Thousands of victims of domestic violence, child abuse and other crimes in the UK were referred for possible deportation after calling the police.
In the two years since May 2020, 2,656 crime victims were referred to the Home Office this way, reveals data obtained through a freedom of information (FOI) request by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and shown exclusively to the New Statesman. The individuals have experienced crimes such as slavery, human trafficking or domestic abuse but were simultaneously treated by police officers as potential “immigration offenders”.
Lucia Alvarez* moved to the UK on a visitor visa in 2019. That same year, she met a partner online who, after some months, proposed they marry before her visa expired. As time passed, however, he became increasingly aggressive, physically and psychologically. When the pandemic started, his control and abuse increased, leading Lucia – who is sharing her account via the Latin American Women’s Rights Service – to have suicidal thoughts.
Lucia ended the relationship in late 2021 but her partner kept sending threatening messages. Despite being scared of calling the police due to her legal status, Lucia filed a report and asked for an interpreter. When the police came to her home, no interpreter was provided; police officers told her she should know that meeting people online was not safe, which left her feeling humiliated.
The officers went through Lucia's passport and expired visa, then called Immigration Enforcement, a division of the Home Office, in front of her, telling her she should be ready to leave the country at any moment. The officers did not want to leave her home until she gave them a date by which she would return to her home country.
To make matters worse, the police told Lucia her former partner had not been threatening her and so she was not a victim of crime. She was neither provided with a crime reference number nor any commitment to investigate. Her former partner continued to harass her, including threatening in emails to come to her house.
Since Lucia was not found to be a victim of crime by the police, she is not counted among the 2,656 people referred to the Home Office, meaning that that figure is likely to be an under-representation of the problem.
“For every one person who is reported to Immigration Enforcement after they go to police for support, untold thousands then avoid the police out of fear of deportation,” said Mary Atkinson, campaigns officer at the JCWI. “There's no question that this enables greater exploitation and abuse of vulnerable people, and creates a cohort of people who have no recourse to justice.”
There are people, Atkinson said, “who have experienced devastating trauma, who are then left helpless. And in terms of domestic abuse, which skyrocketed during the pandemic, the police already have a very questionable record of supporting victims, who are mainly women. So imagine, on top of that, fearing you might end up in handcuffs for calling 999. No wonder so many don’t, unless they’re at absolute crisis point.”
Research conducted for the 2019 Right to be Believed report by the Step Up Migrant Women campaign corroborates this picture, showing how migrant women with insecure immigration status waited twice as long to report abuse to the police (with an average of 35 incidents of violence). Calling the police was their last resort.
More than 70 women who had moved to the UK from 22 different countries were surveyed for the report. It found that more than half of migrant women feared that they would not be believed by the police because of their immigration status, and half felt that the police or the Home Office would support the perpetrator over them. Cathy McIlwaine, co-author of the report and a professor of geography at King's College London, said: “It’s important to recognise that perpetrators use the threat of reporting to the police as a tool of manipulation and power over [insecure migrants]."
She shared the testimony of a Brazilian woman she spoke to in her research: “I continued to undergo domestic violence from my husband, who threatened me repeatedly with deportation. He reported me to social services and told them I was being the abusive one towards our children. He told me I would never be believed. I was undocumented and feared being reported to the police. [In the end], I was refused support from the police and made homeless. I was told I had no custody over my child because I was undocumented.”
Situations like these do not only affect undocumented migrants, but also those who might be in the UK on a visitor or dependent visa, and who are either misinformed by their abusers about their rights or unsure of them.
In 2018 Liberty and Southall Black Sisters, two advocacy groups, initiated the UK's first police super-complaint under a scheme allowing designated bodies to challenge potentially harmful police practices on behalf of the public. The crux of the complaint was simple: data-sharing between the police and Home Office deters people with insecure immigration status from seeking the support of the police, be it as victims or witnesses, thereby undermining the fight against crime.
“If victims and witnesses of crime do not come forward, everyone loses," said Lara ten Caten, a human rights lawyer at Liberty. "When crimes are not investigated, more harm is inflicted. Victims are not supported or able to access justice and perpetrators are not held to account."
In 2020 the super-complaint was followed up with a report released by three independent policing watchdogs, calling for the police to “immediately stop sharing information on domestic abuse victims with Immigration Enforcement” and for work to “establish safe reporting mechanisms for all migrant victims and witnesses, including those with insecure immigration status, in accessing the police service”. Such mechanisms are already in place in Spain, the Netherlands and other parts of the EU.
However, in late 2021 the Home Office rejected the introduction of a so-called firewall, proposing instead an Immigration Enforcement Migrant Victims Protocol, which would mean victims and witnesses “will have a relief from immigration enforcement action" for a limited time only: more specifically, while the alleged perpetrator undergoes criminal proceedings.
The Home Office told the New Statesman: “We are committed to ensuring that anyone, regardless of immigration status, can report crime. Current data sharing practices between the police and Home Office are essential to protect the most vulnerable people and to enable investigation of reported crime. The [Immigration Enforcement Migrant Victims Protocol] will provide relief from enforcement action and provide assurance to victims that they have a safe pathway to report crime.”
This approach, however, has failed to convince Nicole Jacobs, the domestic abuse commissioner for England and Wales, who said she was “extremely disappointed” that the government decided to opt for the protocol rather than a firewall. “Migrant victims would feel much safer to seek support from the police with a firewall in place. Many will be unsure about the parameters of a protocol, which they may not understand, and which may therefore put them off reporting,” she said.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council had also previously acknowledged in guidance on sharing information with the Home Office the dangers of anything that deters reporting of crime.
Elizabeth Jiménez-Yáñez, policy and communications co-ordinator at the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, said: “The protocol says immigration enforcement action will be held off during a migrant’s criminal proceedings. But that assumes the police believe the individual has been victimised, which is not always the case, since migrant victims of crime are often not seen as victims, first and foremost, but rather as immigration offenders."
By institutionalising data-sharing, the protocol could increase the number of individuals being reported by the police to the Home Office, as well as the number of immigration status checks conducted by police, which averaged around 139,000 a year, according to data obtained in the response to the JCWI’s FOI.
In recent weeks the Home Office has, unsuccessfully so far, been attempting to deport people seeking sanctuary in the UK to Rwanda: a policy that “comes hot on the heels of the Windrush scandal”, notes ten Caten. “So it’s no wonder that people are fearful of reporting crimes to the police. No one is safe until everyone is safe.
“The Home Office should [take up the firewall] to ensure that everyone is able to report crimes without fear, and accept that the police must prioritise solving crimes without sharing information with immigration enforcement as part of the process.”
Until a firewall is set up between the police and immigration authorities, thousands of crimes in the UK may continue to go unreported and investigated.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.