Data Sharing and Migrant Women Reporting Abuse

On 9 December 2022, The Wales Cross Party Group on Digital Rights and Democracy, of which Open Rights Group is the secretariat, held its second session, this time held on data sharing and migrant women reporting domestic abuse.

The session, chaired by Sarah Murphy, Member of the Senedd for Bridgend and Porthcawl, heard representations from Wanjiku Ngotho-Mbugua from the domestic abuse advocacy organisation BAWSO, Joanne Hopkins from Public Health England and Minister of Social Justice Jane Hutt MS.

Murphy also noted comments from Elizabeth Jimenez from the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) and Step Up Migrant Women coalition, who was not in attendance but had provided evidence to inquiry performed by the equality and social justice committee on the issue.

Through case studies from BAWSO, the coalition and others, it became clear that when migrant women report domestic violence to the police, their visit may result in a deportation letter coming through because their data has been shared with other Home Office departments.

Such cases have several implications:

  • Migrant women are less likely to report domestic violence to the police for fear of deportation, with mistrust exacerbated between them and Home Office institutions, including law enforcement.
  • The mistrust felt can extend as a deterrent to accessing other services.
  • The abuser can use the fear of deportation over a victim’s head to keep them in a state of abuse and exploitation.
  • When people, including undocumented migrants, aren’t engaged, the government and research bodies lack information, which hinders the effectiveness of services.

They called immigration enforcement in front of her

Through Jimenez’s statement, the group heard about the recent case of a woman who experienced a high-risk case of domestic abuse and stalking. She was undocumented, so she was terrified to use the LAWRS service. 

After evaluating her case, the caseworker recommended reporting it to the police because of the high risk of the situation. When the woman reported it, she received an immigration enforcement letter. 

The police also came to her house as part of the report but when they realised she was undocumented, they called immigration enforcement in front of her.

A firewall between services

During the course of the inquiry there were calls for a firewall, which would mean a separation between immigration enforcement activities and public service provision.

Many services in Wales are devolved such as health, social services and education, but the Home Office is under the UK government. There can be a firewall between the services and the devolved sectors. 

The group heard that the firewall would allow victims to report safely and also relieve the police of immigration-related action. They can be sure that their data is not being shared.

No routine sharing

Officials have denied there is routine sharing but said if there is sharing, it would be in extreme circumstances. However, the need for more clarity and transparency about when sharing takes place came up as a recurring concern during the session.

Murphy said they looked at the Deputy Minister’s commitment to look into the data sharing and recommended that the Welsh government takes the lead in working in partnership produce guidance clarifying the legal position. 

It takes communities working with organisations to build trust and be transparent about how we share information.

Joanne Hopkins, Public Health England

Modern-day slavery victims

Ngotho-Mbugua also explained how BAWSO supports migrant victims of domestic violence and that they found data sharing occurs and results in a deportation letter being sent to the victim or survivor.

Much of the time, women are victims of abuse and exploitation, including human trafficking or modern-day slavery. However, they only receive protection if they have been referred as part of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the official framework for identifying and guiding potential victims of modern slavery. 

Any others lack this protection, including victims of trafficking who haven’t gone through the NRM, which also undermines the fight against crime because it deters victims from coming forward, said Ngotho-Mbugua, denying access to justice and accountability.

Building trust in communities

Even participation in a research study is hindered because those interviewed cannot feel sure their information won’t be passed to the Home Office.

When Hopkins referenced the findings of two reports conducted this year, she lingered on the tensions in the recommendations.

Both reports – conducted by the Welsh Senedd and the University of Birmingham, made clear the need for better information sharing and better data, but better data can only be gained if they can engage with people. However, if people are frightened to engage, it ends in a circle of difficulty.

The tension is gaining information about people’s harms in a trauma-informed way – why should survivors share their stories and relive their trauma when nothing changes for them afterwards?

Therefore, it takes communities working with organisations to build trust and be transparent about how we share information.

When data sharing is necessary

Hutt noted the Welsh government’s response to the inquiry’s recommendations and that the issue of data sharing and the protection of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers were crucial to her remit as Minister for Social Justice.

She noted that there would be instances where data will need to be shared for better support and protection, but in their response, they considered how additional measures could be put in place to ensure better outcomes for migrant victims of gender-based violence. It is also necessary for women to understand what happens with their data. 

As policing and immigration are not devolved services in Wales, it places limitations on the Welsh Government. Although, there is ongoing work to help devolve policing.

The Information Commissioners Office also noted that they viewed data sharing as not a hindrance but needed to know more about where minoritisation occurs.

Evidence of data harms

The session concluded with the primary point that this ordeal is most horrendous for the undocumented women experiencing abuse, for themselves and the children they may have to leave behind if they are then deported, as often, the children will stay.

That is why people within official agencies need to think about when they share data and consider how it will be used, remembering that there are people at the end of that data who may experience harm.

Links for further reading and resources:

Migrant Digital Justice

Why Migrants Need Digital Sanctuary

Migrants should enjoy the same human rights as everyone else, including digital rights

Find out more

Compassion needed at the home office

ORG calls for a commitment to upholding the rights and dignity of refugees

Find out more