In April this year, we first heard the shocking story of a rape victim being treated as a criminal simply because she was an undocumented migrant. When she called for help, the police responded by questioning her immigration status. Unfortunately, this woman’s story is no longer unusual. In the UK’s “hostile environment”, immigration enforcement has been placed above and beyond the welfare needs of crime victims, with no exceptions for women who experience sexual violence.
A six-month investigation by Natalie Bloomer of Politics.co.uk, involving numerous Freedom of Information requests to the police, has shed some light on this woman’s ordeal. The few details that have been unveiled, while preserving confidentiality, are distressing to say the least.
The police confirmed that a young lady from an unknown nationality, five months pregnant, presented herself to a London station voluntarily, where she revealed having been kidnapped and raped from September 2016 to March 2017, in Germany. The police took her to a sexual assault centre, The Havens, but she was arrested from these premises after being seen, and taken into custody. Her crime was having entered the country without legal permission.
We know little about the kind of assessment that the police carried out, but it did not deem the woman to be a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery. Yet police forces have recently been found to fail regularly in such referrals, incorrectly sending victims of trafficking and torture to detention, and on to deportation.
In the woman’s case, she was then given temporary leave to enter the UK. We can only hope someone encouraged her to seek independent legal advice, to help her work out her situation. We have no idea of her whereabouts, nor of her ongoing experience. One thing we can assume is that given her initial interaction with the British authorities, she won’t be rushing back to seek help. The open question is whether this has exposed her to further danger.
This woman’s dehumanising treatment can be seen as symptomatic of the so-called “hostile environment”: a set of policies, announced when Theresa May was Home Secretary back in 2012, explicitly designed to make life difficult for undocumented migrants. The woman’s treatment captures the consequences of linking emergency support to a victim’s immigration status, and of prioritising border control over duties of care and protection.
There are (working) alternatives to this dehumanising approach. In cities like Amsterdam, where the police also have a “duty” of reporting immigration offenders, they have taken a different approach. One where the police realise that, to build trust with migrant communities, they must have safe-reporting mechanisms, and keep immigration status separate from the most urgent issue to be resolved – in this case, crime and abuse. Significantly, the Amsterdam initiative was conceived and led by the police itself.
Can we also do better here? We can keep asking ourselves how we got to this point. But for the survivor who was denied protection, this point is already, tragically, too late.
Regardless of where you stand on immigration, hopefully we can agree that all victims of violence, including sexual violence, should be able to seek protection and shelter. Clearly, priorities need to be re-ordered. Our obsession with immigration enforcement has led us to treat victims as perpetrators. To recover our ability to consider people humanely, the “hostile environment” must go.
Fizza Qureshi is the director of the Migrants’ Rights Network. Fabien Cante is the MRN communications officer.