A new report from the police watchdog in the UK has warned British police against passing the details of abused migrant women to the Home Office. They say sharing information can prevent potential victims from approaching the police if they fear they risk deportation.
The UK Justice Inspectorate (HMICFRS), the College of Policing (CoP) and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), found in a report published on December 17 that "victims of crime with insecure or uncertain immigration status are fearful that if they report crimes to the police, their information will be shared with the Home Office."
The report was commissioned after a "policing super-complaint" was submitted in 2018 by the Human Rights organization Liberty and Southall Black Sisters (SBS). The two organizations asked the Justice Inspectorate to look into police practice where they shared victims’ immigration information with the UK Home Office (Interior Ministry).
In the super-complaint, Liberty and SBS alleged that the police "routinely use the Police National Computer (PNC) to check the immigration status of victims and witnesses from ethnic minority groups." This "results in the immigration offense beint prioritized over other offenses," they said. This is because the Police and the Home Office share access to the computer and one of the Home Office’s current policies is to place markers on the PNC "indicating that a person is subject to immigration control."
The two organizations and other migrant rights' groups provided 36 case studies for the report authors where victims had insecure immigration status and had feared coming forward to report the crimes being perpetrated against them. A further seven came from evidence submitted by West Midlands Police and three came from the Home Office itself.
In the small case study, seven were found to be victims of modern slavery, six of sexual abuse, 32 of domestic abuse, 11 of emotional abuse, three of human trafficking and two of female genital mutilation; these two women also feared that their children were at risk of undergoing the same process.
Eight of the case studies were on spousal visas and in some cases, they had not been aware that their immigration status was insecure because their husbands had lied to them and said they were taking care of the papers.
In 10 of the case studies, victims did not report their situation to the police because of fears. Police were involved in 36 of the cases studied.
'No support and nowhere to go'
SBS provided one case study of a Black African woman (TT*) married to a White British man. TT arrived in England on a spousal visa but her husband "regularly abused her." On one occasion "he tried to smother her with a pillow," wrote SBS.
TT called the police and the husband admitted to the police he had tried to smother her but claimed it was in self-defense as TT had attacked him first. This TT denies and SBS says there was "no evidence" to support the husband's claim, the police "readily accepted his claim."
During the visit, they "questioned TT about her immigration status at length [...] and took no further action against TT's husband." TT was "shocked," writes SBS. Following the police visit, TT's husband taunted her by saying that if she called the police again they would "send her back to her country."
Sometimes her husband would throw her out of the house in the middle of the night and leave her to beg to be let back in. TT says she couldn't leave her husband as she had nowhere to go and no recourse to public funds. Her immigration status essentially depended on her marriage.
SBS say that nevertheless she repeatedly called the police and provided "a lot of evidence" of the abuse but TT says the police seemed more interested in her immigration status. She believes that because her husband who, "sometimes called the police with false claims of her harassment of him," was well off and articulate, that the police believed him and she, by comparison was seen "only as an immigrant."
Playing on fears
Her testimony appears to be borne out by some of the attitudes and practices at the Home Office and police uncovered by the report. For instance, the Home Office told the report authors that if a police officer comes to "know or suspect that someone, not under arrest, is an immigration offender, they will refer this information to the Home Office." One of their main aims is remaining "committed to reducing the size of the illegal [migrant] population and the harm it causes."
The investigation raised concerns about the effect of this sharing between the two bodies, and found "the current system was causing significant harm to the public interest."
Just as in TT's case, other case studies also bore witness to the fact that sometimes perpetrators were playing on victims' fears of police focusing on their immigration status and that was the way they held victims in these abusive situations.
Approach to information sharing 'inconsistent'
In particular, the investigation found that the approach to information sharing was "inconsistent." The report recommended that the Home Office and National Police Chief’s Council should develop "a safeguarding protocol about the police approach to migrant victims and witnesses of crime;" and allow for "safe reporting pathways for all migrant victims and witnesses to crime."
In addition, it asked that where "officers only have concerns or doubts about a domestic abuse victim’s immigration status, they should immediately stop sharing with Immigration Enforcement information on those victims."
Southall Black Sisters 'welcome the findings'
The IOPC Director General Michael Lockwood said that the police forces needed to remember that "first and foremost, victims of crime deserve to be protected." He said all victims of crime, "regardless of their immigration status,” must have “confidence […] that their allegations will be robustly investigated and given a high priority."
He described the fact that some victims of domestic abuse might fear coming forward as "deeply concerning." General Lockwood praised "Liberty and Southall Black Sisters' ongoing advocacy for those who otherwise felt voiceless," and said their work "had helped to identify important learning opportunities for the police and the Home Office."
Southall Black Sisters tweeted that they and Liberty "welcomed the findings from the first ever super-complaint” because it upheld the concerns they had put forward regarding the “police practice of sharing migrant victims’ data with the HO for enforcement purposes."
Pragna Patel, the director of SBS, called the report, a "welcome start in engendering confidence in a new system of state accountability in the face of systemic police failure in supporting migrant victims of crime."
Lara Ten Caten, a lawyer with Liberty, said that the instances raised in the report were just "one example of how cruel the hostile environment is." She called on the hostile environment created by the Home Office to be "scrapped," saying, "it's impossible to have a hostile environment that doesn't result in human rights abuses."
Exchange in practice
In the report, the authors asked the Home Office to provide the number of inquiries it received from police officers on people who may have committed an immigration offense in the past three years. The Home Office said it could only release the number of telephone inquiries it received, which was 18,065 in the year 2018-19.
The report authors say the number is probably higher, since this number doesn’t include all those inquiries where the person was found immediately not to have committed an immigration offense. The Home Office also couldn’t say how many of those people were victims of crime or a witness to a crime. Following the report though, the Home Office say that the records on their database have been "adapted" and they will in future be able to record this information.
What is recorded is that in 5,029 of the cases, "immigration papers were served by the Home Office within two days of the inquiry." In the other cases, sometimes the person might have been found to have secure immigration status, or may have already had papers served to them by the Home Office, note the report authors.
Immigration Enforcement Hotline
A second way the police reported information to the Home Office was via an Immigration Enforcement Hotline. In 2018, said the report, "the police made 2,853 reports through this service, accounting for just over 4% of the total reports that the hotline received."
In the super-complaint, Liberty and Southall Black Sisters alleged that the police "routinely use the Police National Computer (PNC) to check the immigration status of victims and witnesses from ethnic minority groups." This, they said, "results in the immigration offense being prioritized over other offenses." This is because the Police and the Home Office share access to the computer and one of the Home Office’s current policies is to place markers on the PNC "indicating that a person is subject to immigration control."
The Home Office told the investigation that they only use this method "for immigration offenders, […] once all avenues to locate them have been exhausted." However, the Home Office couldn’t provide information to the authors as to how many markers had been placed. They said they had processes to manage the placing of such markers but the authors said they would "expect a robust assurance process to include collecting and monitoring data on the use of the PNC."
Immigration markers on the Police Computer
According to the report, the Home Office advise police to "contact Immigration Enforcement before taking any action, including arrest, as a result of a PNC marker." Frontline officers told the report authors that they "do not routinely carry out PNC checks on victims." They added that "Police responses may vary according to crime type, rather than because the victim is a foreign national."
However some forces, both in 2017 and in this current report, were found to have a "tendency" to “refer both suspects and victims without legal status in the UK to immigration authorities rather than to investigate modern slavery and human trafficking offenses and enable potential victims to understand and access the services available to them.”
While practice varied, what emerged is that decisions about whether or not to exchange information with the Home Office was made on "a case-by-case basis and at the discretion of officers." This recommended the report, needs to change, and proper frameworks put in place.
'Victims should have every confidence in approaching the police'
Sir Thomas Winsor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary said in a press statement: "Victims should have every confidence in approaching the police for protection. They should expect and receive protection at times when they are vulnerable and so desperately need the assistance of the agents of the state."
The Chief Inspector added that "victims should never be in a position where they fear the actions of the police could unintentionally but severely intensify their vulnerability and thereby strengthen the hands of organized criminals and others whose motives and objectives are to inspire fear and do them harm."
The CEO of the CoP, Mike Cunningham added that police in the UK were "committed to investigating crimes that affect vulnerable people and seeks to make victims safer.” Cunningham added though that there was "unfortunately [a] lack of clarity about the circumstances in which information will be shared with Immigration Enforcement."
'Allowing abusers to continue their behavior unchallenged'
Cunningham pointed out that some of the migrant women concerned (like TT) could have entered the UK on "a spousal visa or work permit," and fear that if they report the crime against the person to whom they are tied through this visa, they could then risk being investigated for immigration offenses. Cunningham said this was not only preventing some victims from coming forward but also “allowing abusers to continue their behavior unchallenged.”
Cunningham said that they would work to clear up the circumstances in which immigration information would be shared and he hoped "that clarity will reassure victims of crime about how allegations will be investigated and encourage them to come forward to report."
*TT is not her real name.It has been used by Southall Black Sisters to protect the woman's identity.