Undocumented migrants who are victims of domestic violence are excluded from protection schemes. Credit: Picture alliance
Undocumented migrants who are victims of domestic violence are excluded from protection schemes. Credit: Picture alliance

France has made the fight against domestic violence a priority but activists say the state has overlooked undocumented migrant women who are victims of domestic violence. Although laws have been enacted in recent years, they have failed to protect women deprived of gender and residency rights, they argue.

Since he was elected into office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has made the fight against domestic violence, within the broader context of gender equality, one of the main issues of his five-year term. In a speech on November 25, 2017, marking International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Macron noted that, “France should no longer be one of those countries where women live in fear."

But while the French government has unveiled major initiatives in the campaign to fight violence against women, undocumented foreign women in France have been woefully overlooked, said Violaine Husson, head of gender protection issues at the French NGO Cimade in an interview with InfoMigrants.

In September 2019, France launched a major consultation on tackling violence against women, called the National Forum Against Domestic Violence. But activists and migrant rights groups say the issue of violence against illegal or undocumented migrant women was simply not addressed. What’s more, representatives of organisations working on migrant rights say the then French minister for gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, failed to engage with them.

"Foreign women who are victims of domestic violence suffer double discrimination", said Lola Chevallier, coordinator of the women's commission at the Paris-based NGO Fasti. "In reality, the law is not made to protect all women. The rights of foreign women are governed by the code of foreigners: therefore they do not have access to the same level of protection according to their nationality and administrative situation. They are caught in a vice between the issue of women's rights and that of the right to residency," explained Chevallier to InfoMigrants.

"In the fight against domestic violence, things have changed a little, even if we are still far from the goal of ending violence against women. But foreign women who are victims of domestic violence are the victims of everything," said French Communist Party MP Laurence Cohen. "They are even more invisible than the others".

Challenges reporting and proving abuse

There have been some measures to address the problem although activists say they are insufficient and difficult to implement. "For the victims, it's a fighter's journey," said Chevallier. Since 2016, an undocumented woman who is a victim of domestic violence can automatically receive a French residence permit or a renewal of the permit. But in practice, there are several obstacles: foreign women married to a non-French man or the wife of a statutory refugee are excluded from the law. "In practice, therefore, this law concerns very few people," explained Husson of Cimade.

Moreover, as in every case of this type, the victim must prove spousal abuse with photographs of her injuries, neighborhood certificates, medical and/or psychological certificates, police complaints and other documentation. However, undocumented women, for fear of being sent back to their countries of origin, are most often too afraid to go to police stations. Even when they do, their testimonies are often classified as initial police statements rather than formal complaints, according to activists.

The issue of one person’s word against the other is a common he-said-she-said challenge in violence against women cases. But it gets worse for undocumented migrant women. "Violent spouses who are legally resident on French territory often portray their wives as women interested in their administrative status," said Husson. "In such cases, the police prefecture does not carry out an investigation and will accept the man's version,” she explained.

State suspicions of ‘women claiming to be victims’

French law allows victims of domestic violence to obtain a residence permit and thus break free from the hold of a violent partner. If a woman gets a protection order, she can obtain a residence permit under the law. But "many judges refuse to issue this order because they consider the evidence provided is insufficient," observed Husson. And even when foreign women manage to obtain protection orders, police prefectures often refuse to accept residence permit applications, added Chevallier.

According to Cimade, in 2019, only 75 residence permits were issued to women with protection orders. The total number of protection orders issued for French and non-French women for the period was 2,500.

Senator Cohen believes there’s a clear lack of political will. "The amendments made by my group in the Senate are still being retooled and we’re facing blocks at all levels," she said.

"The problem is that the authorities are suspicious of illegal foreigners and consider them fraudulent. For the state, women claim to be victims in order to obtain papers," said Chevallier, who is demanding "the same rights for all, without distinction of nationality and administrative status”.

Risks of exploitation or suicide

The rules may change depending on the nationality of women. The right of residence for Algerian women for instance is governed by the Franco-Algerian agreement, which was last modified in 2001 – before the new violence against women laws were passed. “Clearly, Algerian women are not entitled to anything," noted Husson.

While undocumented victims of violence have great difficulty having their rights recognized, some practices have changed. Before a 2011 condemnation of France by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), undocumented women victims of domestic violence were sometimes placed in detention and sent back to their countries of origin after filing a complaint, according to NGOs. "Prefectures maintained that it was for the good of these women because they were separated from a violent spouse," explained Husson. But for some of these women, returning home can mean repudiation by the family or even homicide.

For those who stay in France and manage to escape their spouse, the risks are also significant and can include exploitation, psychological distress, returning to the streets and suicide. "Some even expose themselves to prison because they are defending themselves," warned Husson, who wonders: "Do we have to wait until a homicide is committed before the government reacts?"

Click here for a practical guide for foreign victims domestic violence by the French Human Rights League (LDH) 


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