“They told me to go back to my country”: why undocumented women are afraid to say #metoo

 “When I finally got the courage to run from him and report him, the police did nothing.”

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“I was so scared to go to the police. I was an undocumented migrant – who was I against a British citizen?” Gil tells me.

In 2016, Gil came to the UK with her British partner and her two children from Brazil, with the intention of applying for leave to remain. But soon enough, Gil’s visitor visa expired and with it her permission to stay in the UK.

“I became an undocumented migrant, and he started to use that against me, arguing that I needed to follow his rules,” says Gil. At the mercy of her partner, she became subject to sexual and psychological abuse. Crucially, he made it impossible for her to apply for permission to stay in the UK. Instead of helping Gil secure her immigration status, he would often hide her passport and threaten to get her deported.

After the abuse turned physical, Gil went to the police. She did not get the help she was looking for. “When I finally got the courage to run from him and report him, the police did nothing. They did not take me to the hospital so the doctor could check the conditions of the bruises on my body, they did not photograph me or even register the incident,” Gil explains. “Instead they told me to go back to my country. At the time, this meant that homelessness was the only way for me.”

On International Women’s Day this year, Gil spoke in parliament, where she called on British politicians to support migrant and refugee rights under the banner of “All Women Count”, an initiative led by Women for Refugee Women and supported by politicians Diane Abbott, Stella Creasy, Jess Phillips and Kate Green.

Gil’s story left many in tears. But is it enough to challenge Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy? A policy that intentionally makes it harder for migrants to access many of the basics of dignified life – including shelter and healthcare – in the hope that it will persuade them to leave. Employers, landlords, universities, banks and doctors are being turned into border guards. A visit to a hospital or a job application could end in arrest, detention and deportation.

“Unfortunately, Gil's case is not an isolated one,”  says Lucila Granada, director of the Latin American Women's Rights Service (LAWRS), the organisation supporting Gil with her case. “When women can't seek protection from the police, who wins? These responses only give more power to perpetrators who know that their victims are more vulnerable because of their immigration status.”

Gil says that the police’s reaction to her claims against her husband still plays on her mind. “They said to me, ‘we are not a hotel, we can’t help you, you need to get help from your embassy, not us’.”

Instead of receiving help, migrant and refugee women are being turned away from statutory services and diverted to other services.

Southall Black Sisters, a group that campaigns for black and minority ethnic women’s rights, reports that many organisations are refusing to help women and children – instead suggesting the women return to their country (in Gil’s case) or even recommending a child live with the perpetrator of domestic violence.

There is also a lack of understanding of the issues facing migrant women. Sawsan Salim, who has worked as director of the Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation for 19 years told me: “The police do not know enough about the violence against women, they are not trained in dealing with domestic violence cases.”

“The police say their power is limited due to the survivor’s immigration status. But they are not doing enough. The police have a responsibility to keep us safe.”

At the heart of the “hostile environment” is a culture of fear. And, for many survivors, the biggest fear of all is losing their children. It is this fear that the perpetrators often hang over the heads of their victims.

Originally from the troubled Kurdish area of Iran, Snur arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker. Her claim was refused, and at the same time she fell pregnant. As a failed asylum seeker, Snur became an undocumented migrant.

Over the course of six years, Snur wanted to report her partner for physical abuse, but was repeatedly talked out of doing so because of the risk to her life and immigration status. She is still fighting a custody battle over her daughter, while also trying to claim asylum. 

“Since 2012, I have been really vulnerable,” says Snur. “I have been living in an up and down environment. I often had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, no money to survive.

“And in the end, I am a loser. My abuser took my child. I have been victimised by police, social services, the Home Office, all because I didn’t have anything to prove my identity. And they supported him because he is the British one and I am nothing.”

Gil, the mother from Brazil, is also separated from her daughter who, according to the authorities, must remain with her partner.

“Right now I am in the Home Office’s hands. I am stuck. I am not free. Motherhood doesn’t exist anymore. I am just waiting for an answer,” Gil says.

In late 2017, the #metoo movement rolled out of Hollywood and shook up industries in both the US and UK. It was no longer possible to ignore the violence and sexual harassment women face in their everyday lives. But what about undocumented migrants or those with insecure legal status? “Saying #metoo for these women represents the grim choice between reporting the perpetrator or facing detention and deportation,” says Illary Valenzuela, from LAWRS.

The human rights organisation, as well as Gil herself, is at the forefront of the Step Up Migrant Women campaign, which has banded together a collection of small but powerful organisations to demand a safer reporting system.

“Even if you’re undocumented, you still have human rights,” says Gracie Bradley, advocacy officer at Liberty, and a supporter of the campaign. Providing safe mechanisms for reporting crimes is a practical way of keeping immigration control and essential services separate, she says: “Without them, the government is sanctioning suffering and discrimination and enforcing destitution.” 

Despite this difficult dilemma, survivors of violence are still fighting for their rights. Snur is dedicated to getting her daughter back, while Gil refuses to be silenced.

“I look at myself in the mirror and I tell myself not to give up,”  she says. “I just want to say to other survivors they are not alone. There are organisations that can support them. And they must raise their voice and demand their rights. This system has failed. I just want the authorities to look at each case carefully. People are not a statistic or a paper, we are human.”

Some names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.