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Building trust with migrant victims: learnings from the first ever police super-complaint

January 25, 2021

The joint investigation report on the first ever police super-complaint was published last month by the College of Policing, the HMICFRS and the IOPC. The investigation gives an insight into how information about migrant victims and witnesses of crime is reported to immigration authorities following an interaction with the police, and its consequences for victims’ outcomes and trust in law enforcement.

Here, we outline some of the learnings and recommendations from the findings that seek to improve law enforcement’s engagement with migrants. These are helpful when looking to improve police (and wider enforcement) engagement with migrants who have experienced labour exploitation.

What is a super-complaint?

Super-complaints aim to investigate local, regional and national patterns or trends in policing which are, or appear to be, significantly harming the public’s interest.

What was this super-complaint about?

The first ever super-complaint was submitted by the charities Liberty and Southall Black Sisters, with supporting evidence from migrant community organisations and the Step Up Migrant Women campaign.

It sought an investigation into two police practices:

  • police reporting migrant victims’ and witnesses’ personal information to the Home Office for immigration enforcement purposes
  • the existence and/or perception that the police have a culture of prioritising immigration enforcement over the investigation of crime and safeguarding.

The super-complaint argued that these practices stop victims with insecure immigration status from engaging with the police due to fear of immigration enforcement action being taken against them. This situation results in migrant victims being denied access to justice, and offenders going unpunished and remaining free to abuse others, creating a significant threat to public safety.

While most of the evidence focused on the experiences of victims of domestic abuse, it acknowledged the harmful effect of these practices on all migrant victims of crime, including modern slavery and human trafficking.

Indeed, FLEX/LEAG’s recent publication illustrated how victims were deterred from reporting labour exploitation for fear that law enforcement would prioritise immigration control. These fears are strengthened when a migrant has a negative experience with the police, creating a knock-on effect that stops other victims from reporting.

Main findings of the joint investigation

The Home Office has used data shared by the police against migrant victims. The report confirms that this has happened on multiple occasions and that many police officers were unaware of this practice.

The purpose of reporting migrant victims to the Home Office immigration enforcement team is unclear. The investigation found that in many cases it was not clear why the police share victims’ data with the Home Office, nor how the Home Office plans to use the information. Investigators concluded there is no evidence that police sharing this data with immigration authorities helps to safeguard victims.

Existing guidance and training, including the NPCC guidance, does not help police officers balance criminal justice and victim safety priorities against the government’s immigration enforcement priorities. Frontline officers are not trained on how to support victims and witnesses with insecure status, despite receiving training on safeguarding and vulnerability. The investigation also found that the majority of police forces have not established policies or guidance on engaging and safeguarding migrant victims in spite of having the power to set and publish local policies. Lack of appropriate guidance and training is leading to inconsistent responses and leaves police unprepared to support migrant victims.

Despite not intentionally seeking to prioritise immigration enforcement, there is clear evidence that police sometimes do, which contributes to a perception that the police give more weight to immigration issues than to investigating crime and safeguarding victims. Abusers use this perception to threaten migrant victims with reporting to the police, which further perpetuates an image of the police as a threat rather than a source of protection.

Inspectors highlighted that the police were not doing enough to address these risks, including, for example, by engaging with local migrant groups to build trust in reporting to the police.

Significant harm is being caused to the public interest since crime is going unreported, migrant victims are unable to access justice and perpetrators remain free to victimise others. Investigators concluded that neither the police nor the Home Office are able to assure communities that everyone will be treated fairly and safely.

How can these findings improve police practice?

The investigation recommends police work to ensure all migrant victims and witnesses of crime are effectively supported though secure reporting pathways to the police and other statutory agencies. More specifically it recommends that:

  • Police should develop a clear policy and practice framework on supporting migrant victims and witnesses with insecure immigration status in consultation with specialist agencies.
    • Guidance should specify the circumstances and purpose of any information sharing with the Home Office, including for immigration enforcement purposes, and guarantee that victims, witnesses and support services are aware of what information could be shared, why and when.
    • It should establish clear pathways to specialist support and immigration advisors so that migrant victims have access to legal advice and emotional support on immigration issues.
    • Once secure reporting pathways are in place, they should be publicised to promote migrants’ confidence in accessing the police and other statutory services without fear that reporting will lead to negative immigration outcomes.
  • Police should regularly engage in outreach community work to build relationship and trust with migrants and specialist support organisations.
  • The Home Office should review its legal framework and policy with a view to guaranteeing secure reporting to all migrant victims and witnesses, including those with insecure immigration status.

These recommendations provide a starting point in improving the police’s engagement and support of migrant victims and witnesses with insecure status. They are aligned with the approach taken by police forces abroad who have successfully strengthened trust with migrant communities and increased reporting of crimes following the establishment of secure reporting. We look forward to supporting the police and Home Office in adopting these recommendations and to create safer pathways to reporting and justice for migrant victims of labour exploitation.

You can find more information on international strategies to establish secure reporting systems here.