How migrant women fleeing domestic abuse are being let down by the government

Since Covid-19 restrictions began there has been a well documented spike in cases of domestic violence.

But what if you ask the authorities for help and are turned away?

That is what is happening to migrant women - many of whom are brought to the UK for arranged marriages.

The hostels who take them in have been overwhelmed.

With demand increasing and funding proving harder than ever to secure, some are having to turn survivors away.

ITV News contacted 24 specialist organisations offering help or accommodation across the country and 16 replied.

All of them have recorded a significant increase in demand since the start of the lockdown.

Almost two thirds - 10 of the 16 -  have seen demand double or more.

One charity in the North of England told us they’ve had to turn away 50 women since restrictions began.

Over the course of last week we met women at three shelters in the North East of England, the North West and London.

All of them were educated and some had travelled widely before agreeing to arranged marriages in their home countries.

But when their husbands brought them to the UK, the violence began and in many cases, quickly grew worse in lockdown.  

Their stories of abuse and coercion are as horrific as any I’ve heard.

But unlike other survivors in the UK, their immigration status is also used as a weapon against them.

All were told by their abusers they would be deported if they reported the abuse and many of them faced lengthy struggles to get help from public services.

We agreed to disguise their identities to protect them.

Priya’s hands shook as she described the way her husband treated her.

"You just feel like someone is controlling you and you can’t do anything," she said.

"You are just waiting for the next attack."

Priya eventually ran to a police station in the middle of the night. She knew no one and had nowhere to go.

But her local authority failed to find her a space in a refuge for one simple reason. Her immigration status was tied to her husband, meaning there was no guarantee her care would be funded.

It was a similar story for every woman we interviewed.

The British government has made a commitment to end violence against women.

But if their immigration situation is uncertain that promise is less clear cut.  

Figures from an Amnesty report earlier this year show that four out of five migrant women have been turned away from refuges often because they have no recourse to public funds.

Essentially that means the authorities don't have to help them however much danger they’re in.

Sonja, again not her real name, still looks like a teenager.

Despite having to rely on other peoples cast-offs, she’s stylishly dressed, pairing trainers with a floaty skirt beneath her hijab.

Then she begins to share her story and the tears roll down her cheeks.

Speaking through a translator she explained how her much older husband would routinely beat her. It is a sickening account.

"Every time he hit me he would put his hand on my throat and press my throat really hard," she says, her whole body shaking.

"He would make threats - 'I’ll kill you.'"

Safety4Sisters is a small organisation supporting migrant women in the North West of England.

Funded entirely by donations, the requests for help have been so relentless they now face the prospect of having to turn women away.

Sandhya Sharma who runs the charity said: "Women are living in life-threatening conditions and need more support in the pandemic. But in our experience they are being given less support to leave."

The Home Office wouldn’t provide us with a minister to interview.

But in a statement, a spokesperson said: "Anyone who has suffered domestic abuse must be treated as a victim first and foremost, regardless of immigration status.

"That is why the government is working closely with charities to build a solid evidence base on how to deliver tailored support to migrant victims.

"In the meantime, a £1.5 million Support for Migrant Victims Scheme will open for bids shortly."

But for Priya, the promise of help to come rings hollow. She knows as well as anyone that it is needed now.

"Every woman is human. She has the same heart. Whether she’s white, brown, black she has the same feelings," she said.

"So why is the government not taking care of  foreign women?"

The government is backing a landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, designed to strengthen protection and help for survivors.

But as campaigners have long warned, without urgent amendments, it won’t provide some of the most vulnerable migrant women with the support they need.