Written evidence submitted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (COR0092)


  1. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has been given powers by Parliament to advise Government on the equality and human rights implications of laws and proposed laws, and to publish information or provide advice, including to Parliament, on any matter related to equality, diversity and human rights.


  1. We recognise and support the primary role of Government in the current context to keep people safe and protect the future of the nation. We appreciate that this involves difficult decisions, far beyond the scope of everyday governing. We consider the Government’s response will be most effective when public safety is balanced with our long-held values of freedom and respect.
  2. We welcome the opportunity to respond to this inquiry, and in our submission we highlight the particular impact of Coronavirus on people experiencing domestic abuse and those who are subject to immigration detention. To protect the rights and health of these individuals we recommend the Government:

Support for victims of victims of domestic abuse

Prevalence of domestic abuse

  1. There is clear evidence that sexual violence and domestic abuse increase during epidemics and other times of crisis.[1] These are gender-based crimes that disproportionately affect women, and we know that ethnic minority and disabled women in particular are disproportionately affected.[2] There is already evidence that domestic abuse is increasing in the UK, with significantly increased calls to helplines[3] and reports that domestic homicides have more than doubled since social distancing restrictions were implemented.[4] The increased risk to women at this time is therefore a predictable major ‘secondary’ impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  2. Domestic abuse is an abuse of human rights. Both domestic and international equality and human rights law impose positive obligations on the UK Government to prevent and protect women from domestic abuse. These obligations are heightened where there is a predictable increased risk. Under the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which is binding in international law, the UK Government has committed to take all appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, including gender-based violence.[5] The CEDAW Committee’s general recommendation 35 emphasises that gender-based violence in the form of domestic violence constitutes discrimination against women, and may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.[6] The Government has a due diligence obligation to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish such acts.[7]
  3. The key rights engaged by domestic abuse under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), given domestic effect by the Human Rights Act 1998, are: the right to life (article 2), the prohibition on torture (article 3), the right to respect for private and family life (article 8) and the right to non-discrimination (article 14). The ECHR imposes positive obligations on the Government to protect individuals against abuse or harm caused by other individuals, including a duty to put in place necessary law enforcement.[8] Specifically with respect to domestic abuse, the European Court of Human Rights has made clear that a state’s “failure to protect women against domestic violence breaches their right to equal protection of the law and that this failure does not need to be intentional.”[9]

Funding for support services

  1. The Government has a duty under international law to provide appropriate protective and support services to all women who are victims of or at risk of violence - including provision of refuges, specially trained health workers, rehabilitation and counselling.[10] In its policies on gender-based violence the Government is expected to place “particular emphasis on the groups of women who are most marginalized and who may suffer from various forms of intersectional discrimination.”[11]
  2. We have expressed concerns about a serious lack of funding and shortage of services for domestic abuse survivors, prior to the pandemic and in the context of the Domestic Abuse Bill.[12] As of January 2020, the number of refuge beds was reported to be 30 per cent below the number recommended by the Council of Europe.[13] Funding cuts over recent years have reportedly had a disproportionate impact on organisations run by and for disabled and ethnic minority women,[14] despite evidence that these women are more likely to suffer sexual violence and domestic abuse.[15] A particularly stark figure is that less than 2 per cent of refuge vacancies in 2018-19 were in rooms fully wheelchair-accessible, and only a further 1 per cent were suitable for someone with limited mobility.[16]
  3. Sufficient crisis funding must be urgently provided to charities and organisations providing refuge and/or support services for survivors, including advice and advocacy. We welcome the Government’s commitment to provide £750 million for charities overall, as well as £2 million specifically for domestic abuse helplines and online support services. However, it is not yet clear what proportion of the £750 million will be allocated to domestic abuse charities, or how funds will be distributed.
  4.           We consider that the funding provided should be unrestricted crisis funding to cover the additional costs to domestic abuse charities resulting from Covid-19, including staff shortages and moving to remote service provision. In particular, it must include clear ring-fenced funding for smaller organisations led by and for groups sharing protected characteristics, including ethnic minority, disabled and LGBT women, to ensure continued provision of vital support to these groups. Consideration should be given to ensuring sufficient accessible safe accommodation and support for disabled and deaf survivors.[17]  In addition to immediate crisis funding, further funding will be required to respond to increased demand, including the likely spike in the numbers of survivors seeking help (and consequent pressure on services) in the coming months when social distancing restrictions are eased.

Migrant survivors

  1.           The Government must ensure migrant survivors can access equal protection and support during the pandemic, including refuge accommodation. The Istanbul Convention requires that victims of gender-based violence are protected without discrimination on any ground, including migrant or refugee status.[18] The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) further requires the Government in its policies to place particular emphasis on those who are most marginalized, including women who are migrants, refugees, seeking asylum or stateless.[19]
  2.           Migrant survivors are often at heightened risk of abuse and face additional barriers accessing support. The barriers are especially acute for those with insecure immigration status and no recourse to public funds (NRPF).[20] For example, Women’s Aid identified that on average only one refuge space per region in England is available for a woman with NRPF.[21] This can leave them facing a choice between destitution or staying with the perpetrator. The domestic violence rule (DV rule) – an application under the Immigration Rules - provides a way out for survivors of domestic abuse on a spousal visa, allowing them to regularise their status by applying for indefinite leave to remain. However, it is not currently available to other survivors subject to immigration control and the NRPF rule. The destitute domestic violence concession (DDVC) permits survivors applying under the DV rule three months’ temporary access to public funds, as well as allowing them to enter into employment. However, the three-month time limit has been found to be a major barrier to women in obtaining accommodation, accessing support and securing legal advice and representation.[22] Further, as with the DV rule, the DDVC is limited to those on spousal visas.
  3.           We recommend that barriers to protection and support faced by survivors with insecure immigration status are reduced by extending eligibility to apply under the DV rule to all survivors of domestic abuse with insecure immigration status. We recommend an extension of the timeframe for the DDVC from three to six months, and that it should, like the DV Rule, also be extended to all migrant survivors of domestic abuse with insecure immigration status.
  4.           The Government must also prohibit survivors’ personal data being shared with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration enforcement when they access support or report a crime. The fear of information-sharing has a deterrent effect on survivors reporting abuse and seeking support.[23] The Home Affairs Select Committee expressed its concern about this issue in 2018, stating, “We were particularly concerned to hear evidence that many police forces share details of victims with the Home Office for the purposes of immigration control” and recommending that “Insecure immigration status must not bar victims of abuse from protection and access to justice.”[24] The CEDAW Committee has also recently expressed its concern about this issue and called on the Government to take action.[25] We discuss broader issues about data-sharing and the impact on access to healthcare during the pandemic in paragraph 31 of our submission.

Policing and progress through the criminal justice system

  1.           The Government must ensure that police retain capacity to respond to all forms of violence against women and girls, and that local police leaders communicate clearly to the public that responding to these crimes remains a priority. Prior to the pandemic, there were already significant concerns about the low rate of prosecution of rape and sexual offences, and this issue is currently the subject of a Home Office review. The significant delays to the progress of these offences through the criminal justice system, often taking years to be charged,[26] is one reason for the high levels of victim withdrawal.[27] With all new jury trials currently suspended, these delays look set to increase and long-term attention should be given to how to reduce delays once normal service resumes.
  2.           Crimes of violence against women and girls, including domestic abuse, must continue to be addressed by police as a high priority. Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables should give public assurances of this at a local level. If and when remote jury trials take place, careful consideration should be given as to how to ensure fair proceedings, in consultation with survivor groups and experts on the effects of trauma on survivors.

Public messaging

  1.           We welcome the Government’s new domestic abuse awareness campaign. We recommend it is communicated in a variety of languages and formats, including British sign language and easy read, to ensure it is accessible to all those sharing protected characteristics.[28] Consideration should also be given to creating more opportunities for women to disclose abuse and seek support. The Victims’ Commissioner has said that she would like to see further practical measures to allow victims to safely and discreetly make others aware of their situation, at locations that remain accessible while social distancing restrictions are in place, such as supermarkets and pharmacies.[29]

Our recommendations

  1.           To ensure any increased risk of domestic abuse during the pandemic is prevented as far as possible, and that survivors can access the support they need, we recommend the Government:

Immigration detention

Conditions in detention

  1.           The UK Government has positive obligations in domestic law to protect the rights of people in immigration detention, including the right to life; freedom from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment; and the right to a private life, which includes the right to physical and psychological integrity. These rights are protected under articles 2, 3 and 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, given domestic effect by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government also has a duty under international law to respect the right to health in detention, as recognised by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The right to health is defined under article 12 of the Covenant as “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”
  2.           Covid-19 poses particular risks to the health and wellbeing of people in places of detention. At the time of writing, the Ministry of Justice has confirmed 207 cases in prisons and 13 deaths believed to be related to Covid-19.[30] Expert medical evidence provided to the courts has indicated that, if an outbreak occurs in an immigration removal centre, a scenario where 60 per cent of detainees are infected is “plausible and credible”.[31] The report identified a number of features present in immigration removal centres that are likely to accelerate the spread of the virus, specifically poor ventilation, challenging sanitation, limited space and lengthy periods of confinement.[32] In this context we welcome the Government’s guidance to manage the risk of coronavirus in immigration removal centres and other places of detention. We urge the Home Office to keep this under review and issue new guidelines and further protective measures wherever necessary.[33]
  3.           While we recognise the need to temporarily suspend inspections during the pandemic to protect the health of detainees and staff, we underline the need for continued independent scrutiny during a period of heightened risk. We therefore welcome the commitment by HM Inspectorate of Prisons to develop a new inspection model to meet its duty to report publicly on conditions and treatment in immigration removal centres and other places of detention.[34]

Health of detainees

  1.           Stephen Shaw’s independent review in 2018 reported that many groups in detention are likely to have more extensive physical health problems than the general population.[35] An NHS health needs assessment in 2015 found that immigration detainees have a higher prevalence of certain forms of disease and chronic health problems, including diabetes and tuberculosis.[36] Diabetes and lung conditions have been identified by the NHS as factors that increase the risk from coronavirus.[37]
  2.           The Home Office adults at risk policy states there is a presumption against the detention of people who are particularly vulnerable to harm, including those with physical health conditions or illnesses, people aged 70 or over and pregnant women.[38] There are, however, significant concerns about the extent to which vulnerability is identified and assessed. Stephen Shaw’s follow-up report in 2018 found the adults at risk policy had not yet made a significant difference to the number of vulnerable people detained.[39] Evidence submitted to the review argued the adults at risk policy had in fact weakened safeguards, and that immigration factors were allowed to outweigh vulnerability and risk.[40] Some healthcare staff reported concerns that Home Office caseworkers challenged or ignored medical views on fitness for detention.[41] Shaw expressed particular concern about the continued detention of individuals aged 70 or over.[42] The Home Office has also rejected the recommendation from the previous report that there should be an absolute exclusion on the detention of pregnant women.[43] These issues raise concern that people at heightened risk from coronavirus may continue to be detained.

Access to healthcare

  1.           The UK Government has a duty to respect detainees’ right to health as recognised by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which is binding in international law. Detainees are entitled to the same range and quality of healthcare as is available to the general population in the community.[44]
  2.           The availability of healthcare services varies across the immigration detention estate. The charity Medical Justice has expressed significant concerns about the quality of healthcare provided in immigration removal centres and the failure to meet equivalence with care available in the community.[45] The British Medical Association has reported that staffing shortages impact on the availability of health services in detention.[46] Stephen Shaw’s 2018 report raised serious concerns about the delivery of care in sometimes insanitary and unsuitable conditions, noting “[in] some quarters, there appears to be poor awareness of basic hygiene and cleaning regimes.”[47]
  3.           The need for mental healthcare for detainees may increase as a result of the pandemic and resultant anxiety and uncertainty, exacerbated by the suspension of visits from NGOs and other support services. The adequacy and availability of mental healthcare in immigration detention has been raised repeatedly as an area of significant concern.[48]


Limiting the use of detention

  1.           The power to detain for the purposes of immigration enforcement may only be used where the Secretary of State intends to deport the person, and only for a period that is reasonable in all the circumstances. Detention should end if it becomes apparent that the person cannot be deported.[49] The Home Office has made policy commitments to use detention “for the shortest period necessary”, to “keep the use of immigration detention to a minimum” and to use alternatives to detention wherever possible.[50]
  2.           Global travel restrictions as a result of Covid-19 have inevitably limited the Home Office’s ability to arrange removals. This raises questions about whether removal of detainees can be effected within a reasonable period, as required by law. We welcome the Home Office’s decision to release a significant number of detainees and to urgently review the cases of those who remain in detention, following legal challenge by Detention Action.[51] The challenge was brought in response to reported concerns from detainees including the risks for people with serious underlying health conditions, lack of tailored screening on arrival, unsanitary conditions, limited access to healthcare and lack of information.[52] We urge the Government to continue to release people from immigration detention and halt new detentions wherever possible.
  3.           For those who remain in immigration removal centres there is likely to be increased uncertainty about how long they will be held. Prior to the current pandemic we have raised ongoing concerns about the use of long-term detention and the lack of a statutory time limit.[53] The indefinite nature of detention, and consequent uncertainty it creates, has serious impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of those who are held. For individuals at heightened risk of harm in detention, including those sharing protected characteristics, the absence of a time limit may contribute to violations of the prohibition on torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under article 3 ECHR.[54]

Issues on release from detention and in the community

  1.           While we welcome the release of detainees, we are concerned that some individuals will be released without suitable accommodation or other support in place, and may face homelessness and destitution. We urge the Home Office to ensure the necessary support is available on release from detention, including safe and appropriate accommodation.
  2.           We are concerned that the fear of immigration enforcement will have a deterrent effect on migrants accessing healthcare, posing risks to those individuals and to wider public health. Our research in 2018 showed that fears about data-sharing between the NHS and the Home Office had prevented people from accessing treatment for communicable diseases and other healthcare services, including migrants who were lawfully resident in the UK.[55] Prior to the pandemic, Public Health England stated that data sharing by the NHS for immigration enforcement purposes “could present a serious risk to public health”.[56] A coalition of human rights organisations has called on the Government to immediately suspend data-sharing between the NHS and immigration enforcement, so that migrants can access healthcare without fear that they will be subject to immigration controls.[57] These organisations have also called for a public information campaign to reassure people that it is safe for them to access care, and for the removal of other barriers such as NHS charging.[58]
  3.           There are emerging concerns that coronavirus and the measure taken in response may impact particularly harshly on people from ethnic minority communities.  The recent independent Windrush lessons learned review exposed the need for public officials to have a proper understanding of the likely impact of immigration policies and practices on the people affected by them, and this is particularly important at the current time when reliance on essential public services such as health, social care and welfare support is heightened.[59]  It is therefore essential that the Home Office pays particular attention to ensuring its response to the pandemic enables and supports people to access the services they need.  In addition, while resources are necessarily being focused on the current health emergency, it is important that the changes needed to respond to the concerns raised in the Windrush report continue to be acted upon.

Our recommendations

  1.           To ensure that the human rights and health of migrant groups are protected during the Covid-19 pandemic, we recommend that the Government:

Further information

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is a statutory body established under the Equality Act 2006. Find out more about the Commission’s work on our website.

April 2020


[1] See eg Seema Yasmin, The Ebola rape epidemic no one’s talking about, Foreign Policy, 2 February 2016. Violence against women and girls increases during different kinds of crisis, for example there were increases in domestic abuse after the Canterbury earthquake in New Zealand and Hurricane Katrina in the US, see Debra Parkinson, The hidden disaster: domestic violence in the aftermath of natural disaster, Australian Journal of Emergency Management 28(2): 28-35, January 2013.

[2] See Crime Survey of England and Wales 2019.

[3] For example, Refuge reported a 700 per cent increase in calls to its helpline in a single day, see Guardian, Revealed: surge in domestic violence during Covid-19 crisis, 12 April 2020. See also BBC, Coronavirus: Domestic abuse calls up 25% since lockdown, charity says, 6 April 2020.

[4] Guardian, Domestic abuse killings ‘more than double’ amid Covid-19 lockdown, 15 April 2019.

[5] Gender-based violence is defined as violence that disproportionately affects women or which is directed against women because they are women, see UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation no. 19 on violence against women, para 6.

[6] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation no.35 on violence against women.

[7] Ibid. See also General recommendation no. 28 on the core obligations of state parties under article 2 of the Convention, para 19.

[8] Under article 2 ECHR the Government has positive obligations, in appropriate circumstances, to take preventative measures to protect an individual whose life is at risk from the criminal acts of another individual. There is an equivalent positive obligation to take preventative measures to protect an individual from inhuman and degrading treatment under article 3. Further, under article 8 the Government has a duty to protect the physical and psychological integrity of an individual against harm that might be caused by other individuals.

[9] Opuz v Turkey (2009), Application no. 33401/02, para 186- 191.

[10] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation no. 19 on violence against women, para 24 and General recommendation no.35 on violence against women, updating general recommendation No 19, para 40.

[11] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation no. 28 on the core obligations of state parties under article 2 of the Convention, para 26.

[12] EHRC, Briefing: Domestic Abuse Bill, House of Commons, Second Reading, October 2019.

[13] Women’s Aid, Funding crisis for domestic abuse sector with 64% of refuge referrals declined, 28 January 2020.

[14] See eg All-Party Parliamentary Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence, The changing landscape of domestic and sexual violence services, 2015; and Imkaan, From survival to sustainability, 2019.

[15] For example, it is estimated that 20 per cent of women from mixed ethnic backgrounds and more than 10 per cent of Black or Black British women experience domestic abuse, compared with around 7 per cent of white women. 13.8 per cent of disabled women are estimated to experience domestic abuse, compared with 6.4 per cent of non-disabled women. See Office for National Statistics, Domestic abuse victim characteristics, England and Wales: year ending March 2019.

[16] Women’s Aid, The domestic abuse report 2020, 2020.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women (Istanbul Convention), article 4, paragraph 3.

[19] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General recommendation no. 28 on the core obligations of state parties under article 2 of the Convention, para 26.

[20] End Violence Against Women (2018), Women living in a hostile environment - Increasing justice and protection for migrant women in the Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Southall Black Sisters, The Domestic Abuse Bill: a briefing paper by Southall Black Sisters, 2019.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Home Affairs Committee, Domestic Abuse, Ninth Report of Session 2017–19, October 2018, paras 102-103.

[25] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2019), Concluding observations, para 29.

[26] The Telegraph, Rape victims waiting almost three years to see suspects charged, 1 February 2020.

[27] Claire Waxman, Independent Victims’ Commissioner for London, The London Rape Review: Reflections and recommendations (2019); HMCPSI, 2019 Rape Inspection, December 2019, p16.

[28] Home Office, News story: Home Secretary announces support for domestic abuse victims, 11 April 2020.

[29] Victims’ Commissioner, News story: Government’s domestic abuse measures welcome but must be just the start, 11 April 2020.

[30] BBC, Coronavirus: HMP Wymott prisoners transferred due to outbreak, 14 April 2020.

[31] Professor Richard Coker, Report on coronavirus and immigration detention, March 2020. The report was prepared in relation to Detention Action’s legal challenge to continued detentions during the pandemic.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Public Health England and Ministry of Justice, COVID-19: prisons and other prescribed places of detention guidance, 26 March 2020.

[34] HM Inspectorate of Prisons, COVID-19 update, 8 April.

[35] Stephen Shaw, Review into the welfare in detention of vulnerable persons, 2016.

[36] NHS, Health and wellbeing health needs assessment programme: immigration removal centres and residential short term holding facilities, national summary report, 2015.

[37] NHS, Advice for people at higher risk from coronavirus (COVID-19).

[38] Home Office, Adults at risk in immigration detention, March 2019.

[39] Stephen Shaw, Welfare in detention of vulnerable persons review: progress report, 2018.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid, para 3.42.

[42] Ibid, para 2.131.

[43] Ibid, p145.

[44] See year National Partnership Agreement between NHS England, Home Office Immigration Enforcement and Public Health England (2018-21).

[45] Medical Justice, Written evidence to the Home Affairs Committee on immigration detention, 2018.

[46] British Medical Association, Locked up, locked out: health and human rights in immigration detention, 2017.

[47] Stephen Shaw, Welfare in detention of vulnerable persons review: progress report, 2018.

[48] Ibid, para 3.153.

[49] The use of immigration detention is governed by the Hardial Singh principles, see R (Hardial Singh) v Governor of Durham Prisoner [1983] EWHC 1 (QB).

[50] See Immigration enforcement guidance, Offender management: detention and temporary release; and Letter from the Minister of State for Immigration to the Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, 23 July 2019.

[51] See Detention Action, Press release: over 350 released from immigration detention and all cases to be urgently reviewed, 26 March 2020.

[52] Detention Action, Press release: legal challenge launched over Covid-19 crisis, 19 March 2020.

[53] Equality and Human Rights Commission, Civil and political rights in Great Britain: submission to the UN, 2020.

[54] Those at heightened risk of harm include women who have experienced sexual or gender-based violence and disabled people with mental health conditions or cognitive impairments.

[55] Equality and Human Rights Commission (2018), The lived experiences of access to healthcare for people seeking and refused asylum.

[56] Correspondence between the Chair of the Health Select Committee and the Minister for Public Health, the Chair of NHS Digital, the Chief Executive of Public Health England, the Chief Executive of the General Medical Council and the National Data Guardian, see p23.

[57] Letter to the Home Secretary on protecting migrants from COVID-19. Signatories include Liberty, Medact, Doctors of the World, Runnymede Trust and Women for Refugee Women.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Home Office (2020), Windrush lessons learned review: independent review by Wendy Williams.