DOZENS of migrants who were victims of crime have been reported to immigration authorities by the PSNI.
Migrant groups have expressed serious concerns after The Detail discovered that police handed over information on at least 33 victims to Home Office Immigration Enforcement, putting them at risk of deportation, between May 2020 and May 2022.
The victims included 13 people who had suffered human trafficking, five who had endured modern slavery, two domestic abuse victims and 13 who had experienced other crimes.
The groups said they had been assured by police, including during a meeting held last year, that officers do not pass on information about victims of crime to the British Home Office.
The PSNI also said in 2021, in response to a Freedom of Information request, that it does not share victims’ details.
However, an investigation by The Detail has revealed that information on dozens of victims was shared.
Migrant groups have said they are concerned that some people are too frightened to report crimes in case they face deportation.
They described the information sharing as a betrayal of trust and said the practice flew in the face of PSNI campaigns, including the Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls and Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking strategies.
‘Blaming the victim’
One migrant group told The Detail that after its volunteers’ cars were smashed with concrete blocks in a race hate attack in September 2020, police quizzed the volunteers about their immigration status.
Muhammad Atif, a trustee at the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association, said the attack outside its south Belfast offices was reported to the PSNI, who investigated it as a hate crime.
However, Mr Atif said he was shocked when officers asked volunteers about whether they had permission to live in Northern Ireland.
“For me, it is more of the blaming the victim approach,” he said.
“I’ve tried myself a number of times to explain to the police that their role is way more important (than asking immigration questions).”
He added that some migrants in Northern Ireland conflate the PSNI with immigration enforcement.
“And that if something has happened to you, that you can’t really report it to the police because they will ask about your immigration status,” he said.
Mr Atif added that even naturalised British citizens or those with permanent residency are still wary of reporting crimes
“The confidence is not there,” he said.
Kendall Bousquet, an advocacy officer at the Migrant Centre NI, said the PSNI’s decision to share information with the Home Office had put groups like hers in a difficult position.
Ms Bousquet said that in a July 2022 meeting, senior PSNI officers told her the force had never shared victims’ data.
The Detail asked the PSNI about Ms Bousquet's comment but they did not directly respond.
Previously the force said that they “never” shared victims’ details to the Home Office.
In response to a 2021 Freedom of Information request, the PSNI stated that “if they are a victim we will not inform immigration”.
Ms Bousquet said figures obtained by The Detail contradict what the PSNI had told her.
“They're asking us to make assurances, based on information that's not true,” she said.
Ms Bousquet said migrant victims of domestic abuse and coercive control are in a particularly vulnerable position.
"We have seen people who are visa overstayers, because of the coercive control of their partners who purposely don't renew their visa,” she said.
“We've seen this come through the door. People who have irregular immigration status are then put in a really vulnerable position and are thus fearful to report abuse to the PSNI."
Ms Bousquet said UK police forces should not be allowed to share information on migrant victims of crime with the Home Office - a policy known as a firewall.
She also called for a multi-lingual public information campaign in Northern Ireland to reassure victims that they can report abuse without fear of deportation, once a firewall is put in place.
“It's really important that those policies be accessible to people, and be written down,” she said.
The PSNI told The Detail that it is “not the policy of the Police Service to routinely check immigration status” and urged victims to report all crimes to police.
“They will be taken seriously and our focus will be on their status as a victim or a witness,” a spokesman said.
He added: “We recognise however that victims of crime with insecure or uncertain immigration status are fearful that, if they report crimes to the police, their information may be shared with the Home Office.”
The force admitted to The Detail it did share some information with the Home Office but did not directly say why it shared the details of victims, rather than just the perpetrators of crime.
“This is a complex legal landscape for policing and it is not uncommon in human trafficking and exploitation cases in particular, for a person to be both a victim and a perpetrator,” he said.
The PSNI is signed up to a UK-wide policy first issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) in 2018.
The guidance states that: “When a victim/witness is suspected by an officer of being an immigration offender, the police will share information about them with the Home Office.”
It also states that officers “will not routinely search police databases for the purpose of establishing the immigration status of a victim/witness or routinely seek proof of their entitlement to reside in the UK”.
The PSNI told the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Justice Committee in 2020 that it has “legal obligations to share such information when it comes to light.”
However, a 2020 Northern Ireland civil service research paper, prepared for the Justice Committee, found: “It would appear that there is no specific legal requirement on police forces in the UK to share information with the Home Office where a victim or witness of crime is a suspected immigration offender.”
Lack of clarity
The Home Office figures were released following a lengthy investigation.
The Detail initially asked the PSNI to provide details on how many times they have shared victims’ data with the Home Office.
Guidance from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) states that all forces must record such referrals.
However, the PSNI said it could not release the data because it did not record this information centrally.
The Detail eventually managed to get information from the Home Office.
Figures show that, between May 2020 and May 2022, the PSNI contacted the Home Office’s enforcement unit by phone to provide the details of 33 victims of crime.
However the true figure may be higher because the Home Office said it could not check email referrals.
There are also no records pre-May 2020.
Sinn Féin MLA Linda Dillon, a member of the Policing Board, said she is concerned that the practice of sharing information on migrants with the Home Office is putting vulnerable people at risk.
“I would have grave concerns this would deter very vulnerable people, who really badly need the support of PSNI, and who need to be protected, this will deter them from reporting crime,” she said.
Ms Dillon said she was deeply concerned that police had quizzed Belfast Multi-Cultural Association volunteers about their immigration status following the race hate attack on volunteers’ cars.
“Rather than dealing with the fact that they are traumatised and they are a victim, that almost sounds like victim blaming: ‘If they don't have status then they shouldn’t be here and that is one less crime for us to worry about’,” she said.
Alliance MLA Nuala McAllister, who also sits on the Policing Board, said she was alarmed by the practice.
“Alliance will be seeking an urgent meeting with senior PSNI officers to discuss this issue, particularly as I have previously received assurances from the PSNI they do not refer victims of crime to the Home Office,” she said.
She said that the current policy would “clearly be a deterrent for any potential victims coming forward, and would compound many of the issues already facing the asylum seeker and refugee community here in Northern Ireland”.
“We will push to see the policy of referring victims of crime to the Home Office removed, so victims are no longer deterred from pursuing justice,” she said.