front of a man who she says was her abuser.

The culture of disbelief is ingrained, says Dr Mairead Tagg, a leading psychologist who has written about 150 court reports in cases of asylum seeking women who have suffered domestic abuse. “I worked on one case in which the woman alleged that her husband was hitting her with barbed wire,” she adds. “In the medical report it was clear that every claim of abuse that she had made was consistent with the evidence, and yet she still wasn’t believed. Women are told that they are simply not telling the truth.

She claims this is true for the majority of asylum cases she has worked on, in part due to Home Office guidance that puts the burden on the woman to prove that she has sought help from police and other authorities, though research shows they are often scared to do so. So endemic is this disbelief, she claims, lawyers sometimes advise their clients not to disclose abuse; if it can’t be proved mentioning it may damage their credibility.

The Home Office does not accept the impact of trauma on their testimony, she adds, which means they can be put in life threatening situations.

Sarah Crawford, a lawyer with the Legal Services Agency’s Women’s Project, has also worked on many cases that give her grave cause for concern. The service has worked with 45 refugee and migrant women reporting domestic abuse in the last year.

“The system is stacked against women in such circumstances,” she explains. “The amount of evidence that is required is overwhelming, particularly for a vulnerable woman who has been abused. This puts some women in a position where they have to decide if they are going to stay in an abusive relationship and have the right to remain, or try to make an asylum claim that may very well be unsuccessful.”

She is particularly concerned by the fact that women joining their husbands through family reunion have so little protection; though rules allow the spouses and children of refugees to join them, if the wife subsequently leaves, she cannot legally stay in the UK. Women who marry British citizens are able to apply for leave to remain if they are abused, but those reunited with refugee husbands cannot.

This is exactly the position that Noura, an academic from Iran, whose husband sought asylum in the UK in 2011, found herself. When her husband disappeared from their home in Iran it came as a shock; she knew nothing about his political activities until the authorities turned up to interrogate him.

For the next year contact with her husband was sporadic and she and her children were constantly harassed. She lost her job at the university due to pressure from officials and moved in with her mother, where she felt safer.

When her husband finally got refugee status and applied for them to join him, she had to leave her old life behind. In Iran, she had her own friends, family, a job and a car. In Scotland she was living in poverty with very little English. Her husband’s behaviour made everything worse.

“He saw himself as the patriarch,” she says. “In Iran women obey their husbands. Men bring all the stress into the home and they might beat their children and their wife. It started to happen here too. But then my husband heard that he is not allowed to do that in this country so he started to hurt me verbally and emotionally.”

After a while the verbal abuse escalated and he hit her in front of the children. “I tried to keep everything quiet for him, to make peace but it happened more and more,” says Noura.

“I realised that I had to do something and I went to the lawyer to discuss it. But he encouraged me to be more patient. I didn’t have refugee status or my own support. The lawyer told me: “you have two options; you can wait five years [to apply for citizenship] or you can apply for separate immigration status”. But I didn’t have the money to do that.”

She found another lawyer and put in a claim based on her decision to convert to Christianity – she had found great comfort from her local church since coming to the Scotland – and was granted refugee status earlier this year.

Though she is still in temporary accommodation, and continues to take medication for depression, she knows she is lucky. Many women are too frightened to leave, she says. And in 2013 one Iranian woman was murdered by her husband in a frenzied knife attack. Abbas Nikabady was jailed for life but his wife – Fatemeh Bostani – lost hers.

Research shows that the point at which women are most at risk is when they have tried to leave. So the fact that women are being told by lawyers to stay at this point is horrifying. Nina Murray, Scottish Refugee Council

Nina Murray, women’s policy officer at Scottish Refugee Council, says that though there is a will at a policy level to improve the system, not enough is being done in practice. “There are holes in the very minimal safety nets that do exist,” she adds.

“Though there are very good lawyers out there, some people are getting very poor legal advice. Research shows that the point at which women are most at risk is when they have tried to leave. So the fact that women are being told by lawyers to stay at this point is horrifying.

Sooner or later someone else is going to be seriously harmed, or even killed , because we have failed to ensure that there is adequate protection there.”

Dr Marsha Scott, chief executive of Scottish Women’s Aid as well as the UK’s expert on the European Observatory on Violence against Women agrees. “This is a bureaucratic form of torture ,” she says. “It re-victimises women and puts them in great danger.”

Meanwhile at the women’s group, Zinia and the other women break for lunch; pasties and spicy veg. They chat, some breastfeed their babies. Louise, a volunteer, throws a teddy in the air for three-year-old Mustafa and he dives to catch it, screaming with delight. Zinia squeezes past, making sure everyone is served.

“This place helped save me,” she says. But as she waits for news of her appeal, there is no happy ending yet.

Northern Ireland By Lyra McKee

In the lawyer’s hand was a printed copy of an email. She read it out. Her client, it said, owed around £1200 in rent for her accommodation; the email was a request for the money.

Such emails had been flooding her inbox for months, with the outstanding rent arrears slowly climbing. Now, her client had been informed that she could no longer stay on the premises. On Friday, seven days away, she would have to pack up her possessions and leave.

The lawyer, Barbara Muldoon, set the paper on the table and exhaled. The situation was desperate.

“I have no idea where she’s going to go,” she said. “She’s a schoolgirl.” Her voice strained slightly at the last word. “She’s doing her A-Levels.”

In Belfast, Muldoon is probably something of a heroic figure to the city’s community of migrants and refugees. A member of the Anti-Racism Network, in 2013, she was acquitted of participating in an illegal parade in the City Centre.

Then a trainee solicitor, she’d helped organise a protest outside BBC NI’s headquarters after the corporation had invited BNP leader Nick Griffin on to Question Time. The protest had only become a “parade” when police officers had told the crowd to walk to City Hall and disperse from there. It was an example of how unfair the system could be. She’d seen it up close and, now, she was seeing it again.

This case, though, was confounding her. When a woman needed to run from an abusive husband or partner, the one place she could escape to was a female refuge. Look up the word ‘refuge’ in the dictionary and there it was: “the state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or difficulty”, or “a place or situation providing safety or shelter.” And that was what her client, an African migrant, had done.

It was a difficult thing for any woman to do, never mind one barely out of childhood, but she’d done it. Yet now, with a week’s notice, she was being forced to leave because she couldn’t afford to pay the rent – for what is normally a free service.

It’s a situation, says Muldoon, she’s seen happen many times before: 6 or 7, maybe 8 times in the last 8 years. Refugees and migrants whose applications for asylum and residency are in flux and/or being processed are not allowed to access public funds.

For domestic abuse survivors who fall into these groups, that means that organisations like Women’s Aid – who run a network of women’s refuges throughout Northern Ireland – cannot claim public money for supporting them and therefore either cannot offer them a place or will only allow them to stay temporarily.

“Unless you’ve been recognised as a refugee or unless you have settlement here, you’re not allowed to access public funds,” she said.

She was sitting in a side office downstairs in the Belfast City Centre offices of McKenna Sweeney McKeown, the law firm she practices in. “And that doesn’t just mean that they can’t go make a claim for benefits – which they can’t – and that they can’t get housing benefit – which they can’t.

“That, unfortunately, means Women’s Aid would not offer them accommodation. I’ve seen this a lot. Women’s Aid either won’t house you or they’ll house you temporarily then ask you to leave because you’re not eligible for public funds and that’s the basis of being funded for them.

“That in itself, I suppose, is a whole different story, how an organisation that could have started through activism and through women offering their own support network to the most vulnerable people are literally throwing on to the streets the most vulnerable women because those places are not being funded by the government.”

The conversation returned to the subject of the girl. Muldoon sounded exasperated again. “She’s 19. She’s a schoolgirl. She has been asked to leave the Women’s Aid refuge by next Friday. She has nowhere in the world she can go to.

“Why doesn’t she just go back to her husband? Because that is really what that is pushing her to do.

“She has nowhere to go at the end of this week. Unless she is going to sleep in the streets of Belfast, that is absolutely pushing her back to her husband.”

***

Ask a person over the age of 35 about what violence against women entails and they might mention The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a novel published in 1996 by renowned Irish author Roddy Doyle. In it, the book’s protagonist, Paula Spencer, recounts her violent marriage to a man named Charlo.

Yet with the influx of refugees and migrants into Northern Ireland, healthcare workers are seeing acts of violence they haven’t seen before.

In hospitals, midwives are discovering what female genital mutilation (FGM) - a regular practice in some cultures - looks like.Click To Tweet

In hospitals, midwives are discovering what female genital mutilation (FGM) – a regular practice in some cultures – looks like.

The women turning up at refuges are no longer just those escaping violent husbands but sex workers fleeing the men who trafficked them into the country. Consequently, Women’s Aid NI formally expanded its remit recently to deal with sexual violence as well as domestic, including honour killings.

The organisation’s CEO is Jan Melia. An amiable, softly-spoken Mancunian, she looks troubled when quizzed about the 19-year-old migrant being forced to leave one of Women’s Aid’s refuges.

Ultimately, however, the problem, she says, does not lie with her organisation but the UK policy which forbids refugees and migrants whose applications for asylum or residency are in motion from claiming public funds.

“It’s UK-wide policy,” she says. “Individual women are going to get caught up in that. The reality on the ground is very different from the policymakers, very different from the lawmakers and the connect between those things has to start to happen in a more productive way. And in the meantime, people are going to get caught up in rules and regulations.”

Like many in the community and voluntary sector, the organisation faces an uncertain future financially.

Recently, Women’s Aid Federation NI – the umbrella body which oversees nine refuges across the country – was told that its core funding is being withdrawn. “Our funding will be withdrawn steadily over two years,” said Melia. “We lost staff last year. Core services will be affected, without a doubt.”

How does she feel about the case of the schoolgirl? She sighed. “I would feel that we’ve let that person down, unfortunately. I mean, personally that’s how I would feel…but those are the choices we’re having to face at the minute and these are the reality of the cuts that we’re having to face….The broader issue is what the government is doing. We’re all caught up in what Westminster is doing.

“In Westminster, the push is towards not having any refugees stay in this country, isn’t it?

“In terms of the number of refugees there are in Jordan and other countries, you know, the UK are taking in a very small minority of refugees. And that’s the push at the minute. So that leaves a lot of refugees and people who’ve been here on particular visas in very precarious situations. Westminster policy is to send refugees back.”

***

Data on the number of women being turned away by refuges because of the No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) policy is hard to come by. “We don’t even have a concrete number in terms of the number of refugees who are here,” said Liz Griffith, policy officer for the Law Centre NI.

“The problem has always been that the asylum system is managed by the Home Office and they treat Scotland and NI as one region – they don’t break it down. That’s the reason we’ve been given.”

One extensive study of the issue was carried out by Queens University Belfast PhD student Rebecca Dudley. In a paper, she noted that the data is “patchy”.

The numbers she was able to put together, however, make for disturbing reading. A scoping study carried out by Scottish Women’s Aid for 3 months suggested that just 30% of women with insecure immigration status were supported; 70% were turned away.

Most service providers interviewed estimated that at least one-third were being turned away, “possibly as many as four out of five”.

Then there’s the issues of fatalities. It’s perhaps the most disturbing paragraph out of Dudley’s entire 305 page thesis:

“Do you know of any domestic abuse fatalities that are linked to NRPF?” I asked service providers. Many believed they did.

They spoke of homicides in the UK – poisoning and women being set alight, homicides where women had been taken back to the country of origin, homicides of other family members (or indeed in one case a perpetrator), and suicides linked with NRPF and domestic violence.

In four instances, service providers raised a sinister possibility that perpetrators might commit murder in their countries of origin with impunity because no one sees or hears from them again. For example:

“In Pakistan there are so many. If the family don’t take you back, there are stove explosions, they are going to burn your face, cut your nose.”

“I have another woman who went back home (to country of origin) and she was killed. She was very nice. She go for holiday and everything. And about two weeks later, everybody says she is passed away. How? I asked. I think she killed herself. Why? I think (of) two stories (that are) like that.”

This speaker switched from saying that a women ‘was killed’ to being told that she had killed herself.

The shift expresses the confused messages circulating about the incidents. More generally, the service providers express that it is difficult to say definitely that NRPF was a contributory factor to a homicide, although NRPF means that women return to abuse, and that they stay longer in it.”

***

There was only one condition to the interview: I couldn’t name her. If I named her, she said, people would grow afraid and stop coming to her for help.

She didn’t use the word “women”. In her community, of African migrants and refugees, domestic violence was not just a male-to-female crime.

She’d heard everything, even of teenagers battering their parents. The African way was to try and do everything yourself but thousands of miles from home, migrants and refugees usually have no extended family to turn to. And so, through word of mouth, they’d find her and ask for advice. For domestic abuse survivors, she’d become the person to go to for counsel.

A distrust and dislike of the authorities meant that most people in the community would not seek outside help. “Social services take away a lot of African children,” she said. “We’re taking care of our families in Africa as well and sending money home so we can’t afford to be sick or to take time off. So children get left home alone a lot because childcare is just too expensive.

“For African women in abusive marriages, the biggest fear is having their children taken away.”

Another huge problem is the culture clash. Social services and other organisations tackling domestic violence did not understand African culture. Yet so great is the need for support for African migrants and refugees facing domestic violence that she is setting up her own charitable enterprise.

“For them [the authorities] to deal with the problems, they need to understand African culture. They have no idea how to deal with people from a completely different culture. Advice that works in the context of one culture does not work in the culture of another.”

***

Barbara Muldoon had just received a call from her client. Time was running out. After being ejected from the Women’s Aid refuge – they’d granted her an extra day to find somewhere else to stay. And a friend had taken her in. Yet the friend had made it clear that the arrangement couldn’t be permanent. Soon, she’d have to gather up her belongings again and find somewhere else.

Weeks from then, she’d be sitting her A-Level exams. Where she would be staying by then, Muldoon didn’t know. She could only hope it wasn’t a shop doorway – or worse, her husband’s home.

The response

The Ferret put the issues raised in this story to the government.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Domestic violence is a terrible crime and this Government is determined to tackle it.”

“All victims of domestic violence are entitled to the protection of the civil and criminal law while in the UK – regardless of immigration status.”

“Under the Destitution Domestic Violence concession, migrant spouses of permanent UK residents who are fleeing domestic violence are granted three months leave while they make an application for indefinite leave under the Immigration Rules.

“These individuals are able to access benefits and other services to ensure they are not forced to remain in violent relationships. In addition to this, applicants who can prove they are destitute are also exempt from paying the application fee for indefinite leave to remain as a victim of domestic violence.”

“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 specific domestic violence provisions, but may be eligible to apply for a different form of leave or request help to leave the UK.”

The last word comes from Nina Murray at Scottish Refugee Council, who argues that the existing, minimal safety nets for abused women are not working.

“It’s time for Theresa May to guarantee safety and protection from violence to all women in the UK. It’s time for this UK Government to make a choice between rights and wrong: to protect women as women or to condemn them to violence on the basis of an immigration category.”

“If she does not do this, the lives of women and children here in the UK will continue to be at risk on her watch.”

This story was funded by supporters of The Ferret, and forms part of our ongoing investigation into Asylum.

Original illustrations are by Chris Manson. It was written by Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi, Karin Goodwin and Lyra McKee, with editorial input from Billy Briggs and Rachel Hamada

*Names have been changed.