This International Women’s Day, the Byline Intelligence Team reveals the number of women and girls victimised by sexual exploitation being reported to the Home Office – instead of for help

At least 1,787 victims of crime have been referred to immigration enforcement in the 20-months from April 2020, the Byline Intelligence Team can reveal. 

The numbers include 44 victims of child exploitation – including child sexual exploitation – and 20 adult victims of sexual exploitation. 

While both men and women can be survivors of sexual violence, it is a gendered crime: more than one in five women have experienced rape or sexual assault as an adult in the UK, compared to one in 20 men. 

But these figures could be the tip of the iceberg of victims of sexual offences who are reported to the Home Office’s immigration enforcement, according to migrants rights campaigners. 

The Home Office response to a Freedom of Information request from the Byline Intelligence Team by only providing data for referrals made over the phone, not by email. 

While the Byline Intelligence Team requested data on victims of sex crimes who have been reported to immigration enforcement, the Home Office said: “We do not record police referrals of victims of sexual offences specifically.”

Instead, it provided nine categories under which sexual offences – including child sexual exploitation and adult sexual exploitation – could fall, before providing data for only those two of the nine crimes.

This means that the data on victims of rape and sexual abuse outside of the category of sexual exploitation who have been reported to the Home Office has not been included. 

However, even these figures are troubling enough – raising concerns that victims of modern slavery are being sent to immigration enforcement rather than being directed towards support. 

That victims of crime are being reported to immigration enforcement risks migrant people deciding not to report crimes committed against them – including those linked to trafficking and modern slavery – in case they face deportation. 

“’The risk of automatic data-sharing with immigration enforcement deters migrant victims of crime from approaching the authorities,” said Kate Roberts, head of policy at Flex. “This plays into the hands of exploiters who use insecure immigration status or uncertainty about immigration status as a threat and to prevent people from seeking assistance. It undermines the work of the police in building trust and collecting evidence.”

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A Firewall

The data on victims of child and adult sexual exploitation being reported to immigration enforcement comes after a campaign to set up a firewall for migrant victims of gender-based violence was rejected by the Home Office. 

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. 

In response to the super complaint, the Home Office announced an ‘Immigration Enforcement Victims Protocol‘ – something which has been rejected by NGOs working across migrant rights.

A coalition of migrants rights groups – including Liberty, Southall Black Sisters, Stand Up Migrant Women UK, Safety 4 Sisters and 10 more – wrote: “This approach will not inspire let alone enhance victims’ confidence in reporting a crime. On the contrary, we maintain that the active involvement of Immigration Enforcement will have a detrimental effect on victims and witnesses with insecure or uncertain immigration status leaving them unprotected.”

The Home Office argues that data-sharing is essential for protecting victims, with the “sharing of information enabling both organisations [Home Office and police] to perform an active collaborative role in protecting the wellbeing of migrants”.

“Frontline organisations are clear that secure reporting is vital in order that all victims of crime know that they will be treated as victims when approaching the police,” Roberts told Byline Times. “Government claims that automatic data-sharing is necessary for ‘safeguarding’ do not make sense when it is this very data sharing without consent which prevents victims from seeking assistance and reporting crimes.”

Following the Home Office’s response, Lord Vernon Coaker tabled an amendment to the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill calling for secure reporting for migrant victims of crime. This was supported by the Bishop of London, Baroness Meacher and Lord Paddick. 

Speaking during the committee stage of the bill, Lord Coaker said: “Protecting victims, and enabling the police to investigate the facilitators of trafficking and the perpetrators of abuse and exploitation, must be prioritised over compelling the police to carry out the role of immigration enforcement.”

The amendment asked the Home Secretary to “​​make provisions for the prohibition of automatic sharing of personal data of a victim or witness of crime for immigration purposes”. This would mean that migrant victims would have security when reporting a crime to the police and reduce the chilling effect that leaves people too afraid to access justice. 


Modern Slavery

The data obtained by the Byline Intelligence Team comes as the latest statistics on modern slavery were published by the Home Office which found a 20% rise in the number of trafficking cases referred for support in 2021 (12,727) compared to 2020 (10,601).

The majority of trafficking victims are women and girls, and one-third are children. 

This data is collected by the National Referral Mechanism – the protocol used to identify and offer support to victims of modern slavery. 

However, according to analysis by the campaigning group After Exploitation, the number of suspected victims not asking for support is at least double the rise in those being referred. People identified as potential victims but never passed on for formal support have increased by 46% from 2020 (2,175) to 2021 (3,190).

Child and adult sexual exploitation is a major aspect of modern slavery. The increase in potential victims refusing help, combined with the data on victims of crime being referred to immigration services, could suggest that a lack of secure reporting is preventing people from reporting crimes, accessing support, and getting justice. 

“The lack of secure reporting is such a deterrent not just to victims of modern slavery seeking help, but even to supporting a police investigation – when that is right for the survivor,” Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation, told Byline Times. “The practice of referring victims who may have endured sexual and labour exploitation to immigration enforcement means the Government is falling short in its own aims of preventing modern slavery.”

The Nationality and Borders Bill could soon make life even harder for victims of modern slavery. Changes proposed in Part 5 of the Bill – which will be debated in the Lords today – will mean trafficking victims who have a criminal conviction with a 12-month sentence or more could be denied support, while a ‘trauma deadline’ means that if a victim doesn’t disclose details of their exploitation before a set time, they could be refused help. 

“The sheer drop in suspected survivors willing to engage with the system shows that the anti-survivor rhetoric surrounding the New Plan for Immigration’s policy paper launch may have already played a role in eroding trust between survivors and authorities,” said Esslemont. “The impact of this Government’s framing of Part 5, alone, will take years of policy work to remedy. We are deeply concerned that so many survivors are being failed.

“In practice, this means that such survivors, who are then passed to immigration enforcement, will be ‘doubly vulnerable’ – forced to navigate immigration reprisals without advocates or safe housing.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has led the world in protecting victims of modern slavery and we will continue to identify and support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers. The support offered through the National Referral Mechanism is helping victims rebuild their lives.  At the same time the ground-breaking Modern Slavery Act has given law enforcement agencies the tools to target the perpetrators of this horrific crime”.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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