On 24 June this year, the European Commission presented the first-ever EU Strategy on the rights of victims of crime with the aim of ensuring that all victims can fully rely on their rights in Europe. Following consultations with COMPAS researchers and building on COMPAS research, the strategy officially recognized the need to assess tools ensuring access to ‘safe reporting of crime’ for victims with irregular migration status at EU and national level. The adoption of the strategy could not be timelier, as victimisation phenomena have significantly increased during the European COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
In the Commission’s words: “All victims of crime are vulnerable, but because of their personal characteristics, the nature of the crime suffered or personal circumstances some victims are even more vulnerable …. National support and protection measures need to be effective for all victims and at all times” (page 8).
These words couldn’t resonate more with the findings of the Safe Reporting project, a COMPAS-Global Exchange project that shed light on the risks of crime victims with irregular migration status, and their limited possibilities in law and practice to report crime ‘safely’ in the United States and four EU countries.
Notwithstanding their formal entitlements to access protection, irrespective of migration status, our research showed how in practice irregular migrants are frequently prevented from reporting crime due to the risk of being deported by the police.
Research has shown that an insecure migration status and the lack of safe reporting tools actually represent a factor of exposure to victimisation, with perpetrators specifically targeting these migrants, feeling confident that the latter wouldn’t report the crime to the police, and using the threat of deportation to discourage crime reports. The lack of safe reporting mechanisms thus favours criminals and impacts on a police force’s ability to gather intelligence and act to ensure public safety.
The strategy pointed the finger at the incomplete transposition and/or incorrect implementation of relevant EU rules into national legal orders. This strongly reflects COMPAS’ findings in relation to victims with irregular status: while the 2012 Victims Directive established rights for victims in a non-discriminatory manner and regardless of residence status, our research in Belgium, Italy and Spain found that no specific measures were adopted to make access to these rights effective for irregular migrants. Only in the Netherlands, the Directive’s transposition led to the adoption of a firewall policy, known as the ‘free in, free out’, formally aiming to shield irregular migrants from the risk of deportation as a consequence of reporting crime to the police.
In preparation of the strategy, the Commission engaged in dialogues with the researchers of the safe reporting project. Working with partners from the Universities of Ghent, Milan, Barcelona, Maastricht and Rotterdam, we engaged in dialogues to advise the Commission on the limitations in law and practice concerning victims with an insecure migration status. A roundtable in October 2019 organized by the Global Exchange to present the findings of the safe reporting to several EU, national and local stakeholders in Brussels was followed by a consultative meeting at the European Commission in March 2020 to discuss how these findings could inform the adoption of the strategy.
The publication of the Strategy eventually confirmed the concerns expressed in the conclusive reports of the safe reporting study, by explicitly acknowledging the need for policy reforms to address the lack of effective ‘safe reporting mechanisms’. In fact, citing our research, the Commission recognized that:
“Irregular migrants who become victims of crime are also often in a situation of vulnerability and may have difficulty to access justice. If they report a crime to the police, they may be ordered to return to their home country. Under the Victims’ Rights Directive, victims’ rights shall apply to victims in a non-discriminatory manner, independently of their residence status. This shall also apply to unaccompanied minors. Under this strategy, the Commission will assess legal and practical tools at EU level to improve reporting of crime and access to support services for migrant victims, independently of their residence status. In particular, the Commission will promote exchange of good practices among the Member States aimed at disconnecting reporting of crime from the return procedure without jeopardising the effectiveness of such procedures”
Accordingly, under the key priority of ‘Improving support and protection of the most vulnerable victims’, the strategy sets a number of ‘key actions’ to pursue, including to:
The strategy’s recognition of the need for reforms at EU and national level to ensure safe reporting represents a breakthrough for EU policy as it deals with irregular migrants outside of the context of removals, breaking with a longstanding trend of official EU strategies (see the European Pillar of Social Rights) disregarding people with irregular status. For researchers, it highlights the importance of engaging in knowledge-exchange with policy makers to ensure that policy is informed by research and that research is policy relevant.
Ultimately, we hope that the impact of our research, of the Strategy and the potential reforms that may follow, materialises into effective measures that ensure that no victim, regardless of migration status, is too scared to seek justice for crimes committed against them.
You can read the COMPAS submission to the European Commission presenting research highlights and learnings from the Safe Reporting project for the EU Victims Strategy here.
 Thanks to support from Research England’s Strategic Priorities Fund (funding research activity that supports evidence-based policy making) and the Open Society Foundations.