By Ruth Grove-White
From 6 April, changes to the UK Immigration Rules (pdf), will make migrant victims of domestic violence more vulnerable to abuse. The changes mean that legal protection for migrant victims of domestic violence will no longer apply to applicants who have unspent criminal convictions.
This change has been described by campaigners as potentially turning the clock back by ten years in the way that domestic violence victims are treated in the UK.
Since 1999, there has been some form of legal protection for migrants who experience domestic violence in the UK. The current domestic violence rule protects those (usually women) coming to the UK on a spouse or partner visa, during the two year period before they can apply for settlement. Its introduction meant that people needing to flee violent relationships during their first two years here could apply for settlement in their own right in the UK - effectively they were released from being tied to their partner.
This is a critical safety net for the 700 or so individuals who are granted indefinite leave to remain under the domestic violence rule every year.
As a result of the changes, migrants on a spouse or partner visa who are victims of domestic abuse will lose the assurance of government protection if they have unspent criminal convictions. It seems that some form of ‘sliding scale’ will be in operation here. For those with serious convictions the message is clear – the government will not offer you support to settle here, no matter if you have been subject to violent treatment by your partner in the UK.
Applicants under the domestic violence rule who have minor unspent convictions - which could include a parking or speeding ticket if issued in court - face a far less clear situation. Indications from government are that these applications will be treated on a ‘case by case’ basis, leaving real uncertainty for those who have minor convictions and are weighing up the risks of leaving an abusive domestic situation.
The dangers of this change for domestic violence victims - mostly women - are clear. Campaigners have pointed out (pdf) that removing protection for some domestic violence victims directly contradicts the government’s own Violence against Women strategy, and could result in some women being forced to remain in abusive relationships for fear of the alternatives.
So what has parliament’s response to these proposed changes been? These changes were released (pdf) by the government alongside measures which will restrict international students coming to the UK. They are not subject to a parliamentary vote and, given the short time-frame available, it is unlikely that many MPs and peers have had the chance to fully scrutinise them.
But the issues here are likely to be of real concern to many parliamentarians, as reflected in the motion of regret drafted by Lord Avebury.
In the coming weeks and months we can expect debate about the details of this change to continue. But beyond this we urgently need to explore a bigger issue: whether the UK really values ‘tough’ immigration rules above the protection of women experiencing domestic abuse…
Ruth Grove-White is a policy officer at the Migrants’ Rights Network