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Comment: as domestic abuse rises, the police are still betraying migrant victims
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Comment: as domestic abuse rises, the police are still betraying migrant victims

The rise in reports of domestic abuse during lockdown is horrifying. Worldwide, the situation is so bad that it’s been dubbed a “shadow pandemic“. In the UK, calls to domestic abuse helplines have risen by a terrifying 80%. In response, police forces across the country have urged people experiencing abuse to come forward, launching a nationwide You Are Not Alone campaign in April.

But what if the thing stopping you from coming forward to the police to seek support is the police themselves? For people with insecure immigration status, reporting abuse often means having your details passed on to the Home Office. The authorities who victims turn to for help are liable to victimise them further, sending them to detention, potentially taking them away from children and eventually deporting them from their homes.

In 2015, nearly 3,500 victims or witnesses of crimes had their details passed to the Home Office. People who have gone to the police to report being kidnapped and raped have been placed in handcuffs and detained. 

Even the police acknowledge the deterrent effect of this policy — in the same breath as they urge victims to come forward. Just a week before the police launched their campaign urging people experiencing domestic abuse to speak up, they published guidance acknowledging that their own policies on data-sharing with the Home Office actively prevent people from doing so. 

That guidance, last updated on 23 April, notes on its first page that “some individuals are deterred from reporting to the police that they have been the victim of crime by the fear that their details will be provided to the Home Office.” The rest of the guidance goes on to set out why and how officers should nevertheless report people who experience or witness crime to the Home Office, if they suspect that person of being an “immigration offender”. This double-think would be absurd, if its consequences weren’t so grave: people end up trapped in desperate situations of abuse, with nowhere to turn.

There’s nothing in the seven pages of guidance to suggest on what basis officers might have suspicions about a person’s immigration status, or to give officers any grounding in the rules. In fact, the document contains a statement that anyone with knowledge of immigration law knows to be glaringly incorrect, namely that people on a spouse visa can apply for indefinite leave to remain after just two years in the UK. Of course, this was once true – but it hasn’t been the case since 2012. 

One thing police do seem to be aware of is the fact that abusers often use their targets’ immigration status as a tool to keep them from speaking out. The guidance is very clear that “the perpetrator may encourage [fear of contact with immigration authorities] as a way of maintaining control.” This is even the case, the guidance admits, for those who do currently have status (for example, people in the UK on a spouse visa). 

So for people with precarious immigration status, encouragement from the police to report domestic abuse – or any other kind of crime – will ring hollow. Because while officers are told that their primary focus should be on investigating allegations raised by victims and witnesses, this guidance also stresses that a key role for the police is “the enforcement of immigration law.” 

These two roles aren’t just in tension – they are completely opposed to one another. For the woman who sought help from the police after surviving horrifying domestic abuse at the hands of her husband, only to be reported to the Home Office and turfed out onto the freezing January streets, along with her eight-year-old daughter, there is no “victim” first and “immigration offender” second. Instead of getting support, she got shopped. 

This happened, and keeps happening, because officers are still actively encouraged to turn victims and witnesses of crime over to the Home Office (despite optimistic reports last year that this practice was being stopped). Some of the most vulnerable people in our communities continue to be further isolated and marginalised, because there is no firewall between the police and immigration enforcement – instead, there is an open door. Until that door is closed and victims are given cast-iron assurance of anonymity as regards their immigration status, the authorities will remain on the side of the abusers.

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Mary Atkinson is Families Together Campaign Officer at the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, where she works for reform of the UK's restrictive rules on family migration.

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