When a crime victim is an irregular migrant: “safe reporting of crime” or “leap of faith”?

Published 27 November 2019 / By Nicola Delvino

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The recent deaths of 39 people from Vietnam in a lorry container in the UK sparked attention once again on the global scourge of human trafficking. Though there have been some developments in finding all of those responsible, one of the main difficulties facing the police is gathering vital information from previous victims whose immigration status is irregular (or otherwise ‘insecure’).

The Guardian reported that the police was facing a “trust problem” over the appeal to Vietnamese migrants with irregular status in England to “take that leap of faith” and contact the police to cooperate in the investigations. That is because the police know too well that the cooperation of irregular migrants in investigations like these is essential, but also that it takes a huge effort for them to contact the police. In fact, victims and witnesses of any crime who have an irregular or insecure migration status need to consider a number of challenges and risks before deciding to contact the police.

Is there such as thing as safe reporting?

First of all, there is the fear that reporting a crime will result in their detection by immigration enforcement authorities, and eventually lead to their deportation rather than to protection. When asked if information on the irregular status of people coming forward in relation to the Essex lorry deaths will be shared with the UK’s Home Office Immigration Enforcement, the Essex police refused to comment.

The lack of watertight mechanisms for the safe reporting of crime for victims and witnesses with irregular migration status (i.e. legal and practical measures enabling irregular migrants to report crime without exposing them to immigration enforcement) is not a problem unique to the UK, (where the issue has recently been subject to contradictory police policies first requiring the sharing of information on victims with the Home Office, then discouraging it, and then requiring it again).

‘Safe reporting’ has been an issue of concern, policy debate and subject to legal reforms in several countries, including in Europe and North-America, where different approaches have been adopted at national and/or local level. What lessons do these experiences offer to policy makers and law enforcement authorities on both sides of the Atlantic? What measures have been taken to allow ‘safe reporting’ to happen? Are these measures replicable across different national contexts?

New international findings

To reply to some of these questions and foster international knowledge-exchange, COMPAS has recently led the first transatlantic project focusing on ‘safe reporting of crime for victims and witnesses with irregular migration status in the United States and Europe’. The project shed light on the situation of irregular migrants who are victims and witnesses of crime, and their possibilities in law and practice to report crime ‘safely’, in the United States, Belgium, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

In all these countries there are challenges preventing irregular migrants from reporting crime to the police. These challenges concern victims and witnesses of any kind of crime not just those commonly related to irregular migration such as trafficking. Research has long shown that an insecure migration status is in itself a factor of exposure to victimisation, where perpetrators target irregular migrants, feeling confident that the latter wouldn’t report the crime to the police and using the threat of deportation to discourage crime reports. Most recently, the international press reported on the situation of people of Asian descent in France, who became a targets for robberies, as they are believed to carry on big amounts of cash and that they won’t be reporting the crime to the police because of their irregular status. The lack of safe reporting mechanisms not only favours these criminals but also impacts the police’s ability to gather crucial intelligence and act to ensure public safety.


"Victim Visas" and "Firewalls"

We found that the most common solution adopted in national laws is relief from immigration enforcement for victims of certain crimes, through the issuance of special visas or the suspension of immigration enforcement proceedings for victims (as in Spain where immigration proceedings are automatically suspended for victims reporting domestic violence). ‘Victim visas’ are, however often restricted to limited circumstances (as in Belgium, where visas are only offered to victims of trafficking or ‘smuggling with aggravating circumstances’). In most cases these visas are only used as law enforcement tools, so that victims cannot autonomously apply, but instead depend on prosecutors’ discretion to request a visa. In other cases, however, these visas can have a significantly wider scope, as in the United States where victims of a comprehensive list of qualifying crimes can apply for a ‘U visa’ – a measure that in the last decade has allowed at least 85,000 victims to find the confidence to cooperate with the police.

In other cases, safe reporting is operated through ‘firewalls’, i.e. measures preventing those responsible for receiving crime reports from communicating the details of victims to immigration enforcement authorities. The only country found to operate a national ‘firewall policy’ was the  Netherlands with the ‘free in, free out’ policy, which (in principle) prevents regular duty police officers from inquiring the migration status of people who report crime, and communicating the details of victims to the ‘AVIM’, the police division responsible for immigration enforcement.

Local authorities can also play a significant role in supporting safe reporting. This can go as far as establishing strict firewalls between local police bodies and national immigration enforcement, as in the USA where ‘sanctuary cities’ like New York and San Francisco adopted a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell and/or don’t enforce’ approach for their police forces. Where cities cannot autonomously establish a firewall, they can seek the agreement of national authorities to implement firewall policies. This is what  happened in the Netherlands, when the ‘free in, free out’ was initially adopted as a pilot initiative of the local police of Amsterdam Zuid-Oost. In both the USA and Europe, cities have adopted a host of other non-firewall initiatives to support safe reporting, often in partnership with NGOs assisting crime victims and migrants. These initiatives tend to address the shortcomings of national measures. For example,  the social departments of Italian municipalities sponsor the issuance of visas for ‘social protection reasons’, and many  US cities support the issuance of T and U visas. Beyond the countries of focus in our study, in Canada, the city of Montreal has established a victim desk supporting migrant victims aiming to interact with the police. In Sweden, Gothenburg and Stockholm funded shelters for undocumented victims escaping an abusive situation.

While some countries seem to have taken a more proactive approach to ensuring irregular migrant victims’ access to Justice, our study found significant challenges to the effective implementation of safe reporting policies in all countries.

Policymakers and law enforcement authorities can improve policy and practice through international knowledge-exchange on safe reporting. We are hopeful the safe reporting project has started this process.