Making a ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ a Reality for Migrant Victims

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ViewsFebruary 17th, 2022

The Senedd’s vote against the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill raises some important issues, says Heddwen Daniel, project officer at the Bevan Foundation and services development officer at Welsh Women’s Aid

On Tuesday, the Senedd voted against the UK Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill.

The damning critiques of this Bill are extensive and have been expertly analysed and articulated by a vast range of third sector organisations, lawyers, politicians, as well as the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the Victims Commissioner, and international human rights organisations. Jane Hutt, Minister for Social Justice in Wales, added to these critiques on Tuesday by denouncing the Bill as an ‘impending tragedy’. In essence, provisions made within the Bill threaten to violate the UK’s obligations under international human rights and refugee law and will have a disproportionate adverse impact on asylum seekers who are women and victims of human trafficking.

This latest intervention by the Senedd, which aligned with the Welsh Government’s recommendation for the Senedd to deny its consent for the Bill in its current form, has been hailed as a clear demonstration of the Welsh Parliament and Government’s commitment to making Wales a ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ for refugees and asylum seekers.

This, and other actions taken by the Welsh Government, such as the recent introduction of a 2-month pilot where all asylum seekers are entitled to free use of public transport (bus and trains), exemplify Wales’ attempts to diverge from UK asylum policy and governance – despite it being a policy area that is reserved to Westminster.

In other words, despite immigration law being a non-devolved policy area, the Welsh Government is finding ways of successfully influencing the service offer available to asylum seekers and refugees through subsidising relevant services which fall under its devolved powers. Other examples include Welsh Government-subsidised ESOL provision, and (future) plans to make free school meals available to all primary-school children regardless of their or their family’s immigration status.

This strategy of subsidising services for which the Welsh Government has devolved competence (and which are not on the Home Office’s list of ‘public funds for immigration purposes’) should be celebrated and encouraged as a necessary stop-gap until a longer-term systemic change in immigration law is achieved. Indeed, it was only through identifying clauses in the Nationality and Borders Bill which fall under devolved competences* that the Welsh Government was able to table a Legislative Consent Motion (LCM) for the UK Bill. This, in turn, triggered scrutiny of the Bill by Senedd Committees, and the Senedd debate and vote on the Bill which followed. Despite the Senedd’s rejection of the LCM having no ‘teeth’ (the UK Parliament’s vote is the only one that legally counts), tabling the motion gave a valuable opportunity for the Senedd and Welsh Government’s opposition to the Bill to be publicly aired and heard.

Evidently, then, the Welsh Government is taking action to bring the ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ plan closer to reality than aspiration.

However, there is one particular group of people who appear to be forever on the margins of the conversation about ‘Sanctuary’, but for whom achieving sanctuary even in its most basic form – a safe place to live – is still riddled with obstacles, prejudice, denial of support, and re-traumatization. These are migrant individuals and families who are victims of domestic abuse, including so-called ‘honour-based’ abuse, and who have no recourse to public funds.

It would be common sense to assume that, in Wales, any survivor of domestic abuse can access a safe place to stay, such as a refuge. Normally, this is the case: most survivors can expect to be accepted into a refuge should they wish to do so. Survivors with no recourse to public funds, however, cannot rely on the same level of access. The way in which refuges are funded – primarily through re-directing Housing Benefit to cover the rent – means that providers have little means of covering the substantial cost of refuge accommodation when a survivor has no recourse to public funds (i.e. no entitlement to Housing Benefit, nor many other welfare benefits).

The impact of this funding deficiency is that migrant survivors of domestic abuse are systematically denied access to the most basic safety and support. This experience, and the need for the Welsh Government to address the issue, emerged as a strong theme from the 22 grassroots community activists, advocates and leaders whom we supported to respond to the Welsh Government’s recent consultation on the VAWDASV National Strategy.

This clearly undermines the ‘Nation of Sanctuary’ aspiration. Wales cannot be a Nation of Sanctuary if it fails to ensure equal access to basic safety and support for individuals and families experiencing violence and abuse in their own home or community within Wales.

To address this issue, could the Welsh Government build on its existing good work subsidising public services which are within its devolved competence to ensure that all VAWDASV support services can support victims regardless of their immigration status? We believe that it could.

 

*Specifically, the clauses relating to the age-assessment process for asylum-seeking children. Note that the UK Government disputes the Welsh Government’s view that these provisions fall under devolved competences.

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