Today
Tue 25 January 2022

Migrant women in abusive relationships fear that reporting abuse to the police will lead to their data being shared with immigration enforcement – leaving them trapped in dangerous homes, reports Sian Norris

The Government has rejected plans to create a ‘firewall’ that would enable migrant victims of domestic abuse, with insecure immigration status, to report a crime to the police without the fear of being reported to immigration enforcement. 

The decision followed a ‘super-complaint’ filed by the charities Liberty and Southall Black Sisters – which supports black and ethnic minority women who experience gender-based violence – challenging the ‘hostile environment’ that has led to vulnerable women feeling unable to report abuse. 

Evidence from the Latin American Women’s Rights Service found that more than half of migrant women feared that they would not be believed by the police because of their immigration status and that the police or the Home Office would support their abuser over them.

The Government did commit to provide support for migrant victims who come forward following domestic abuse, although both charities urged for such support to be properly funded and expressed concern that it does not go far enough to reassure victims. 

Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs expressed her regret at the decision, saying in a statement that she was “very concerned” that the measures “will be inadequate when it comes to keeping migrant victims of domestic abuse safe from perpetrators and free from the risk of being deported for reporting their abuse”. 

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Safety Not Status

Migrant women who experience domestic abuse face multiple barriers to support and justice. 

Women on some types of visa have a ‘no recourse to public funds’ status, which means that they are not entitled to certain benefits such as housing benefit. An amendment to change this in the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill was rejected by the Government earlier this year. 

Without access to public funds, women fleeing domestic abuse, including forced marriage and so-called honour-based violence, struggle to access support such as a place in a refuge. 

As evidenced in Liberty’s and Southall Black Sisters’ super-complaint – alongside a report by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, ‘Safety Not Status’ – migrant women can be reluctant to report their abuser due to fears that they will be passed on to immigration enforcement and face deportation. This is particularly true of women on spousal visas or who have irregular immigration status. 

“I didn’t report to the police because I feared being deported with my children,” one woman told the report’s authors. “I could barely tolerate the abuse but couldn’t dare go to the police.”

For another woman who had gone to the police, the barriers were accompanied with a lack of understanding of her situation.

“I reported the abuse to the police knowing there was a risk they would share my data with the Home Office,” she said. “The police failed to investigate my case properly or take meaningful measures to protect me. Instead, officers suggested I return to my country of origin.” 

The fear that reporting domestic abuse to the police will lead to immigration enforcement being informed is borne of the hostile environment policy introduced by the then Home Secretary Theresa May. The policy has led, for instance, to women attending sexual assault referral centres following a rape – only to be arrested after staff reported the victim’s migration status. 

The Home Office has committed that no immigration enforcement action will be taken against a victim while investigation and prosecution proceedings are ongoing, and while the victim is receiving support and advice to make an application to regularise their stay. 


A Form of Abuse

For many migrant victims of gender-based violence, threats regarding their immigration status forms part of the abuse perpetrated against them. 

This includes threats from abusers that ‘no recourse to public funds’ means that a woman will struggle to survive if she leaves a dangerous home, as one woman explained to the report’s authors. 

“I told him and his family I wanted to leave and they told me if I did, I would starve because of my immigration status,” she said. “That I have no rights in the UK. He kept throwing my card [visa] at me and telling me to read the back, that I can’t get support.” A person’s ‘no recourse to public funds’ status is printed on the back of their visa. 

Other abusers tell women that if they leave them, they will be deported. There are even reports of abusers denying women access to their migration paperwork – making them vulnerable should they choose to leave.

One woman said: “I didn’t know he was using my immigration status to abuse and manipulate me until I started getting support [from a specialist service]. I had spoken with the police and my doctor and no one had ever questioned his behaviour or thought it was wrong that he kept my immigration papers locked away.”

The Home Office may have rejected the firewall but it “fully acknowledges that immigration enforcement action should not be taken against vulnerable victims of crime and that even the threat of such action can be detrimental to the victim”.

It proposes to introduce an Immigration Enforcement Migrant Victims Protocol for migrant victims of crime that have been referred to immigration enforcement from the police. It will also commit to a medium-term piece of work to identify safeguards to mitigate the deterrence effect of data-sharing. These include setting out what information and sign-posting immigration enforcement could offer to migrant victims to help them regularise their stay and thereby reduce the threat of coercion and control by their perpetrators.

The Home Office’s proposed protocol also gives greater transparency to migrant victims on how their data will be shared and the steps immigration enforcement will take to engage with victims prior to casework and enforcement decisions being taken. 

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