Coercion, intimidation, misinformation and threats are frequent factors behind the offending of foreign national women behind bars in England and Wales.
Women from foreign countries, many of whom are known to have been trafficked or coerced into offending, represent around one in seven of all the women held in custody in England and Wales and are one of the fastest growing groups in the female prison population (+49%).
A 'significant minority' for whom a distinct strategy was deemed necessary (Baroness Cornston, 2007) but left undeveloped (HM Chief Inspector of Prison's Annual Report, 2008-9).
According to a joint briefing by the Prison Reform Trust and FPWP Hibiscus, a female prisoners' welfare project with a specific focus on foreign national women coming through the British criminal justice system, far too many vulnerable foreign national women are locked up for non-violent crimes and have often been trafficked or coerced into offending. Insufficient effort is made by the UK authorities to identify evidence of exploitation or persecution of foreign national women in contact with the justice system.
In understanding the actions of these women it is important to find out why they left their country of origin and took the decision to come to the UK.
This is not a decision taken lightly by any woman, as it often means leaving children and the support of the family network. The factors are complex, but for many it is the hope of a better life.
For some, this is described as the need to access better education and work opportunities. For others it is the desperate need to support their family and send remittances home. Others said that they had no option to leave because of threats they faced and how they saw the UK as a positive country to seek asylum.
For all these women changes in immigration and employment legislation have decreased their ability to enter the UK or access work within the country without breaking the law. This has increased their reliance on agents who exploit their powerlessness.
The factors driving these women to leave home are evidenced by the geographical distribution of their countries of origin. For example women from Zimbabwe represent 3% of all new Hibiscus cases and almost 75% have been charged with false document, deception or fraud. The same is true for women from other areas of civil unrest or the threat of persecution such as Iran, Somalia and Uganda.
The report shows similar geographical patterns in relation to those coming here to alleviate poverty and start a better life. For example a high percentage of those from China and Vietnam have been brought in by smugglers to alleviate family poverty. The same is true with some of those from Eastern Europe, particularly the A8 countries.
Unfortunately a number of these women get drawn into sex work and are victims of resultant abuse by pimps and clients. Research published by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in 2010 found that nearly two thirds of women involved in off-street prostitution were migrants and half came from Eastern Europe and a third from Asia. Asian women, primarily from China, were also more likely to be victims of trafficking, representing 85% of all migrant women deemed to have been trafficked.
By failing to recognise the path of these women into crime and address their specific needs and vulnerabilities, the UK authorities are wasting taxpayers’ money on needless imprisonment and could be in breach of international legal obligations to protect the victims of human trafficking, contests the report.
The UK is a signatory to the UN Protocol for the Protection of Victims of Trafficking and the European Convention on Trafficking. Damian Green, Immigration Minister at the Home Office, has stated that combating trafficking and looking after its victims is a priority for the government, and that “having any number of people trafficked into the UK is unacceptable”.
Despite these commitments the report reveals that insufficient effort is made by the UK authorities to identify evidence of exploitation or persecution of foreign national women in contact with the justice system. Many of these women have no option but to plead guilty and are sentenced, with the assumption of deportation, before they can be assessed as potential victims.
Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, says: `Far too many foreign national women are languishing in British jails having been coerced or trafficked into offending. There are ways out of this mess but only if the government is prepared to redouble its efforts to catch the traffickers, who profit from their grubby trade, rather than allowing the burden of punishment to fall on vulnerable women many of whom have been victims as well as perpetrators of crime.
Olga Heaven, Director of Hibiscus, adds: "There is increasing diversity of nationality in the female prison population. High numbers of women are brought into the UK deceived and exploited.
"Many are young women with a dream of going to a first world country to achieve something but what they are brought in for is either prostitution or some other kind of enforced labour.
"Others who have been provided with false documents are detained by immigration or custom officials and often find themselves imprisoned on arrival. Many women who are here legally face multiple social and economic disadvantage which places them at high risk of offending. More needs to be done to identify vulnerable foreign national women in need of protection before they get into trouble with the law.
"What we should be doing is educating people about British criminal justice. The majority of the women in prison will tell us, "We did not know what this was about".
"We have women who do it out of total desperation to pay school fees, to pay for rentm for food. How are we to justify giving a woman coming from these situations 12-14 months of prison? It cannot work, it will never work and also it will never stop."
The latest annual data published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show that there were 650 non-UK nationals in female prisons. Although this is only 6% of the total foreign national prison population, the proportion of foreign national women was higher than in male prisons, with 15% of the female prison population categorised as non-UK nationals compared with 13% of men.
Further details provided by the annual Offender Management Caseload Statistics (OMCS, 2010) show that over the last ten years there has been a 27% growth in the female prison population, but the growth in the foreign national sector of this is much higher at 49%.
When we look at more detailed information, we see that the overall increase in numbers of foreign national women in prison is not solely due to an increase in those who are sentenced, but rather there are a disproportionate number remanded to custody to await trial, with a rise of 171% between 2000 and 2009.
Figures for 2009 show that foreign national women in prison account for 25% of all untried receptions to custody.
The Hibiscus database gives us a better picture of the numbers of foreign national women entering the justice system and reveals a dramatic rise in the number of women entering the justice system from Eastern Europe, representing 20% of all new cases. There was also a growth in the number of women from China and Vietnam, representing 12% of new cases.
Ten countries with the highest number of foreign national women in prison in England & Wales, September 2011
Nationality Women in prison
Irish Republic 28
The data shows a relative reduction of those arrested at point of entry on drugs importation, i.e. women whose travel was integral to the offence and who generally have no ties with the UK.
At the same time there is a growth of those arrested on offences of immigration status and related deception and fraud. These can be divided into three sub-categories: women who are attempting to enter the UK without valid documentation or for the using use of false documents, a proportion of whom wish to claim asylum; those who have been residing here as illegal immigrants, overstayers or failed asylum seeker; ironically, the third group are women arrested at the point of departure using false documents. Some are en route to countries such as Canada where they wish to claim asylum. However the majority arrested on departure are trying to return home and find themselves pulled back into the UK criminal justice system, and sentenced to imprisonment before finally being deported.
Practices such as this mean that women who have lived in the UK for a length of time, or entered as minors and have never managed to legalise their residency status, are caught in a trap. Without valid documentation they can no longer access services available to legal citizens, nor can they leave without the threat of arrest.