'Nowhere to go': How No Recourse to Public Funds is leaving women experiencing abuse without support
Appearing in front of the Public Bill Committee last month, Gilmara Garcia told MPs how, eight months after she came to the UK from Brazil with her family, her partner started to become abusive.
Providing testimony as part of the Domestic Abuse Bill’s journey through the Commons, she described the experience as “the beginning of a nightmare”. First it was emotional abuse, then her partner became violent. “I did not understand that it was wrong,” she said. “I wanted to try to make things right, but when the physical abuse happened, I realised that something was wrong and that I needed help.”
Garcia had come to the UK legally, on a tourist visa, but her partner had a British passport. “I had been told, “Let’s go there to visit. After that we will remain, and I will apply with you as my dependent.” That never happened. Six months later, my tourist visa expired and I became undocumented.”
Despite his promises, her partner never made the application to settle her status, or for her oldest child, and without the right to stay in the UK, she found herself trapped just as his threats began to escalate. “He said, ‘I will report you if you don’t follow my rules. You will be returned to your country. Forget about our daughter, because now she is British’.”
“What NRPF does is create a circumstance of entrapment. If your stay in the UK and your need for shelter and survival is dependent on the person abusing you, it means in many cases there is nowhere to go
Garcia went to the police, along with her child, but they told her they could not help. Alone and homeless, she then went to the Home Office, in an attempt to return to Brazil, but officials told her to come back in a week. Rejected again, she found herself sleeping rough, in London in midwinter, with her nine-year old.
“No one knew what to do with me”, she said. “The police did not know what to do. They just suggested that I go to the Home Office. When I got to the Home Office, they said, ‘We have no accommodation’.”
Garcia was turned away because she had No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) - a condition attached to someone’s immigrations status, which prohibits them from accessing the mainstream welfare system.
NRPF can apply to a range of different visa types - including students and workers, and their spouses, who may have the right to work, but not access to benefits. It can also apply to people who have been refused asylum and have had their appeal rights exhausted, or are considered to be in the UK without lawful status. In that circumstance they would not be entitled to work, but would also be prohibited from accessing asylum support or universal credit.
Concerns over the impact of NRPF on women experiencing abuse have been growing. Women on a spousal visa can claim support from Destitute Domestic Violence Concession, which allows them to access public funds for just three months, but all other NRPF women are currently denied support. If they did access public funding, they would invalidate their leave to remain, meaning they would be asked to leave the UK, or face being detained and removed.
NRPF would also apply if a woman was a dependent of a visa holder, and the relationship ended. For example, someone could come to the UK as the partner of a student, and if the partner became abusive and they left them, they would be considered to be in the UK unlawfully and would also have no entitlement to benefits. It makes no difference to the Home Office if the termination of that relationship was because of domestic violence.
And because having NRPF means someone is unable to access the mainstream welfare system, a woman in that circumstance would be unable to receive housing support, and would not have the right to apply for social housing or present as homeless.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of places at women’s aid shelters are funded using housing benefit. If a woman cannot access welfare support, the refuge cannot take her in. Unless a refuge has secured alternative funding for NRPF women, she would be left with the choice of destitution or returning to the perpetrator.
Jen Ang, a partner at JustRight Scotland, told Holyrood: “It has been our experience, at times, that someone who is currently experiencing violence will seek advice on the consequences of fleeing, and when they realise that fleeing in the context of NRPF involves those barriers, that will be a barrier to them seeking the safety and the protection that they have a right to. That isn’t going to shift until the law shifts.”
Thousands of women in the UK are in this situation. Sochi, originally from Nigeria, met her husband in her early twenties, and says that for the first couple of years they were happy together. They moved to the UK so he could study - he was on a student visa - and so as his dependent, Sochi was subject to the NRPF condition.
But in the UK, Sochi’s husband’s behaviour began to change. Belittling her for being unable to have children, he became cruel and controlling.
At the same time, throughout their time together, he falsely reassured her that he was taking steps to regularise her status. That never happened. Trapped, and with her husband in possession of her passport and official documentation, Sochi’s husband began to siphon off her wages. Eventually he abandoned Sochi in 2012, leaving her destitute and alone.
It was not until immigration officers turned up at her accommodation that Sochi realised her ex-husband had not regularised her status in the UK. Shocked and humiliated, she was informed that she was no longer able to work nor could she access welfare benefits or housing. She had no recourse to public funds.
“It is possible that victims may also be reluctant to report abuse due to the fear of information sharing by the police and other statutory services with the Home Office for the purpose of immigration control
Anila Mirza from Shakti Women’s Aid, a voluntary organisation which supports BME women, children, and young people experiencing domestic abuse, says the organisation encountered at least 70 women in Scotland with NRPF last year.
She told Holyrood: “NRPF is the most difficult part of my job, and it often feels like we are the only ones raising concern.
“If two women come to me, both BME women, my first question is, ‘what is your immigration status?’ It’s really, really sad. That’s how the system is - it means that instead of asking a woman about abuse, I ask first about immigration status.
“If one woman says she has settled status, then doors are open to her. We can take her in without even thinking about it. We can get her housing and she will be safe. But if the second woman has NRPF then, honestly, you don’t know where to start. The door to safe housing is not open to them. It is completely closed.”
COSLA has repeatedly called for the removal of NRPF conditions for the most vulnerable. But while Shakti has worked alongside Edinburgh City Council to develop a protocol to try and respond to concerns, Mirza said that in neighbouring local authorities the experience has been quite different, with accommodation very difficult to find.
“We need consistency everywhere,” Mirza said. “If someone is fleeing domestic abuse, regardless of their ethnicity, immigration status, gender, give them that support. It is their basic human right.
“My experience is that women with NRPF go without the luxury of being able to process the trauma of domestic abuse. They are worrying about basics - about food and shelter - and it is a huge problem, but it is not really ever talked about.”
It was these concerns that led campaigners to push for change, through an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill, which would have lifted the NRPF condition for women experiencing abuse, via a change to the Immigration Act.
In fact the UK Government’s own domestic abuse Draft Statutory Guidance Framework acknowledges that for victims of abuse, NRPF is “leading to higher dependence on the partner or family that has supported their being in the UK. This may be exploited by partners or family members to exert control over victims”.
It says: “Examples of this could include: threatening to inform immigration authorities, being separated from their children or threatening to no longer provide support for their stay in the UK. Therefore, victims from overseas may be more reluctant to come forward and report abuse unless additional support is available.
“It is possible that victims may also be reluctant to report abuse due to the fear of information sharing by the police and other statutory services with the Home Office for the purpose of immigration control, should they be unaware of the steps the Home Office can take to help them to regularise their status and provide support.
“They may also face a greater economic impact of leaving an abuser if they are unable to claim benefits or access housing, or if they lose their immigration status by leaving their partner, including destitution and homelessness.”
But when it came to the vote, Conservative MPs took a different view, with the amendment defeated by 330 to 207. Facing criticism from campaigners, the UK Government argued it had taken “extensive action” to support those with NRPF, pointing to protections for renters from evictions, a mortgage holiday for those who need it, as well as support for those who are vulnerable and need assistance with access to medication and shopping.
A Home Office spokesperson told Holyrood: “The Destitute Domestic Violence Concession (DDVC) provides eligible individuals with three months’ leave outside the Immigration Rules in their own right and also lifts no recourse to public funds provisions, so they can access welfare benefits.”
“We reviewed our overall response to migrant victims of domestic abuse who do not currently qualify for the DDVC – which showed there is a lack of evidence to show which cohorts are likely to be in most need of support, the numbers involved and how well existing arrangements may address their needs. We’ve committed to a pilot scheme to address these evidence gaps, before we are in a position to take decisions on how best to protect these victims in the long-term.”
Yet campaigners were unimpressed, arguing that women are being left with a choice between staying with a perpetrator or destitution. Janaya Walker is the Legal, Policy and Campaigns Officer for Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a group providing emergency support to vulnerable migrant women. She told Holyrood that around 60 per cent of the women SBS supports have insecure immigration status of some kind.
Walker told Holyrood: “What NRPF does is create a circumstance of entrapment. If your stay in the UK and your need for shelter and survival is dependent on the person abusing you, it means in many cases there is nowhere to go. We often find perpetrators are aware of this - they will deliberately weaponise women’s immigration status against them, and tell them ‘if you report to the police or the Home Office they will not believe you, you aren’t a British citizen, you will be deported, you’ll be separated from your children’. They can use the imbalance of power against them, to ensure their silence and their compliance is maintained.
“We know domestic abuse happens across different ethnicities, it affects all women and it affects society at large. But we find that particularly migrant women and black and minority women are at heightened risk of harm, because of these sorts of institutional barriers to accessing safety. In circumstances of entrapment, that means violence often escalates. Lots of the women who come to us really as a last resort. Some of them come to us only with the clothes they are wearing, or they have been living, sometimes for many years, in circumstances of domestic servitude or extreme neglect. Some of them are malnourished. Some have been totally isolated from contact with the outside world. They may be in the UK with limited knowledge of English, without friends or family here, without access to a mobile phone, and so the journey to recovery and to safety is much more complex.”
That is the reality facing thousands of women in the UK at this moment. Back in June, at her committee appearance, MPs had asked Gilmara Garcia if she felt things would have been different if she had not been denied funding. On that, she had no doubt.
“Definitely,” she said. “Every time, I repeat that if, in the first beginning, the process follows with a safety report, everything will be different. It is now four years later, and I am still suffering the consequences.”