Legal Loopholes, Inadequate Shelter Access Send Women Back to Abusers
November 8, 2012
The women we interviewed face a terrible choice: endure abuse at the hands of a partner, or report the violence and risk deportation. Belgium needs to make sure that every woman who experiences domestic violence can get the help she needs, regardless of migrant status.
Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director

(Brussels) – The risk of deportation prevents many migrant women who experience domestic violence in Belgium from getting the protection they need, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report was released in advance of Women’s Day in Belgium, November 11, 2012.

The 57-page report, “The Law was Against Me’: Migrant Women’s Access to Protection for Family Violence in Belgium,” found three major protection gaps for migrant women who experience domestic violence in that country. Women who migrate to Belgium to join a husband or partner may face deportation if they report the violence during the period when their status is being confirmed, as do undocumented migrant women. And domestic violence victims, especially undocumented women, lack adequate access to shelters.

“The women we interviewed face a terrible choice: endure abuse at the hands of a partner, or report the violence and risk deportation,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Belgium needs to make sure that every woman who experiences domestic violence can get the help she needs, regardless of migrant status.”

Belgium has passed laws and adopted policies to prevent, investigate, and prosecute domestic violence and protect victims, including a National Action Plan. But it has yet to fully address the gaps for migrant women, Human Rights Watch found. Belgium recently signed, but has yet to ratify, the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which requires countries to ensure protection irrespective of migrant status.

A law designed to permit women who migrate to Belgium to join a husband or partner to remain in the country does not protect women if they leave their abuser while their application for family migration is being processed, if they leave him without first telling the authorities, or if the partner leaves Belgium. Proving violence and meeting income requirements are also impediments, Human Rights Watch found.

Gökce, a Turkish woman with a 12-year-old son, who is also a Turkish national, fled her abusive husband but later felt compelled to return to him until her legal status was secure, her sister-in-law told Human Rights Watch.

Undocumented women are particularly vulnerable. Unauthorized stay in Belgium is a criminal offense and police are required to report anyone who they suspect is in the country illegally to immigration authorities. Women who do come forward have few avenues to obtaining legal status, especially if they do not have children. Ngalla, a 35-year-old undocumented woman from Cameroon, endured seven years of abuse at the hands of her husband, coming forward only when she obtained permanent residence through her Belgian children.

“I felt confident then,” she said, “because of my papers.”

Newly arrived migrant women are less likely to have support networks of family and friends, making them more dependent than other women on shelters to escape an abusive home. But Belgium lacks sufficient shelter spaces, forcing women to return to abusive homes.

Undocumented women face particular obstacles accessing shelters, which generally require women to contribute to the cost. Undocumented women who cannot do so are ineligible for financial support from local authorities available to other victims of domestic violence.

Jarmay, an undocumented woman from Ghana, told Human Rights Watch that she could find nowhere to stay and ended up living on the streets after escaping her “very violent” partner, who threatened to kill her.

The first time that Hayet, a 29-year-old Moroccan woman, fled her violent husband with her two children, who are both Moroccan nationals, shelter staff told her they had no space and suggested she stay with family. But with no family or friends to help her, Hayet and her children returned to live with her husband. They finally found shelter space when they fled a second time, after the violence flared again.

“No one should have to return to a violent home because they have nowhere else to go,” Gerntholtz said. “Women’s shelters should have enough resources so they don’t have to turn away women and children who need help.”

The report contains recommendations to the federal government, regions, and community authorities, including:

  • Ratify and implement the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
  • Reform the 1980 Law on Access to the Territory, Residence, Settlement and Removal of Foreigners so that undocumented migrant women who experience domestic violence may apply for a residence permit on humanitarian grounds and so that deportation is suspended until a decision is made on the application.
  • Reform the 1980 Law so that migrants, whose residency rights depend on their relationship with an abusive sponsor, may apply independently for a residence permit.
  • Make public funds available to ensure access to women’s shelters for victims of violence who need them, irrespective of migrant status.