by Sofia Ercolessi
In 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began to work as a support worker in refuges supporting women and children who fled domestic abuse. Refuges are a safe emergency accommodation for people who have experienced domestic abuse (DA), where survivors can access practical and emotional support in their struggle to rebuild safe lives, including navigating welfare and housing rules, immigration visas, and the multitude of processes required to access independence after abuse, while at the same time coping with its psychological aftermath.
This article will primarily be informed by my encounter with survivors and my direct observation of some of the systemic injustices at the core of domestic abuse in England. Domestic abuse is a pattern of behavior in which one or more family members repeatedly violate the psychological, physical, sexual, financial and/or social autonomy of an individual, with the aim to assert and maintain power in the relationship. Throughout the article, I will use the word “survivors” (rather than “victims”) to honor the resilience and resistance of people who experience abuse, however with an awareness that narratives of personal agency should never obscure the reality of survivors’ emotional and material needs. Similarly, I will use a gendered language to reflect the gendered statistical reality of abuse, with no intention to erase the existing diversity of experiences of this phenomenon.
A Material World
“Why don’t women just leave a situation of domestic abuse?” is a popular refrain haunting survivors of domestic abuse (DA). Psychological dependency of survivors on perpetrators is often cited as the main reason for difficulties in leaving, and it is indeed undeniable that psychological factors play an important role, especially when considering that predominant gender norms and expectations on authority, independence, and family roles are often inseparable from the dynamics of abuse itself.
However, in addition to psychological barriers, it is critical to consider the impact of material barriers to safety. Due to the controlling nature of DA and the massive prevalence of financial abuse (Refuge, 2020), many survivors may have little to no financial resources, support network and/or job experience when leaving their household, which can lead to a strong reliance on welfare benefits and the public housing system for survival. In addition, survivors may have dependent children to sustain – while also dealing with psychological consequences of the very traumatic experience of abuse. Lack of public childcare, structural racism and sexism in the job market can intersect with these conditions, conjuring to add further hardship.
In light of this overlap between experience of DA and reliance on public welfare, economic justice begins to appear not as a secondary element to psychological factors, but as a critical determinant for the possibilities that survivors have to gain access to safety and personal autonomy. However, this material aspect tends to be oddly (but quite conveniently) overlooked in public debates about social policies and abuse alike – the latter oscillating between proposals on criminalization as the ultimate solution to abuse on the one side, and victim blaming on the other. In this article, I purposefully move away from such simplistic arguments in order to concentrate on the concrete resources that are a precondition for survivors to access tangible safety, and how the current unequal distribution of material resources in the UK influences the “phenomenon” of domestic abuse.
“No Recourse to Public Funds”: Safety Denied due to Immigration Status
I wanted to talk about it and leave, but there was no one that I could talk to about this, who would not also have wanted to know about my immigration status. So, I just kept to myself for ten years as there was nowhere to turn to.
Survivor of domestic abuse
Most welfare benefits and public/emergency housing services (together defined “public funds”) are not accessible to every person present in the British territory. Access to public funds is precluded to many non-British citizens according to the type of visa that they hold, and whether it includes a “No Recourse to public funds” (NRPF) provision. An estimated 1.3 million people have NRPF in the UK, including people holding spouse visa, asylum seeker status, student visa, and tourist visa. People who are undocumented – including due to DA itself – not only cannot access public funds, but also face the risk of deportation if they attempt to seek help and disclose abuse to public services, such as the police or social services. EU/EEA citizens who have resided in the UK for less than 5 years are granted RPF based on their working status – i.e. access to public funds is not granted unless the person is working or has worked for a certain amount of time in the UK. Importantly, the high rent of DA refuges is unaffordable without RPF. As a result, the NRPF policy effectively precludes access to DA refuges to millions, thereby trapping an unknown number of women with NRPF into situations of DA.
It is worth mentioning that survivors on a spouse visa (but not on other visas) can exceptionally apply to lift the NRPF provision and then access Indefinite Leave to Remain, in what is called the “Destitute Domestic Violence Concession” (DDVC). As the name goes, a survivor needs to demonstrate proof of being destitute, as well as proof of domestic violence – which usually implies that the survivor has accessed services and disclosed abuse. It is easy to see how this, in turn, depends on a constellation of factors, such as a survivor knowing about services and being informed by someone about the DDVC, being able to recognize abuse as such, having the possibility to attend appointments without the perpetrators’ knowledge, having a sufficient level of English, and finding a service with a good understanding of cultural differences. Once all these conditions have been met, a destitute survivor then needs to find a Legal Aid immigration solicitor to prepare their application. Legal Aid is the public funding of legal services for people who are unable to afford private fees. Unfortunately, successive British governments have progressively curtailed Legal Aid funding, practically putting solicitors in the position of sacrificing their own fair pay in order to assist vulnerable clients. As a consequence – based on my experience – finding a Legal Aid solicitor in 2022 is comparable to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack of exorbitant private fees on the one side, and few remaining Legal Aid firms at full capacity, on the other. While this context would prove hard to navigate for anyone, it can become exponentially complex, dangerous and draining for a person in a situation of DA.
Since NRPF immigration provisions openly target racialized people from the majority world, they do de facto create a double standard between survivors according to their ethnicity. The right to emotional and physical safety, rather than being universally recognized, thus becomes conditional on survivors’ “race” and class. In the 1950s, political theorist Hannah Arendt warned against the consequences of posing citizenship – or any other bureaucratic label – as a precondition to access human rights: ‘The paradox involved in the loss of human rights is that such loss coincides with the instant when a person becomes a human being in general – without a profession, without a citizenship, without an opinion, without a deed by which to identify and specify himself (sic) – and different in general, representing nothing but his (sic) own absolutely unique individuality’. While Arendt wrote these words in relation to European refugees in the intra-war period, reading them in contrast to UK immigration/welfare policies and DA can help reflecting on the present role of state-sanctioned social taxonomies. By denying access to vital resources to survivors of DA, bureaucratic procedures are reinforcing hierarchies based on gender, origin, skin colour, and class. In doing so, current policies are thus dramatically failing to recognize safety as a human right, with tragic consequences leading to the harming and death of countless adults and children. It is worth stopping for a moment here to re-read this last sentence, in order to reflect on the inevitable relationship between a conditional recognition of rights and a conditional recognition of life, as the first always necessarily leads to the latter – and vice versa. This can perhaps shed some light over the profound implications of the concept of inclusiveness, if we consider how the possibility of an unconditional recognition of the right to life could intervene into current immigration and social policies.
Photograph by author
Welfare Benefits and Public Housing: “Bare Life” and the Struggle for a Roof
I feel so unsafe in this accommodation and I know that I will have to wait years to get permanent housing. I’m thinking that maybe I should go back to my family and that would be easier.
Survivor of domestic abuse
Let’s now turn to the concrete material resources distributed through welfare benefits to those who are granted access to “public funds” and how this distribution impacts survivors of DA. While there is no space here for a detailed analysis of the current welfare benefits system, virtually anyone who has relied on benefits for survival in England could confirm that ‘There has long been a profound mismatch between what those with a low income have, and what they need to get by.’ As soaring inflation cuts spending power and further exacerbates poverty and inequality, benefit amounts do not allow claimants the possibility to thrive and to be healthy, but rather appear to be designed to allow people in conditions of destitution to physically survive by meeting basic corporeal needs such as food, before being able to re-enter the job market.
A simple ponderation of the material resources distributed by the state to the poorest sections of the population therefore reveals an underlying distinction between “lives worth living” and what philosopher Giorgio Agamben has defined as “bare life” (Agamben, 1998), i.e. sections of the population which tend to be placed on the margins of collective political paradigms, by being collectively exiled in the conceptual realm of “surplus life”, rather than being recognised as full members of the social and political community. A result of this fundamental dehumanization and deindividualisation is a collective political expectation for such sectors of the population to display gratefulness for the mere possibility of survival, rather than voicing aspirations or demands. While Agamben developed the concept of “bare life” in relation to the extreme case of the tragic history of the Holocaust of Jewish people, it proves useful here to understand the logic behind a political paradigm that exiles non-productive sectors of the population to the realm of mere physiological survival. It is worth noticing that, beyond the obvious material and social deprivation that comes with such state-sanctioned poverty, its psychological effects can be just as harmful, as DA survivors financially relying on benefits and with little to no support network may have to cope with the devastating doubt that their own life, safety, and healing do not matter enough to the rest of society to deserve adequate recognition. Disabled survivors can be particularly affected by this paradigm, as a physical or psychological exclusion from the possibility of a “productive life” might increase the need to rely on benefits as a main source of income.
Similar considerations can apply to public housing policies. While local Councils in England have a legal duty to provide temporary accommodation to homeless survivors of DA (including those living in refuges), people with NRPF are excluded from that assistance, and therefore exposed to sofa surfing or rough sleeping. On the other side, observing the practical implementation of housing laws reveals the unfortunate reality of a disastrous and inadequate housing system, failing to guarantee a suitable and safe accommodation for survivors of DA – including due to intrusive questions about their experience of abuse, months-long delays for temporary accommodations and years-long waiting for permanent housing, as well as unsafe, unfurnished, damaged, and pest-infested accommodations. In addition, as current legal provisions deny housing support to those deemed “intentionally homeless”, on a practical level this means that survivors barely have any possibility to refuse accommodation that has been deemed “suitable” for them by the Council – including if it is located in an entirely different area of England. Such a disastrous housing situation exposes once again an underlying paradigm which tends to classify people in a situation of homelessness – including those living at the intersection of multiple experiences of oppression – as “unworthy” (or “bare”) life, thereby creating a re-victimization of survivors by adding the confusing and enraging experience of extreme uncertainty and state-sanctioned dehumanization, to the trauma of abuse endured.
It therefore appears clear that the psychological, material, and social impact of the deprivation imposed on survivors by the inadequacy of public funds cannot, unfortunately, be underestimated.
Considering that fleeing domestic abuse is a moment of heightened risk of harm and death for survivors, the structural problems described above – NRPF policies and inadequate benefit and housing resources – can compound into creating colossal barriers for survivors seeking to leave an abusive household. Survivors with a disability can be exponentially affected, including due to potentially having particular care needs and facing additional barriers in accessing services, refuges, and the job market. Agamben has been criticized for being blind to the influence of social structures on the collective categorization of swathes of the population as “bare” life. The case of DA survivors, in overwhelming majority women, can shed light on the differential impact that discriminatory paradigms and policies can have on particular sectors of the population.
What can be done?
Feelings never cause abusive behaviours. Belief systems cause behaviours.
Domestic abuse training
How can such structural issues be addressed? What changes are needed in our collective ways of thinking and acting in order to create the conditions to allow all survivors of DA and their children to enjoy the basic rights to life and autonomy? The issues described in this article are a reminder that human rights are never only “civil rights”, but also necessarily “social rights”, and they therefore cannot be realised without an equal distribution of material resources. Contrary to government narratives, criminalization of abuse thus cannot in itself create the conditions for survivors to access safety – which requires adequate financial support, housing, and services.
These material conditions cannot be achieved without an attention to the reasons of their current absence and a commitment to enact change. In particular, adequately addressing domestic abuse and survivors’ safety would need to begin from:
- A recognition of gender-based abuse as a collective phenomenon determined by patriarchal gender expectations and existing social norms, which therefore implies a collective responsibility to enact practices of social transformation in order to “end” abuse – i.e. to achieve a condition of generalized interpersonal justice.
- A substantial redistribution of public material resources towards public services, including welfare benefits, housing, mental health, and Legal Aid services.
- An effort to expand our collective political horizon towards a reconceptualization of life as an inherent source of value, that should prompt an equal recognition of human rights regardless of gender, ethnicity, ability or social status.
As political theorist Wendy Brown has pointed out, democracy has been progressively “undone” over the last decades on a global level by a neoliberal economic and political reorganization of our mental and material resources, which has globally eroded both our capacity to transcend monetary equations, and the sense of collectivity and interdependency which forms the basis for an inclusive concept of freedom. Current British social welfare policies and DA policies need to be placed in this context, where a focus on the free market and narratives of individual meritocracy have allowed for a stunning growth in economic inequality, and a simultaneous withdrawal of resources from public services. Welfare benefits, public housing, Legal Aid, the public health system, and domestic abuse services, are among the many victims of the chronic public underfunding determined by this paradigm. While the government states that ‘[its DA] plan will drive down the prevalence of domestic abuse and domestic homicide and provide victims and survivors with the support they need’, survivors are forced to bear the brunt of the cognitive dissonance between this official discourse and a reality in which government actions conjure with domestic abuse to curtail their autonomy, safety and self-worth. A true recognition of survivors’ needs will therefore necessarily require a commitment to move away from current paradigms in order to initiate wider conversations which are rooted in survivors’ personal experience of their struggle for safety and freedom from abuse.
Sofia is an LSE Gender graduate with a passion for ending abuse through intersectional feminism.
 See Wilding, Jo (2022) Beyond advice deserts: strategic ignorance and the lack of access to asylum legal advice. Amicus Curiae, 3 (2). pp. 472-489.
 Hannah Arendt 1906-1975, (2017) The origins of totalitarianism , UK: Penguin Books Limited, p.395
 Wendy Brown (2017) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books
 Home Office, Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan, 2022