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This is why we don’t report

In March of this year, a pregnant woman went to a police station in London to report that she had been kidnapped and raped in Germany for a period of six months. The police sent her to Havens, a sexual assault referral centre (SARC), where she was arrested on suspicion of immigration offences and removed to an east London police station, where she was questioned.

A terrifying message

The message this sends to immigrant women is that it does not matter to the authorities if they are raped. Their immigration status is more important than their very bodily autonomy and right to not be sexually assaulted.

It tells them that they should not report crimes against them because, if they do, it is more important that they are not legally in the country than that they have been abused or harmed.

Because, simply, of an accident of birth, they were born in a country that was not the UK and, in the course of their lives, they made their way here. This does not make anybody a criminal, nor should they ever be treated as such. I, too, moved abroad when I was younger but, because I’m white and British and moved to a European country, nobody questioned my right to be there. I was certainly never intimidated by the prospect of immigration officers abusing their privilege or arresting me if I found myself victimised.

Whoever this woman is, she did not have that privilege. She made her way around the world and found herself going through a horrific experience. When she felt safe enough to, she approached the police, who should have treated her with respect and ignored her immigration status entirely. She was the victim of a very serious crime.

She should have the right to report safely, her victimhood not exploited to boost immigration arrest statistics. The fact that her arrest seems to have taken place at a sexual assault referral centre adds insult to injury: they are supposed to be safe places where survivors can receive healthcare and have evidence gathered in a respectful setting.

The SARC’s very name, Havens, has been made a joke by the authorities, a fact that they have reacted angrily to. A spokeswoman for King’s College hospital NHS foundation trust, which manages the Havens, said it had objected to the police’s actions. “Providing patients with appropriate care in a safe environment is our top priority.

“Following the arrest of a patient at the Haven, we formally raised concerns with the Metropolitan police about the appropriateness of this setting for such action. We also spoke to the police commissioner more generally about our role in caring for a complex mix of patients.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan called her arrest “a completely unacceptable way to treat victims”, while the deputy mayor for policing and crime, Sophie Linden, said, “This is an extremely troubling case, which risks discouraging other individuals from coming forward and reporting very serious crimes. We have raised the issue with the Met, and continue to work closely with the police and the Havens to ensure victims have the confidence to come forward and report.

“Victims of sexual abuse or exploitation have already suffered unimaginable distress at the hands of their perpetrators, and the Havens are an invaluable asset as we strive to improve the support available to all victims to help them cope, recover and find justice.”

A green light for rapists?

If this woman’s treatment is anything to go by, this intolerable situation could lead to sexual offenders believing that their victims will not receive justice if they are immigrants, or if they are wanted by police because have committed a crime. Men who target vulnerable women know that they are already more likely to get away with their crimes than if their victim is more privileged, so this will encourage their arrogance and the confidence in the crimes they commit further.

The police have already had to overcome a lot of resistance from rape victims who are undecided about reporting, even before this incident became known. They are renowned for having had terrible attitudes towards rape and sexual abuse survivors in the past and many people who have reported assaults more recently are far from convinced that this has changed. Institutionalised misogyny joins forces with other axes of oppression so that women who survive rape who are also disabled, or trans, or Black, or working class, or sex workers, will find it harder to get justice than those with more privilege.

And it’s not like even middle class, non-disabled, cis white women are guaranteed any kind of justice. The stats still show that, in the UK, only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police, and only 7.5% of reported rapes end in a conviction.

Photo credit: Devon Buchanan/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.