Since 2010, the government’s austerity measures have drastically reduced funding allocated to local councils, resulting in major cuts to refuges for women fleeing domestic violence. On average, funding has decreased by a third. What’s more, specialist domestic violence refuges led by and for black and minority ethnic (BME) women have been hit the hardest, which severely affects the safety of those survivors with intersecting needs, particularly migrant and refugee women.
This has directly affected our organisation; in 2015 the only refuge led by and for Latin American women in the UK and Europe was suddenly facing closure and we nearly had to close our doors. We remained strong and acted quickly by launching a fierce campaign to save our refuge. With support and solidarity from our community and the wider public LAWA managed to secure emergency funding and, despite many challenges, we kept our doors open to Latin American and other black and minority ethnic women fleeing violence.
Sadly, several equally vital BME refuges did not have the same fate. As a consequence of ever decreasing funding, increasing competition within the sector and councils’ new drive for cheaper rather than good quality services, many smaller specialist BME refuges have been left with no alternative but to close. In fact, in the past years more than 50% of all UK refuges led by and for BME women have vanished. All too often, survivors desperately in need of a lifeline to safety and dignity are now being met with a shut door.
Devastating statistics reveal that whilst 2 in 3 of all women fleeing violence are turned away from refuges, this number rises to 4 in 5 when it comes to BME survivors - of whom many are migrants or refugees. The reality is even more shocking for migrant and refugee survivors with no recourse to public funds, since on average 93% of them are rejected from women’s refuges.
The situation is already dire, but it is likely to become even worse with the government’s plans to change the model of funding for short-term supported housing, the category which refuges currently fall under. The government is proposing to remove women’s refuges from the welfare system and provision for all different forms of short-term accommodation (including hostels and other forms of refuges) will be commissioned by local councils at their entire discretion.
If those plans go ahead, it will leave women’s refuges with no certainty about the future, it will remove our last secure source of funding – housing benefit – which enables us to provide survivors not only with safe accommodation but also individually tailored support to live an independent life free of violence.
The new funding model threatens to dismantle our whole national network of refuges for women fleeing violence, and decades of experience and expertise could disappear, while, survivors would be left with no safety routes. It is estimated that more than half of all women’s refuges would be forced to either close or drastically reduce bed spaces. The whole sector is going to be affected, let alone small BME specialist refuges, who are far less able to compete with larger providers.
Ultimately, women’s safety is at risk. Specialist BME women’s refuges are far more than short-term accommodation. At LAWA we know that from experience. We offer so much more than space for physical safety; our refuge is a transformative space of healing, where women are holistically supported and empowered by their peers. After enduring what is often years of abuse, it is paramount that survivors are supported by other BME women who are not only trained and qualified professionals but whom they can trust will understand - often from first-hand experience - the different, nuanced and intersecting forms of violence we face as BME and as migrant women.
The violence we experience is so often combined with racism and issues arising from migration status. Migrant and refugee survivors not only go through violence in their own home but are also discriminated and prevented from accessing support services or reporting a crime, whilst many are forced to live under the imminent threat of destitution, detention and deportation. Migrant and refugee survivors do not only need a roof; they also need a home. They need to be supported by someone they can identify with, who will believe them and assist them practically and emotionally, guiding them through unfamiliar systems which are ever more intimidating and hostile towards migrant and refugee survivors.
When the safety and dignity of migrant survivors is at risk we must unite and stand in solidarity. The government is currently processing submissions to the most recent consultation regarding its plan for supported housing, but in the meantime, we need to keep speaking out and remain loud and clear in our message. The only acceptable outcome is one where women’s refuges are protected and where survivors’ safety comes first.