Migrant women in the UK who are victims of domestic abuse are suffering in silence for fear of being detained or deported if they seek help from police, MPs have been warned.
Vicky Marsh — interim director of Safety4Sisters, a charity helping women in north-western England — called for a firewall between police and immigration enforcement to offer migrant abuse victims a safety net.
Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee made up of cross-party MPs, she said less than a third of female victims who approached the network last year agreed to engage with police.
She believes this is mainly down to fear, reinforced by abusers, that they will be reported to immigration if they do not have the necessary documents required to live in Britain.
She cited one harrowing case that involved police taking a domestic abuse victim to the Home Office after she sought help in Liverpool.
“I think if it’s not clear that there is a firewall and the police don’t make it clear to women, then they will not use the police or they will be reluctant and frightened to use the police except in very extreme circumstances,” Ms Marsh told MPs during a committee hearing in Parliament on Wednesday.
Of the 196 women supported by the charity in 2021, only 57 engaged with law enforcement, she said.
She also spoke of the struggles faced by migrant women who are subject to the no recourse to public funds (NRPF) condition, which restricts their eligibility to receive support due to their immigration status.
One victim, sleeping rough with a kidney problem, was initially refused help from housing and social services because she was subject to NRPF, with the latter “shockingly” saying there were toilets available in the nearby 24-hour McDonald’s.
Ms Marsh listed another example of a mother who was put in a bed-and-breakfast for a week “while two different local authorities argued out whose responsibility she was”.
Of the 196 women supported last year, 147 were refused a bed in a refuge, she said.
Migrant women who report domestic violence are being pushed “from pillar to post” and have come to feel they are not “worth the safety”, she added.
Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs and other witnesses representing domestic abuse services repeated calls for a separation between police and immigration authorities in such cases.
One witness said that current practices are “costing a lot — the trust of women, the safety of women”.
Elizabeth Jimenez-Yanez, from the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), said one “terrified” victim of abuse disappeared after reporting her case to police. After arriving at her home without an interpreter, officers blamed the woman for engaging with her abuser online, called immigration enforcement in front of her, and eight days later, she received a letter.
“That was enough to call her case worker and say, ‘I don’t want to engage with you any more. I know it’s not your fault, but I cannot trust anyone,’” Ms Jimenez-Yanez said.
“She disappeared — we don’t know what happened to her.
“So that’s why a firewall is needed, because any involvement of immigration enforcement … it’s going to also put a burden on the police.”
In December 2020, the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, the College of Policing and the Independent Office for Police Conduct urged officers to stop sharing immigration information with the government when they have concerns about the residency status of domestic abuse victims.
It followed a policing super-complaint by charities Liberty and Southall Black Sisters about the practice.
Ms Jacobs said she “really was disappointed” that the government has not taken up this recommendation and added that there are inconsistencies across forces.
“People who are highly vulnerable, who are operating with a lot of challenges in terms of understanding the context, they really need to know very clearly, is there going to be a negative consequence to this help-seeking or not?” she said.
“There are people who would worry about seeing a health provider for reasons of worrying about immigration enforcement.
“There’s a lot of obstacles that we would say, well, on the face of it, that shouldn’t happen.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter what should or shouldn’t happen, it’s what’s in the mind of the victim, the obstacles in that person’s mind, that we have to think of as our starting point.”
Also giving evidence was HM Inspector of Fire and Rescue Services Roy Wilsher.
He said things have started to change since the super-complaint, with updated National Police Chiefs’ Council guidance that safeguarding “should come first” and the College of Policing including migrant women in its domestic risk assessment methodology.
But he added that no progress had been made on establishing a firewall.