Interview by Rosanna Wiseman, Step Up Migrant Women
In May 2018 the government suspended the policy which turned doctors into border police. After months of campaigning by various groups such as Doctors of the World and Voice of Domestic Workers, the NHS will no longer have to hand over data to the Home Office on the immigration status of patients. This ‘hostile environment’ approach to immigration was scaring away patients from seeking help from medical professionals. I spoke to Marissa Begonia, the coordinator for Voice of Domestic Worker, about the #StopSharing campaign and how it is connected to the Step Up Migrant Women campaign’s aims of separating the reporting of crime from immigration control.
Hello Marissa, could you tell me a little about yourself?
I came to the UK on a Domestic Worker visa. I escaped [from my employer] after four months of arriving to the UK. I escaped because I came to the UK on a Domestic Worker visa in 2004. I escaped [from my employer] after four months of arriving to the UK. I escaped because I found out that I was not being paid correctly and I was being over worked, so that’s when I decided to change employer. But apart from that I have also been sexually harassed and verbally abused [by employers]. I also found out I had the right to change employer, I had a right to renew my visa and eventually, I had the right, to become a citizen [of the UK].
So how did you find people to organise with?
At the time [of the abuse] I thought I was alone in that situation, being in a private household, but along the way I found my fellow domestic workers in Unite the Union. [There was an] idea of putting us together to build a campaign that will propose changes on the overseas domestic worker visa. Throughout our organising we have seen many cases of rape, physical abuse and homelessness of domestic workers, and also a lot of unpaid wages. [At Unite the Union] we started to rescue domestic workers being abused in private households. We are always on call 24 hours 24/7. We also saw that many domestic workers were unable to speak out and unable to read or write. We began to provide education by starting up English and IT classes. We also trained [the domestic workers] to have the confidence to be able to stand up and tell their stories.
How did the stop NHS data sharing campaign start?
In 2017 the government implemented a law to allow the Home Office to access NHS digital data. Doctors of the World started campaigning against this. In February 2018 Doctors of the World approached the Voice of Domestic Workers to provide evidence to Parliament on the data sharing between the Home Office and the NHS. I gave evidence to a select committee on the actual experience of domestic workers such as the fear they have in accessing hospitals and GPs. We managed to get a lot of coverage in the mainstream media; Sky News and the BBC.
The campaign Step Up Migrant Women is about safe-reporting to the police. What are the experiences of domestic workers with the police?
Often when domestic workers report [abuse] to the police they will be arrested and detained and then deported. Sometimes I will go with [the domestic worker survivor] to report abuse to the police. And I ask [the police] ‘you want us to step forward to report abuse but then you report the domestic worker to immigration officials, so how do you expect us to step forward and report abuse?’
So how do you challenge this police practice?
I question the police because we have many domestic workers who are very afraid of police because when they report abuse they aren’t doing anything. In fact, the government asks us to report victims of trafficking and abuse; however, when we do, we are then harassed. The state is acting in the opposite way to what they say they want.
Do you think safe-reporting could be established as a practice? Why do you think the police are reporting victims of abuse to the Home Office?
The police need to be educated as to the full extent of how and why domestic workers run away from abuse. At the moment there is too much focus on immigration status. The police will call the immigration officials and check if [the person reporting the abuse] is undocumented or not. However often when the domestic worker runs away from abusive employers they don’t have anything, they don’t have a passport, they don’t actually know if they are overstaying, they have no clue because they will never see their visa.
What do you think of the Step Up Migrant Women campaign?
Safe-reporting should be the right way. Instead of investigating the abuse [the police] are asking [the survivor] for her status. Victims are being persecuted instead of being protected.