Unmesh Desai: there is a ‘hostile environment’ for vulnerable victims of crime

Unmesh Desai: there is a ‘hostile environment’ for vulnerable victims of crime

It is essential that all Londoners who have experienced crime have the confidence to come forward and report incidents to the police. However, a regressive and callous Home Office policy stemming from the government’s aim to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented migrants risks categorically silencing a significant number of victims of crime in the capital.

Currently, police forces in England and Wales must pass on the immigration status of victims of crime to immigration officials if they suspect they do not have the right to reside in the UK. This creates a glaring deterrent for some of the most vulnerable members of our communities when it comes to reporting crime and possibly preventing it in the future.

Informing the police that you have been a victim of crime can be a very difficult process for anybody to go through. Taking this first step towards securing justice will often require an extraordinary amount of courage. However, this already emotionally challenging undertaking is complicated further for those who are concerned about their immigration status.

As Londoners, this burning injustice should concern all of us. It can mean that people who have suffered from some of the most serious and shocking crimes, including domestic abuse, sexual offences, rape and modern-day slavery, are too scared to go to the police in case they are kicked out of their homes and the country.

This is in no way an abstract threat. The number of tip-offs police forces across England and Wales gave to the Home Office shot up from 634 in 2014 to 3,372 in 2015. It is unforgivable that the government is forcing people to make a choice between seeking justice or deportation after already suffering at the hands of a criminal. And if these barriers persist, the government also runs the risk of letting criminals go free.

Last November, the stark consequences of this policy were exposed in London. A woman who was five months pregnant went to a London police station to report having been kidnapped and raped between September 2016 and March 2017, when she was living in Germany. She was taken to a Haven Centre, which provides support to victims of rape and sexual abuse.

However, upon arrival there she was arrested and taken back to a police station where she was questioned over her immigration status. While reporting the rape earlier, the woman had told the police that she had entered the UK illegally. As a result, she was arrested on suspicion of illegal entry into the UK.

It is horrifying to think that this situation could result in vulnerable people being targeted by criminals in the knowledge that because of their circumstances they are less likely than others to report crime. This is particularly true when it comes to crimes such as modern-day slavery, where an inability to work legally drives people into exploitative relationships in which organised criminals force victims to carry out work with earnings siphoned off to gang masters.

In London, the Metropolitan Police act on a case-by-case basis and will only pass on information where there is concern that an individual is in the country illegally. Police officers are allowed to employ discretion as to whether to carry out checks on the police national computer system. However, the evidence suggests that this system could be improved.

Over the summer, I raised this issue with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and asked him what more can be done to give people the confidence to report crime without fear of being arrested or deported. The Mayor committed to raising the matter through London’s Victims’ Commissioner, Claire Waxman, during a summit to look at safe routes to reporting crime. The Victims’ Commissioner is now working with the Met to improve police practice and has backed my calls to ask that the Home Office improves national guidance in this area.

Whilst any material change in London would be very welcome, we should also go further and campaign for a change to national policy too. On the 9 May, the Government announced that the NHS will no longer have to share immigrants’ data due to fears that the policy was deterring vulnerable people from accessing healthcare. Access to justice should be no different.

As we see the effects of the disastrous hostile environment policy in London and across the UK, it is only right that we do all we can to bring it to an end. If not, we risk allowing a two-tier justice system to operate where victims are left unprotected and dangerous criminals act with impunity.

Umnesh Desai is the London Assembly Member for the City & East constituency.

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