Police should immediately stop sharing immigration information with the Government when they have concerns about the residency status of domestic abuse victims, a report has urged.
Victims with insecure or uncertain immigration status are being deterred from coming forward which is causing “significant harm to the public interest”, according to a joint investigation.
Three groups have agreed that many victims fear their situation could be made worse by information being shared with the Home Office, and are also worried their reported crimes will not be investigated.
The report is the result of a joint investigation by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), the College of Policing (CoP) and the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC).
It follows a policing super-complaint by charities Liberty and Southall Black Sisters about the practice of police sharing immigration information about victims with the Home Office.
Super-complaints allow designated bodies to raise concerns on behalf of the public about trends in policing that may be significantly harming the interests of the public.
The report, the first of its kind to be published, identified “inconsistent approaches” to sharing information with the Home Office and found no evidence that doing so supports the safeguarding of domestic abuse victims.
It found no evidence that police services intended to “operate a culture that prioritises immigration enforcement” but acknowledged that in some cases information is used for this purpose.
It said that a perception that this will happen may be enabling offenders to use police involvement “as a threat to their victims, rather than a source of protection”.
While the report said the scale of the problem is not known, victims and those at risk of hidden crimes must be better served and offenders prosecuted.
It recommends a separation between the police response to a victim’s report of domestic abuse and the handling of their immigration status.
As an interim measure, police in England and Wales should immediately stop sharing information with immigration enforcement where they have concerns or doubts about a domestic abuse victim’s status.
This includes victims of honour-based abuse and female genital mutilation.
Instead, they should link the victim to a third party that can provide advice and assistance.
The report also recommends that the Home Office review the law and policy in this area to provide clarity to police on their priorities.
Within this, it should consider the recommended interim measure and how and if a “firewall” could be established between police and immigration enforcement services for all migrant victims of crime with insecure immigration status.
It has been asked to produce a report on its conclusions within six months.
Meanwhile, the Home Office and National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) have been asked to specify the circumstances in which information may be shared by police and ensure that victims and witnesses are informed.
HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Thomas Winsor said: “Victims should never be in a position where they fear the actions of the police could unintentionally but severely intensify their vulnerability and thereby strengthen the hands of organised criminals and others whose motives and objectives are to inspire fear and do them harm.”
Pragna Patel, from Southall Black Sisters, said: “This is an excellent and welcome start in engendering confidence in a new system of state accountability in the face of systemic police failure in supporting migrant victims of crime.
“We are relieved that our complaint about the public harm caused to vulnerable victims of domestic abuse by data sharing between the police and the Home Office has been upheld on every single count. The report confirms our view that the police response to abused migrant women raises serious concerns and may well be discriminatory.”
NPCC lead for immigration crime, Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, said: “The police priority is to protect victims and investigate crime, and we are extremely careful about doing anything to deter victims from reporting to us.
“This is the first outcome from a super-complaint about policing and we must now take time to carefully consider the recommendations.”
Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs said migrant victims of domestic abuse have been failed by the system “in far too many instances” and called for urgent action.
“We support the recommendations outlined by the HMICRFS and call for the police to immediately stop sharing information when they have concerns,” she said.
“It is essential that the Government use the Domestic Abuse Bill, which is due back in the House of Lords in early January, to enshrine a full firewall so migrant women can safely report their experiences without fear of reprisal, as well as ensuring that no-one facing domestic abuse is left destitute because they have no recourse to public funds.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Our priority is to protect the public and victims of crime, regardless of their immigration status.
“There are many examples of when data sharing between the police and Immigration Enforcement has helped vulnerable people, such as victims of domestic abuse, access support services and secure their immigration status.
“We are closely reviewing this report’s recommendations and will respond in due course.”