UK IMMIGRATION Minister Caroline Nokes has said that vulnerable EU migrant women living in Scotland and fleeing domestic abuse should just return to their own countries, it has emerged.

Nokes made the statement in a letter to Kirsty Blackman MP, who is campaigning for a change in law to stop EU women who are judged not to be exercising their treaty rights – because they are not working, studying or able to support themselves – having to choose between staying in a dangerous, abusive relationship or facing destitution.

Blackman said that she was shocked by Nokes letter and branded the Home Office “heartless” and “wilfully ignorant”.

The SNP Aberdeen North MP, who launched a 10-minute bill on the issue last month, shared correspondence with the Sunday National in which Nokes claims “temporary migrants” fleeing domestic violence should return to their home countries.

Where they are prevented from leaving with their children, she concedes they may have reason to stay but should “turn to the courts” or look to local authorities to support them, the minister said.

READ MORE: EU chief slams Tory settled status policy after academic speaks out

Campaigners have warned that many migrant women are being left to select from a range of “horrendous options” including remaining in a relationship where they may be murdered, losing custody of their children, or being criminalised for fleeing with them.

Blackman said she was in touch with an increasing number of EU constituents denied public funds, leaving them facing potentially life-threatening situations. Though a legal concession was recently introduced for those on spousal visas, allowing them support for three months while they apply for ongoing support or leave to remain, this is not available for EU women.

Blackman wrote to Secretary of State Sajid Javid last November highlighting the issue. “Many women in a domestically abusive relationship are not afforded the opportunity to work prior to or following the birth of any children and therefore do not qualify for settled status,” she wrote.

“This leaves them unable to claim any benefits and many are left destitute following the breakdown of the relationship.

“This also forces many to return to their abusive partners in an effort to avoid financial hardship.”

One constituent, she explained in the letter, had not only been refused benefits but had been prevented from leaving Scotland due to a court order from the father of her children.

The National: SNP MP Kirsty Blackman slammed the Tory Immigration Minister's commentsSNP MP Kirsty Blackman slammed the Tory Immigration Minister's comments

HOWEVER, to the MP’s horror, Conservative minister Nokes simply wrote back to confirm that temporary economic migrants do not have a right to reside in the UK “outside of their relation to a sponsor” and should return if that relationship broke down “regardless of the reason why”.

Though admitting she was “troubled” by Blackman’s concerns about destitute EU constituents she insisted the UK Government had ensured statutory duties were in place to protect them.

Blackman told the Sunday National that she had initially supposed the lack of protection was “an accidental oversight the Home Office could easily correct”. She added: “It turns out the situation is far more sinister than that. The Home Office is heartless and it is wilfully ignorant.

“The reality is that we’re seeing increasing numbers of people with no recourse to public funds. Many of them are extremely vulnerable, have dependents, and simply cannot return to their country of birth.”

She said the biggest rise in Aberdeen in those with no recourse living was among EU nationals.

“I have absolutely no faith in the Home Office,” Blackman added. “They do not treat migrants as human beings. Brexit will mean they have more power over a wider range of people and I’m terrified about what this will mean. I already spend far too much time sitting round the table in my office with families or individuals who have tried hard to jump through every impossible hoop and are still being driven into destitution or threatened with deportation.

“I want to live in a country that encourages people to come to live and work here, and makes people feel welcome when they do. It’s really hard to do that when we have to fight the UK Government’s discriminatory policies at every turn.”

Step Up Migrant Women (SUMW), a coalition of more than 30 organisations including Southall Black Sisters and Amnesty International UK, has already warned the UK Government’s Immigration Bill allows for immigration status to be used as a “weapon to abuse”.

It claims the rules are part of a continued effort by the Conservative Government – which infamously introduced “Go Home vans” in 2013 – to implement a “hostile environment” for migrants.

Marsha Scott, Scottish Women’s Aid chief executive, described the situation for migrants living in Scotland and the rest of the UK who attempted to flee domestic abuse as “grim”.

She said “Just imagine what it is like if you’re a woman with children experiencing domestic abuse who then is faced with being bullied by a callous immigration authority that just wants her out of the country and doesn’t care in the least that denying her support to remain means she may be murdered.”

“With no support she must choose from an array of horrendous options – returning to horrific abuse, losing her children to a partner or ex-partner with secure immigration status who abuses them, kidnapping her children and fleeing, being criminalised by a system that says domestic abuse is no excuse but then delivers her up to abuse at the first opportunity.”

Brexit – with its need for women to apply for settled status – would only intensify the risks, she added.

AN estimated 53,000 female EU migrants are victims of domestic abuse across the UK, while about 139,000 are not working due to caring commitments, according to the Migration Observatory. Research shows that EU migrant women are more likely to be employed in sectors where work is informal and poor practices may mean there is little paper trail – which is required when applying for settled status.

The issue of EU women trapped in abusive relationships was highlighted by the Sunday National in February, with concerns raised about how women could be denied settled status when fleeing an abusive partner if they lacked the right documentation.

READ MORE: Why Brexit could trap women in abusive relationships

Next weekend a motion will be raised at the SNP conference calling for the Home Office to work with women’s organisations to look at how the settled status application scheme can be made easier for women, particularly those in abusive relationships.

The National: Rights lawyer Jen Ang has welcomed Kirsty Blackman's bill. Photograph: Just Right ScotlandRights lawyer Jen Ang has welcomed Kirsty Blackman's bill. Photograph: Just Right Scotland

Jen Ang, founding director and partner of legal firm Just Right Scotland, said that both Blackman’s 10-minute bill and the SNP motion were welcome developments.

“They draw wider attention to an issue where there are gaps in our ability to protect women, and where there is an opportunity to improve our practice under the EU settlement scheme,” she added.

"We are already aware that intimate partner violence is underreported and there are significant barriers for women in seeking advice and support to safely leave those relationships.  The additional risks for women who are not British or settled - whether they are from an EU country, or elsewhere - is that they also need to consider whether leaving the abusive relationship will directly affect their legal right to stay in the UK. 

"If a woman fears that leaving an abusive relationship means that she will also immediately lose access to all her current means of support, and become homeless and destitute, or even that she will be forced to leave the country, this could stop her from leaving."

She claimed the existence of that scheme meant that the Home Office or local authorities “should think very carefully about suggesting that an EU citizen ‘can just go home’ if that citizen has a right to apply to stay that has not been exercised”.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The Government is committed to ensuring all victims of crime are treated first and foremost as victims, regardless of their immigration status.

“We have committed £500,000 to help organisations combatting domestic abuse strengthen their expertise about immigration rights and improve understanding of the number of migrant women needing crisis support.

“Immigration Enforcement is engaged with the National Police Chiefs Council lead on domestic abuse to ensure that police and immigration work collaboratively to quickly recognise victims and work to ensure immigration status is not used by perpetrators to control vulnerable migrants.”