EU women could find themselves trapped in abusive relationships after Brexit because of difficulties with providing the evidence needed to grant them settled status, according to groups campaigning to stop violence against women.

Lawyers and charities such as Scottish Women’s Aid (SWA) warned that all EU citizens fleeing domestic abuse could struggle to provide proof of residency, particularly those with childcare responsibilities and who had not been working.

Workers supporting women fleeing abuse claimed they could end up in impossible situations, unable to prove their entitlement to benefits, leaving them destitute, but unable to return to their countries of origin because former partners would not allow the child to do so.

Such problems are already faced by various categories of non-EU migrant women who have settled in Scotland.

SWA staff said they knew of cases where local authorities had advised non-EU women to return to the violent partners they were fleeing because they were not eligible for help.

Some women have reported being asked by lawyers if they felt able to stay longer in order to strengthen their immigration status. Others, who have left, have found themselves destitute because they cannot prove that they are eligible for benefits if they had not been working due to caring responsibilities.

Last month Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW), a coalition of more than 30 organisations including Southall Black Sisters and Amnesty International UK, warned that the UK Government’s Immigration Bill – voted through this week – fails to protect victims from perpetrators using immigration status as a “weapon to abuse”.

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Now, despite reassurances from the Home Office that individual circumstances would be considered, leading lawyers said EU women – from western, central and eastern European countries – could find themselves with similar difficulties in proving their right to remain.

Jen Ang, co-founder of legal firm JustRight Scotland, said: “Women who have suffered domestic violence are at heightened risk of failing to secure their rights because of the way in which the Home Office has chosen to operate this scheme.

“The decision by the UK Government to force EU citizens and their family members to apply for status – rather than simply conferring status by right – means that they have also placed women suffering intimate partner violence in a very vulnerable position.”

The settled status scheme requires individuals who have been in the UK for five years to provide their National Insurance Number – if they have one – to be checked against HMRC and DWP records.

However, if women with caring responsibilities have not been in paid employment or in receipt of benefits, Ang pointed out these checks would not yield results.

“The Home Office has indicated that it would accept proof of residence in the form of bank statements, utility bills, tenancy agreements etc – but again, there are many women who might well find that they are unable to provide any of these forms of evidence, having never expected to require to do so,” she added.

One worker from Edinburgh dealing with Polish women who have faced domestic abuse said the lack of clear information – made all the more difficult due to the possibility of a no-deal Brexit – meant women were turning to chatrooms for help in desperation.

“There is a real anxiety around Brexit and what that means,” she added. “A lot of the women I work with have already left a partner and there is a lot of concern about how they are going to get status in the UK if they have not worked because they have been looking after the children.

“They are worried about how to gather evidence that they have been here five years and so have the right to stay. Others are also worried about how it will affect their benefits.”

SHE claimed the fear of having status rejected would be another barrier for women struggling to leave abusive relationships. “I think there will definitely be women who decide to stay longer in abusive relationships or who decide it is difficult to leave,” she said. “It’s frightening.”

“Some of the women would be happy to go back to their countries of origin but their partner wouldn’t let them because of the child.”

She claimed many of the women she worked with found themselves socially isolated due to language barriers and childcare responsibilities. Their isolation was used as a measure of control by abusive partners, she added.

The National: Scottish Women’s Aid's Dr Marsha ScottScottish Women’s Aid's Dr Marsha Scott

Dr Marsha Scott (pictured above), chief executive at Scottish Women’s Aid, said: “I am extremely concerned. We already have a high level of anxiety about women [who have faced abuse] in connection with their immigration status as it is. It is alarming to me that we will now see this affect a greater number of women.”

She claimed that insufficient thought had gone into the experiences of women – who are statistically more likely to be at home caring for children full time – in the planning of the application process. Women are also far more likely to face domestic abuse, from coercive control to violence, than men.

Last year Police Scotland recorded 59,541 incidents of domestic abuse, an increase of 1% compared to the previous year. In four out of every five incidents recorded, the perpetrator was male and the abused female.

“The need for settled status becomes yet another tool of control to make sure that women comply by either staying, if that’s what the man wants, or being unable to leave the country because of their child,” Scott added.

“Women should not have to leap through hoops in order to be safe. The state has obligations to uphold.

“The Home Office should now take a big bold step back and work with women’s organisations, like the four women’s aid federations and Rape Crisis organisations across the UK, and say to us: ‘Will you ask women and children what will make this easier for them?’”

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Magda Czarnecka, project development manager for Feniks, a mental health charity supporting the central and eastern European community in Edinburgh, agreed that the application system did not do enough to protect women.

“The risk exists and is similar as in the case of the women staying here on visas, who need to evidence their residence to receive indefinite leave to remain,” she said.

SHE claimed that EU women should still be granted pre-settled status but said that was not enough.

“It is not fair as they might have been in the UK a lot longer than five years,” she added. “What is important here is that they will not be able to assert their rights on their own. The procedure is too complicated and they will often require advanced immigration advice.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “EU citizens need real and substantial reassurances about their rights and position in this country and this Government will do all it can to support EU citizens through this difficult time. We recently announced funding to Citizens Advice Scotland to provide an advice and support service for EU citizens across Scotland.

“Any scheme must be fully sensitive to the needs and circumstances of domestic abuse victims and survivors. We are taking steps to tackle domestic abuse and we have strengthened the law around this area.”

A Home Office spokesman claimed it had established “a user group of external stakeholders” to represent the needs of vulnerable individuals and was investing £9 million of funding in voluntary support agencies who could help people apply.

It will start a “wide-ranging marketing campaign” to encourage EU citizens to apply as soon as the scheme is fully open next month. Currently it is in its pilot phase.

“We are committed to ensuring that vulnerable individuals are supported to obtain status as part of the EU Settlement Scheme,” he said.

“We will be looking to grant status rather than refuse. A wide range of documentation may be submitted, reflecting the variety of people’s individual circumstances, and we will work with applicants without official documentation to establish their eligibility under the scheme from the material they have.”

Other ways in which EU citizens can be vulnerable

  • Digitally excluded populations, who don’t have computer skills or access to IT needed to make the online applications l People who have been in exploitative working situations and paid cash in hand
  • People who have experienced periods of street homelessness or who cannot prove that they have had a fixed address l People who don’t have documents such as a passport or ID card
  • People with limited English language skills or who are illiterate l People who fear the Home Office and fail to apply
  • Family members of EU citizens where there has been family breakdown – for example, looked after children in care, or families where children and parents are estranged
  • Family members who have been financially dependent on others, for example, due to poor health