The Denial of Justice for Undocumented Migrant Women in Europe

By Eve Geddie,
PICUM Programme Officer.

“I told him to stop, but he laughed, ‘What will you do, call the police?”

This past year, I have spoken with women across Europe about their experiences of life as an irregular migrant. While their accounts were varied, defined by a combination of experiences in their countries of origin and the current context in which they live and work, the issue of gender-based violence came up again and again.

Some women came to Europe to escape violence in their countries of origin; some were subject to assault during their voyage, and some, targeted after their arrival in Europe precisely because of their migration status. From Stockholm to Lisbon, Dublin to Larnaca, gender-based violence emerges as both a cause and a consequence of their irregular migration status.

Women who migrate for so-called ‘low skilled’ employment, marriage or family reunification often find that control of their immigration status is placed in the hands of an employer or spouse. This means that their status is withdrawn if the relationship breaks down. This dependency factor puts them in an especially disenfranchised position, creating a power imbalance which very often fuels situations of abuse and control.

In the UK, I met with Aurélie. While her slight frame makes her the envy of other mothers at the school gate, her life as the wife of a UK citizen over the past seven years were nothing short of a nightmare.

“The other mothers say things like ‘Oh you’re so slim, you skinny bitch, what do you do, do you exercise?’ and I think to myself, my god, if only you knew my secret! We have such different priorities; for me it’s trying to survive, to feed and clothe my child on the £20 I receive each week, and for them it’s to fit in a nice pair of jeans that will cost £85!”

Aurélie’s dependent migration status played a huge role in the abuse. Without it, she says her husband would not have controlled her so easily. Since her arrival to the UK, her husband refused to let her register with a doctor. This has made it extremely difficult for her to obtain the ‘domestic violence concession’ which the UK offers to holders of spouse dependent visas who experience violence as applicants require two pieces of ‘official evidence’ which can only be granted by medical officials, police or other governmental agencies.

The knowledge some abusers have concerning the specifies of the immigration system is striking. Aurélie’s husband was well aware that as she had arrived on a spouse-dependent visa, she had ‘no recourse to public funds’ and thus, no entitlement to access women’s shelters or obtain economic assistance.

“When I did the first application (for independent status) it took him two months to sign the form and he signed it in blue which the Home Office sent back because it had to be signed in black. And then I had to try to get him to sign it again within two weeks time! He knew what he was doing. He closed everything around me. He thought I would never be able to leave him, because he knew that once I leave him, there’s nothing I can do because I don’t have papers, I don’t have a passport, I don’t have nothing.”

But when her husband hit their five year old daughter, the school alerted the authorities who promptly intervened. Initially Aurélie was terrified, and while she now has a barring order against her husband, the fear of violence has given way to the harsh demands of life as an irregular migrant. Like so many other undocumented mothers I spoke to, she is not entitled to any support, so must survive on the basic children’s allowance they receive each month. Frustratingly, the only solution offered to her by the authorities is to return to her country of origin.

“Why should my daughter give up her right of being a British citizen and having the same opportunities as other children, to move to a country where she’s never been in her life? The UK Border Agency will help to pay for our travel – but is this so she can have a better life, or just to get rid of us?”

“I didn’t come here to be ‘illegal’. The Home Office knew that I was here with my husband, why did they not pressurize him to legalize me? Now, I’m the one being asked to provide proof. Now I’m asked to pay, lawyers’ fees and application fees, I have to pay once again for having been his wife!”

Few countries in Europe offer a domestic violence concession for migrant women arriving on a spouse-dependent visa, and for those that do, the requirements are often out of reach of the most isolated and abused women.

Many undocumented women living alone shared experiences of sexual harassment at work, on the street or even in their own homes. I heard many accounts of unwelcome advances from employers, coworkers, neighbours, sometimes landlords suggest they ‘pay for the rent with sex’ or police officials promise protection in return for the same. These perpetrators target undocumented women safe in the knowledge that they are silenced and unprotected. An irregular status impacts upon experiences of gender-based violence in two main ways:

Firstly, the inability of undocumented women to hold perpetrators accountable leads to perception of them as a “zero risk” victim.

Numerous structural barriers prevent undocumented migrant women from reporting violence to the police or pursue legal remedies. They are at significant risk of arrest and deportation if they contact the police as their irregular status frequently supersedes their need for protection. Free legal assistance often is denied to them and they are prevented from being party to criminal proceedings as they are generally deported to their home countries before legal action has got under way. By removing undocumented women’s access to justice and punishing those who report violence, we have effectively made them a “zero risk” victim whom perpetrators can coerce to engage in degrading or exploitative acts, or threaten to denounce if they seek assistance.

Secondly, the difficulties undocumented women face to access domestic violence shelters, obtain health care or receive financial assistance significantly compounds their experience of gender-based violence.

In our research, the Scandinavian countries emerged as the most restrictive in terms of access to shelters and other support services for undocumented women. Sanctioning the removal of support, protection and justice for survivors on grounds of their status, actively fosters a culture of impunity and sends a clear message to perpetrators that undocumented migrant women warrant neither humane nor impartial treatment. This situation is incoherent with human rights principles and risks undercutting positive initiatives that combat discrimination and gender-inequality.

Changing this situation will require the support of the violence against women’s movement. It is vital that they immediately resist the policing, detection and forced destitution of irregular migrants through emergency shelters and support services. If discriminatory practices exist at the level of EU, national or private funding, it is important to speak-out, so this can be rectified. Ultimately, those failing to support migrant women on grounds of their administrative status are compliant in the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of this group by perpetrators who take advantage of their limited options.

PICUM will hold an International Conference in Brussels, Belgium on 12-13 December 2011 to launch the findings of its research on Undocumented Migrant Women in Europe. Promoting cooperation and exchange of a wide variety of civil society and state actors, this event seeks to foster real change for undocumented women across the EU. More information available at

This blog entry was posted also on the website of Flyktingbloggen (Refugee Blog) on 27 August 2011.

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