What safety means for undocumented people

Having no, or precarious, residence status often increases a person’s risk of experiencing abuse or exploitation. At the same time, it means having fewer options to get support and protection.

Through our members and partners, we got in touch and spoke with people who have experienced mistreatment while being undocumented. They told us what they went through, how they reacted, and what safety means to them.

We spoke to people from Brazil, Ivory Coast, Mexico, Senegal. Some spoke under conditions of anonymity, for fear of repercussions on their lives, while others chose to show their face while sharing their stories. For many, living without a residence permit is an important, but by no means the only, piece of the puzzle in their experience of discrimination and safety, as well as belonging: being black, being poor, being a woman, being a trans woman, being perceived as a foreigner but also being far away from family are all factors that affect how they are treated.


Everyone’s experience is different. But all agree that protection and safety are not a reality for all yet.

Living without a residence permit means being at constant risk of being detained and deported to another country. Exploitative employers and abusive partners know this all too well, and can take advantage of this insecurity to continue mistreating them. They know that people with no, or precarious, residence permits are very unlikely to seek help, especially from the authorities.

He used to tell me that I was nothing, that even if I’d report him they wouldn’t believe me” – Aya

Going to the police is often not an option at all.

You don’t go and report robbery or something worse, because you are afraid that in the end, it goes against you” – Sabrina

The people we spoke to know that law enforcement authorities are likely to report them to immigration enforcement if they come forward, because of how irregular stay is criminalised or regarded with suspicion.

You are afraid to go to the police because it’s like going to get arrested” – Solo

Far from getting support and protection, people with no or precarious residence permits are likely to be punished twice, first through the violence and abuse they endure from others, and then through detention and deportation from immigration enforcement.

Institutional racism, in particular in the criminal justice system, is another factor that keeps many black and brown undocumented people away from law enforcement.

The lawyer told me very clearly: the judge will not believe what you are going to say’” – Daouda

Social support services may also be unavailable to people without residence permits. For instance, public-funded shelters for women experiencing domestic violence are sometimes unable to open their doors to undocumented women, because expenses they’d incur wouldn’t be covered.

Without papers, they treat you differently. I’ve seen it with the social services, and with the police as well” – Adriana

Barriers to safety are many, but there are solutions.

The people we talked to spoke about regularisation, specialised  and inclusive support for those who are victims of domestic violence, and the possibility of filing complaints without facing deportation. Most of all, they spoke of equality.

It’s the only thing we ask for, to have rights like everybody else” – Aya

At PICUM, we recognise that many things are needed to ensure everyone is safe and protected. When it comes to risks linked to immigration enforcement, “safe reporting” refers to a holistic set of measures that prioritise the safety and rights of all victims above the enforcement of immigration rules.

Everyone deserves to be safe. Let’s make access to support and protection a reality for all, with or without papers.