‘… Unfortunately, the only option at present seems to be for you to start looking for work …’
This one sentence sums up a lengthy legal advice given to Maria* last month, a victim of domestic violence that came looking for advice at the AIRE Centre. Unfortunately, even though Maria had been in the UK for 4 years there was no easy way for her to obtain the benefits she needed following fleeing home because of domestic violence.
Maria is an EEA national, who came to the UK in 2013 and worked intermittently for a year until she went on maternity leave in 2014. Article 48 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, provides for EEA nationals exercising free movement rights access to social security. Essentially however, only EEA nationals who can be categorised as either workers, self-employed, family members of EEA nationals, and those who have permanent residence have equal access to social security. An EEA national living in the UK who can be placed in one of those categories mentioned above is also referred to as a ‘qualified person’ defined in regulation 6 of the Immigration (EEA) Regulations 2016.
But what happens to EEA nationals who don’t fall under any of the categories?
Maria was in receipt of joint benefits with her partner for a while after she went on maternity leave. She then scheduled a meeting with the Jobcentre to assess her prospects of finding work and continuing to qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance, but as her second child was due in several weeks, she was told over the phone not to attend the meeting and that she no longer qualified for Jobseekers’ Allowance. Presumably, the Jobcentre had inferred that, as Maria’s baby was so young she would not be in a position to look for work and to take up employment, and therefore they deemed she would not meet that part of the criteria for receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Looking at Maria’s case, it quickly becomes apparent that the conditions for retaining worker status privileges as an EEA national mainly support those who don’t have the responsibilities of childcare or pregnancy. As it is women who typically take on much of the responsibility for childcare, it is safe to assume that there are gender implications regarding EEA nationals’ access to rights in the UK, which become even worse for victims of domestic violence.
Since Maria no longer exercised her treaty rights, in the view of the authorities, she was no longer a ‘qualified person’ but rather a family member of her EEA national spouse. In 2016, Maria became a victim of domestic violence, being forced to flee her home and seek refuge with her two children. A second meeting scheduled with her personal adviser at the Jobcentre was once again cancelled, evidently due to her personal circumstances as a victim of violence now living in a refuge. At the time when she was most vulnerable, Maria was turned away.
While it is true that domestic violence can affect both men and women, ‘research shows that domestic violence is a deeply gendered issue that disproportionately affects women’. It is therefore women who, being disproportionately affected by domestic violence, have to leave their homes and seek refuge. This makes their classification in one of the above mentioned requirements very difficult, meaning that while the advice to ‘start looking for work’ would sound reasonable in other circumstances, it is worthless to a woman whose employment is impacted by domestic violence, fleeing home and childcare.
Women such as Maria, very often suffer from post-traumatic stress and anxiety after leaving an abusive relationship and are extremely worried about their financial and housing situation. Most of the time, they are not only crippled with childcare while being hosted in a refuge, but are also required to still be exercising their treaty rights in order to access basic financial benefits.
Over the years, through the provision of free legal advice and representation to victims of domestic and gender-based violence, the AIRE Centre has become aware of cases of women who, ‘having lived for many months or years in the UK and in some cases having British Citizen children, have faced the choice between returning to an abusive partner or becoming homeless or destitute’. To that end, The AIRE Centre has submitted written evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on Violence against Women and Girls, urging for ‘a more victim-centred approach to be adopted towards all victims of gender-based violence, particularly in ensuring that such women are legally entitled to safe and secure accommodation, suitable to their circumstances, and that such women are in fact provided with all necessary support and assistance in accordance with the Convention’.
While The AIRE Centre mostly deals with the legal aspect of domestic and gender-based violence, it also recognises the importance of the sociopsychological aspect. This is why The AIRE Centre is also a partner in a European project — Project FIRST: Capacity Building for First Points of Contact for Victims of Domestic and Gender-based Violence, aiming to establish a national network of organisations that may find themselves in a position as a first point of contact for victims of domestic violence.
If you feel like taking action against domestic and gender-based violence or want to know more about Project FIRST, please visit our website http://www.firstaction.eu.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
This article first Appeared on the AIRE Centre website here