No recourse to public funds: the plight of refugees fleeing domestic violence.

Hundreds of women arrive in the UK each year only to be trapped in violent relationships. They have two choices: stay put and remain at the mercy of their assailants, or escape and risk destitution. Mark Gould reports

Simran Kaur, a small gentle woman with a tiny, almost imperceptible, handshake, puts her hands to her face and sobs slow, silent tears. She is almost mute with trauma – unable to find words to describe the nine months of abuse and virtual solitary confinement she faced at the hands of an indifferent husband and his domineering mother from the day she arrived in Bristol from Delhi in December 2003.

Fragments of her story emerge in short sentences translated by her caseworker, Meena Patel. “I was kept in the dark in my room with the curtains closed. When I tried to open them my mother-in-law slapped me. I was vegetarian and she told me to eat meat. I lived on bread and water. When my mother or sister rang I was told I could not speak to them.”

She was even under pressure when she was left alone. On one occasion she was locked in the house and managed to set off security alarms by leaving her bedroom. Every year about 600 women who arrive in the UK as immigrants and asylum seekers are trapped in violent relationships.

Most are married to or have relationships with UK citizens or men who have indefinite leave to remain in the UK. A minority have come here as fiancées or dependants of students and workers or are here temporarily in their own right. Many of them have children who are British citizens. Their official status is NRPF – no recourse to public funds – which excludes them from benefits and housing entitlement. It also prevents them fleeing to a refuge as the rent is usually funded by housing benefit.

While abusive families are at fault for women such as Simran ending up in these situations, campaigners say their actions are compounded and encouraged by “inhuman and discriminatory” failings in the benefits  and immigration system which leaves them with no recourse to public funds. Due to a nightmarish catch-22, women – and some men – are left with the choice of leaving an abusive home and becoming destitute or staying and risking their lives.

Without the help of campaign group Southall Black Sisters, Simran, 26, would have had nowhere to turn; her insecure immigration status labels her NRPF, but she is unable to return to her family in India who see women as in some way culpable for an abusive relationship.

Pragna Patel, of the Southall Black Sisters management committee, says Simran’s story is a familiar one: “Women are  imprisoned as domestic or sexual slaves – by strangers or by their husbands and families who have absolute power over them.

They have the ultimate weapon – they say, ‘disobey and we can send you back’. ”

In 2002, after an intense campaign led by Southall Black Sisters, the Home Office introduced the Domestic Violence Immigration Rule. This allows women who enter the UK as spouses or long-term partners of a British national or someone settled in this country – and who are subject to a two-year probationary period – to apply for residency if they can prove that domestic violence caused the relationship to break down. However, they still have no recourse to public funds.

Pragna Patel says the rule is an important step. But she says confused and frightened women like Simran cannot make use of it while trapped in an abusive relationship.

“The rule is too restrictive in terms of the evidence needed and in relation to the category of people who can use it. But the main reason why people do not use it is because they have no recourse to public funds. This means they don’t have the benefit money to pay for accommodation, food or other essentials and that means they are less likely to escape an abusive situation and less  likely to make a complaint about the abuse to the police. And that means perpetrators get away with it.”

Southall Black Sisters says the only solution is to abolish NRPF and has launched a campaign to that effect which has support from a range of women’s groups. It has also launched a handbook that emphasises the importance of gathering evidence of  abuse for a Domestic Violence Immigration Rule appeal, particularly medical reports.(1)

There are also positive signs that central and local government realise the moral and practical responsibilities to these women. In February, the Home Office issued a circular reminding local authorities that, although they have no statutory duties, they should be “mindful” of the needs of women subjected to domestic violence who have no recourse to public funds.

The lack of guidance has led Islington Council, with the support of the Association of Directors of Social Services, to bring together 26 local authorities to form the No Recourse to Public Funds Network. It provides information for social services and voluntary organisations on the practical things that can be done where at-risk people fail the benefits test. It sets out legal  entitlements, a guide to services and will share details of examples where cases have been resolved.

Islington Council has a specialist NRPF team to advise people on their personal circumstances and seeks to find a solution to their destitution. In limited circumstances the council provides care services, including accommodation and financial support.

The team works with all community care and mental health teams in Islington as well as the primary care trust, welfare benefits and other outreach and specialist services. John Gilbert, Islington executive member for health and adult social care, says the team’s work includes liaising with the Home Office and solicitors. “For people who are ineligible for services from the authority, they will indicate the options, he says.

“These include staying with friends or family, applying for section 4 ‘hard cases’ support, applying for the voluntary return programme, or seeking further legal advice.”

But Patel says it would be simpler to abolish NRPF so that these women have access to safe and secure environments. Simran is now receiving counselling, she has a GP and a solicitor who is pursing her case under the Domestic Violence Immigration Rule, asylum and human rights law. She has had no contact with her husband or his family since they told her not to return to Bristol after she went to London last year for a family wedding. For almost a year she stayed in a Sikh temple where Southall Black Sisters picked her up.

Places of worship and religious organisations, although well-intentioned, might not be best equipped to deal with the varied mental, physical and practical problems of deeply traumatised people, says Patel.

The police are also at a loss, she says. In March, Southall Black Sisters was contacted by Kent police after they rescued an Asian woman but did not want to send her home because they were sure she would face certain death. “She had no friends and the police rang the Home Office to ask if she could be detained just to give her a roof.

She was not a criminal and all they could think to do was deprive her of her liberty because of these rules. We have right on our side – we have won the moral argument that these rules must be abolished.”

(1) How Can I Support Her? Domestic Violence, Immigration and Women with No Recourse to Public Funds

This article appeared in the 23 November issue under the headline “Either way you lose”

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