Stranded spouses: Visa regimes allow for a new form of transnational domestic violence

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In 2017, AM from Pakistan was in her mid-twenties when she married a Pakistani-origin man living in the UK. The two had a daughter the following year. In the course of her marriage she suffered “severe financial, physical, emotional, sexual and domestic abuse,” a judgement by a UK High Court shows. 

Things came to a head when in February 2021, AM’s husband took her back to Pakistan and abandoned her there, returning to the UK with their child. She struggled to do the same, and was left without any legal support or public benefits.

AM is a victim of transnational wife abandonment, a form of gender-based violence that happens across borders. Social workers and academics both observe that transnational wife abandonment is witnessed in not just South Asian but all nationalities that see high levels of global migration. Lawyers, academics and social workers told Missing Perspectives that they have come across cases of women from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, and other countries from the Middle East and Africa who have been abandoned by their husbands living in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and other European nations. 

“It is a problem about borders, of immigration control, and transnational legal systems,” says Professor Sundari Anitha at University of Lincoln. She has extensively studied patterns of transnational abandonment and gender-based violence in Indian and other South Asian communities living in the UK. Wherever marriages cross borders, there are immigration regimes and the state controls the entry of certain categories of people. In such cases, the gender power imbalance in a relationship is skewed and further exacerbated, she explained. 

After a separation of close to eight months, AM was able to return to the UK and was reunited with her child, according to reports. Visa regimes are closely linked to the struggle which women like AM face. 

In October 2022, AM (as she was referred to in the court documents) won the case, resulting in a landmark judgement by the UK High Court. The judge found that victims of transnational abandonment are unlawfully discriminated against as they are outside of the UK. Unlike domestic violence survivors in the UK, there are no provisions in the UK immigration rules or policy for victims of transnational spouse abandonment. The court held that this interferes with their human rights. This may be the ray of hope for thousands of abandoned spouses in the UK. 

While there are no clear estimates of how many women are abandoned transnationally; the numbers could be in the high thousands. 

India, for instance, has around 40,000 abandoned wives. Stranded Indian spouses have gained attention amongst the public, media and the government, more than any other country. The country’s Ministry of External Affairs even has a special booklet cautioning women marrying Indians living overseas. 

Anitha says that since Indians have been emigrating for several decades now, the scale of the problem is larger and has garnered more attention. In many countries where global migration is a more recent phenomena, stories of spouse abandonment are just coming up. However, no government or country has tried to address this issue. 

"The priority is to cooperate on financial fraud on things which are important to the state. What happens to women is not a priority of governments,” she says. “When there's abuse, you marshal the power of the state to have an upper hand in relationships.” 

Lopa Jhamb and Deepali Gulati work in domestic violence and sexual assault intervention and prevention advocacy at the nonprofit Saheli, Massachusetts, the US. Their colleagues have come across women from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Morocco and other Middle Eastern countries who have been abandoned by their husbands. While every client’s journey is different, it is often linked to their visa status, they say. 

“Our first question to whoever comes to us is: “what is your immigration status?” Gulati says. If the woman or her child have a legal right to be in the US, then they can access a wide range of public benefits and state support. “If not, then we struggle.” 

Jhamb further explains that while the US has no laws for transnational abandonment, women are able to get a work permit to pursue their cases while living and working in the country by obtaining the U Visa, which is granted to victims of violence and abuse. 

But for women who are single, or who have never been brought to the US by their immigrant spouses, there is no recourse, she says. 

In Australia, Anitha points out, the issue is framed as a problem of border control and immigration rather than of rights. 

A rights-based approach will ensure there is parity between access to benefits and justice for women who face domestic violence in the UK (and other countries) and migrant women, Anitha says. Women suffering transnational abuse should get equal access to refuges and social support without a requirement to cooperate with prosecution. 

She says, “It has to be seen within the broader framework of the local domestic violence legislation, which is what we've been fighting for in the UK.”