Between a rock and a hard place: women's impossible choice between abuse or deportation

The Danish government traps women with derived residency rights in violent relationships in spite of massive documentation and criticism

In her speech on International Women’s Day 2022, the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen declared: “The women’s movement must embrace our entire society”. At the same time, she is heading a government that actively hinders some women from leaving abusive relationships. This can be seen e.g., in Refugees Welcome’s report, "They don't know how much stress we have", which contains several descriptions of women who came to Denmark through family reunification. If they leave their abusive husbands, they risk losing their family reunification status and their right to stay in Denmark.
Danish legislation does in fact include a special violence provision to protect the victim (almost always women) in such precarious situations, but the criteria therein are often impossible to fulfill, and the inconsistency in the application of the provision means that immigrant women cannot count on the protection it ought to provide.

Refugee women and derived residence permits

Family reunification is often the only safe method for women to escape unsafe countries. In nuclear families, the husband often arrives first and is granted asylum on individual grounds, while the wife obtains a status later, derived from his residency.
Once in Denmark, women with a derived right of residence depend on their marriages to be able to stay in the country. As the women’s shelter Danner as well as researcher Anika Liversage have shown, women can be forced to leave the country if they divorce their husbands. However, for many women, simply returning to her country of origin is not a viable option. Either because the country is too unstable, or because female divorcées face severe discrimination. Therefore, ending the marriage is in many cases not possible, which can have fatal consequences if the relationship is abusive. Women in these situations must make the impossible choice of staying in a violent relationship in Denmark, or facing immense violence in their country of origin.
The number of women in these situations is unknown – intimate partner violence in general is hugely underreported, and especially so in ethnic minority families. We do know that 18,061 women obtained family reunification to Denmark between the first of January 2015 and the thirty-first of October 2021. It is not known how many women with a derived right of residence choose to stay in violent relationships in order to avoid being sent back to hazardous conditions. But Refugees Welcome, Danner, The Danish Institute for Human Rights, GREVIO and VIVE all document severe cases where they’ve come into contact with women who must make this impossible choice.
The Danish Aliens Act should take this precarious situation into account through the so-called Special Violence Provision (§19,7). Here, the preparations for the Aliens Act mention three criteria, which, if fulfilled, will protect a woman with a derived right of residence from being deported if she ends a violent marriage. However, as the below will make clear, the criteria are much too rigid and too arbitrarily applied to provide any actual level of safety.

Proving the violence

The Danish Institute for Human Rights shows that women with a derived right of residence must prove the violence they experience, if they hope to obtain an independent residency permit. In general, it is difficult for victims of intimate partner violence to prove how they have been treated – only few file police reports, and most cover up their injuries.
Refugee or immigrant women face the same obstacles in proving the violence as women with Danish citizenship – but they also face additional hurdles. Isolation is a common issue in abusive relationships, where the perpetrator often isolates the victim in order to exert control. GREVIO shows that this isolation has severe consequences for immigrant women in abusive relationships – and Danner underscores that it gives them little access to a network which can help them decode Danish norms and help them understand how violence is viewed in their new country. Thereby, it can be difficult to understand what is defined as violence in Denmark, let alone prove that you are subject to it.
The isolation that many abused women undergo also means that immigrant women may struggle to make Danish friends. The Danish Institute for Human Rights finds that most Danish women in women’s shelters have support from a friend, while immigrant or refugee women often show up completely alone. Proving the violence you are subject to must be even more challenging and overwhelming when you face the task alone, without the emotional or practical support that someone with a stronger network might have.
The isolation that is so common in abusive relationships also makes it considerably harder to learn the language. Anika Liversage shows that these women may not have Danish friends or colleagues, and that their husbands may prevent them from attending Danish language courses. This means that when you have an appointment with the job centre, or even the doctor (now that interpreters are no longer free of charge), it is often a family member or the spouse who interprets. This severely limits any contact to the outside world, where it would otherwise be possible to document the violence.
Also, seeking help from the police may present a challenge for women with a derived right of residence. Danner finds that refugee women may be particularly apprehensive about contacting the police in Denmark, due to previous negative experiences with police in their country of origin. Certainly, it is not difficult to imagine that you would be more reluctant to report intimate partner violence if you come from a country where the police are untrustworthy or even dangerous.
Finally, it seems both unclear and inconsistent exactly which kind of documentation is required to prove the violence. The Danish Immigration Service sometimes demands a statement from a professional at a women’s shelter, even though this is not noted as a criterion on their website nor in the Special Violence Provision. Similarly, Anika Liversage explains that due to the drastic changes in regulations caused by the so-called 'paradigm-shift', it can be difficult for professionals to navigate the plethora of new practices and their consequences.

The marriage must have terminated due to the violence, and on the woman’s initiative

A woman with a derived right of residence will only be granted an independent residency permit if she terminated the marriage due to the violence. As Lev Uden Vold shows, a woman in a violent relationship might find it hard to end the marriage as the husband will most often also exert a psychological power over her. He may tell her “nobody will help you”, “you are on your own”, “you’ll never make it without me”, and over time break down her confidence and agency. Here the Danish regulations can end up giving the abuser the upper hand, supporting his statements that she will never make it without him, because, indeed, she risks losing all rights upon divorce.
In addition, The Danish Institute for Human Rights has shown that an abusive husband may file for divorce while the wife seeks refuge in a women’s shelter. He will then withdraw the application when she returns home. Thereby, if she later tries to file for divorce, it is no longer trustworthy that she terminated the marriage, since he has tried to terminate it before. Therefore, the criteria that the divorce must be on the woman’s initiative can be used against these women, and actually ends up giving their husbands even more power over them.
Danish authorities only consider civil marriages in these situations. Even when a woman with a derived right of residence manages to divorce her husband, she may still have marital ties to her husband through a religious marriage, like a nikah, which Islam researcher Jesper Petersen shows, can, in some cases, be more difficult to break off. Anika Liversage shows that a so-called “limping marriage” can be a great disadvantage to a woman, who may be ostracised from her community. As such, the criteria that she must be the one to file for divorce, can lead to further isolation – which The Red Cross shows makes it even more difficult to leave an abusive partner.
Finally, it can be extremely difficult to demonstrate that the marriage terminated solely because of the violence. If it is judged that other factors play into the divorce, then women with a derived residence permit can no longer fulfill this criterion. And, even if the violence is the real cause of the divorce, the Danish Immigration Service may not believe this. Refugees Welcome was in contact with “Jamila” in 2015, who lost her residence permit partly because the authorities claimed that the violence she was subject to was not necessarily the reason why the relationship terminated.

Will and ability to integrate

Women with a derived right of residence who seek to leave their abusive husband must also demonstrate a will and ability to integrate if they wish to stay. From cases presented e.g. by Refugees Welcome, Danner and The Danish Institute for Human Rights, it seems that this criterion is applied arbitrarily. Again, this makes it confusing for professionals and the women in question to navigate the system and determine the best course of action.
This criterion is deeply problematic because it is significantly harder to integrate into a new society if the dynamics of a violent relationship confine you to your home. How can you learn the language if your husband prevents you from attending language classes, or from talking with your Danish neighbours? How can you understand the norms of Danish culture, if your husband stops you from attending social events? Both Refugees Welcome and The Danish Institute for Human Rights underscore that it is much more difficult to integrate into a new society if you are living in an abusive relationship. It is therefore illogical to expect a woman who is fighting to leave a violent relationship to show her ability to integrate, when it is exactly the relationship, she is leaving that has prevented her from integrating so far.
Furthermore, learning the language makes all aspects of integration much easier. Yet, as Refugees Welcome problematises, many more refugee women than refugee men are illiterate, which makes learning a new language almost impossible. Especially girls’ educations are disrupted by war and political turmoil, and the fewer years of schooling one has, the harder it is to learn a new language. Therefore, there is a gendered barrier to integration.
Having a strong family connection to Denmark is important when authorities consider the basis of a residence permit. Both Refugees Welcome and The Danish Institute for Human Rights showcase examples where a woman who has left her abusive husband has lost her right to reside in Denmark because she is no longer married to him – but has gained a new derived right of residence due to their shared children. In these cases, she is deemed to have a strong connection to Denmark because her children have residency here. As a consequence, she is no longer dependent on her husband, but instead on her children. It is a struggle to understand how a country that boasts itself on its gender equality can make women dependent on others for their continued safety.

The consequences of not living up to the criteria

Clearly, the criteria can be virtually impossible to live up to, so it is not surprising that Refugees Welcome has reported several incidences where women have had their residence permits revoked upon divorce.
The consequences of this can be severe. Divorced women are looked down upon in many countries, and it can be difficult to obtain a dignified and sustainable source of income. The Danish Institute for Human Rights have documented cases where women in similar situations have ended up in forced prostitution and other dangerous livelihoods after being expelled from Denmark.
Not only this, but a divorced woman may not have a family to return to: Both Refugees Welcome and The Danish Institute for Human Rights discuss cases where family members not only disowned her after she got divorced, but also threatened to kill her for bringing shame upon their family.
As mentioned in relation to “limping marriages” above, divorce from a civil marriage does not necessarily translate to a divorce in a religious marriage. Having obtained a civil divorce in Denmark affords a migrant or refugee woman the right to remarry civically – but if she is returned to her country of origin, this can be seen as adultery, since she is still religiously married to her first husband. In countries like Afghanistan and Somalia adultery can be punishable by death.
Even in those cases where the status of being a divorced woman does not present a challenge in itself, the country may not be safe to return to. Denmark’s ruling that an area such as Damascus is safe to return to has provoked an international outrage and has been criticised by several human rights organisations who argue that it is not safe, despite Denmark’s assessment.

In short: An impossible choice

While a derived right of residence affords security to most migrant or refugee women, this status can be extremely dangerous for those living in abusive relationships. In these cases, the women must make the impossible choice of staying with an abusive husband, or risk being sent back to an unsafe country. Because of this, many women are locked in violent relationships.
The Special Violence Provision is not offering the protection it is supposed to offer due to the criteria mentioned in the provision. There is no consideration of the complex obstacles these women must tackle, as both women and immigrants, which can make the fulfillment of the criteria unattainable.
The Danish Institute of Human Rights and Refugees Welcome both offer concrete suggestions for improving the Special Violence Provision. The suggestions include making the criteria clear and consistent, removing any notion of the will and ability to integrate, and being more lenient in terms of proving the violence: to trust that the women are telling the truth as a starting point.

Notably, similar recommendations were already made many years ago: in 2005 in a report by Roskilde University and in another report by Amnesty International in 2006. Yet, the suggestions for improvement are still as relevant today as they were twenty years ago. Until the Special Violence Provision is drastically altered, women with a derived right of residence have to continue choosing between a rock and a hard place.
There is a dissonance between the Prime Minister’s speech about how the women’s movement also exists for the “immigrant girl who is trapped in a prison of social control” versus the mechanisms her own government have in place that actively lock immigrant women in violent relationships. While the Prime Minister seems eager to put the whole blame for the problem on ‘foreign’ religion and culture, perhaps it is time to reflect upon the unreasonable criteria that these women are expected to fulfill if they hope to break free from the abuse. Only then can these strong and brave women attain the violence-free lives they have fought so hard for.