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Responding to Government Calls for Evidence 

  • We submitted written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry; Equality and the UK asylum process, which examined the fairness of the UK asylum process, looking at the experiences of people seeking asylum who have a range of protected characteristics (as defined in the UK’s Equality Act). Hibiscus evidence was published on the committee’s website. Women and Equalities Committee – Written evidence – Committees – UK Parliament 
  • We submitted written evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry; Children in poverty: No recourse to public funds (NRPF), which analysed child poverty and the effects of the lack of access to welfare benefits for migrant children and their families. Hibiscus evidence was published on the committee’s website: Find written evidence – Committees – UK Parliament 


As well as providing specialist services to foreign national and BMER women and men affected by the UK criminal justice system, we also aim to provide high quality evidence to policy-makers on the issues our clients face.

Ethnic disparities and inequality in the UK: Response to call for evidence

November 2020

What do you consider to be the main causes of racial and ethnic disparities in the UK, and why?     

Hibiscus Initiatives (Hibiscus) is a voluntary sector organisation with distinct expertise in working with marginalised foreign national and black, minority ethnic and refugee (BMER) women in prison, in the community, and in immigration removal centres, where Hibiscus also works with male detainees. Hibiscus has its origins in the charity Female Prisoners Welfare Project, which was established in 1986 by Olga Heaven MBE. Hibiscus was set up with the explicit mission of supporting one of the most consistently and systematically excluded groups of people – female prisoners. In particular, Hibiscus was set up to address a gap in provision for Black women and women from overseas in HMP Holloway in recognition of the higher levels of isolation and poor treatment experienced by these women and the lack of access to justice and services in comparison to their white and British counterparts.

As such, the organisation was founded to challenge and redress racial injustices and inequalities of experience of Black and migrant women. Furthermore, it was set up with a keen understanding of the intersectionality of experience these women faced, where their disadvantage, maligning, and dis-inclusion was compounded by both their race and their
nationality, in a country where systematic racism and hostility towards migrants is all too evident, in particular in institutions of justice and government. The groups we work with are often further disadvantaged by vulnerabilities experienced by migrants, including English not being the first language and uncertain immigration status leading to financial insecurity owing to the No Resource to Public Funds condition.

From our work it is clear that there is no single or simple cause of racial and ethnic disparities in the UK; but a complex interplay of disadvantage and exclusion. Understanding and addressing these disparities can only be achieved through centring the voices of people of colour to lead the debate on the inequalities they experience.

What could be done to enhance community relations and perceptions of the police?

Hibiscus works across the pillars of prisons, immigration removal centres (IRCs), courts, and the community. The women we work with have told us they feel unable to disclose experiences of abuse or trafficking concerns to authorities, including the police, due to: cultural expectations; language difficulties; threat of detention and removal from the UK; a lack of understanding of relevant legislation; inability to access information pertaining to their rights; feelings of isolation; unfamiliarity with local support services; dependence on their abuser to remain in the UK; no recourse to public funds/services, and lack of access to ID. Better awareness-raising and training for police officers in how to respond to disclosures of abuse or trafficking may go some way to addressing these barriers, but engaging with specialist community organisations such as Hibiscus is also vital to build trust between women in these communities and the police.

One way to overcome these barriers is to provide support for potential victims through cultural language mediation. This can include but is not limited to, practical support and provision of services that will contribute to victim’s empowerment through opportunities to learn and understand the host’s language, culture, and institutions to facilitate integration and civic participation.

In contrast to an interpreter or translator, who may have a passive role of communicating the text from one language to another, an independent cultural mediator can facilitate effective dialogue and the building of trust between potential victims, supporting agencies, and the police. Where appropriate the cultural mediator may intervene to clarify communication to prevent or reduce misunderstanding and undesirable outcomes that arise from it, in effect helping to shape exchanges.

Our ambition is that cultural language mediators should eventually be present at police stations, custody suites, within the probation service, prisons, and within mental health teams based in the courts and support agencies.

What do you consider to be the main causes of the disparities in crime between people in different racial and ethnic groups, and why?
From our experience working with foreign national and BMER women in different stages of the criminal justice system (CJS), it is vital to understand the experiences and vulnerabilities of marginalised women which can lead to differential involvement in, and outcomes in, the CJS. Many of the women we work with experience multiple disadvantages, and are victims of abuse, human trafficking, or other criminal activity; and their own offending behaviour cannot be viewed in isolation. Women referred to our community project with recent experience of the criminal justice system (within the last 2 years) have high resettlement needs, particularly in relation to housing, health and wellbeing, substance misuse, employment, and overcoming the language barrier through utilising ESOL and literacy support.

One area of particular concern is in relation to people who may be victims of trafficking (VoT). Our 2018 report with the Prison Reform Trust, Still No Way Out, found that foreign national women, many of whom are accused or convicted of non-violent offences and who have in many cases been trafficked or coerced into offending, are receiving inadequate legal representation, poor interpreting services, and disproportionate punishment. Hibiscus has long-term experience of work with women who are VoT and has specialist knowledge of the complexities and interrelationship between immigration, trafficking, the criminal justice system, and the impact of these on VoT. Since April 2016 we have seen a steep increase of foreign national women referred to our services who have been identified or are potential victims of human trafficking (14% increase between 2018-19 and 2019-20). In many cases where they have been convicted, the offence was directly related to their trafficking.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015 introduced a defence for victims of modern slavery compelled to commit a criminal offence. Yet evidence confirms that victims of modern slavery continue to be prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit. Hibiscus project workers in prison identify potential victims of trafficking who were failed to be recognised by the authorities at the time of arrest. For example, Hibiscus identified 45 women in prison as victims or potential victims of trafficking from February 2013 to March 2017, all of whom had disclosed information about their exploitation. They were in prison for between one and three months to up to three years. Through our experience, we also observed that potential victims of trafficking are very reluctant to disclose information about their experiences in prison, so the true number may well be higher. Their incarceration is traumatic for them and it takes time for them to establish trusting relationships in order to disclose.

From our work with women in settings such as Westminster Magistrates Court, it is evident that language and cultural barriers also have a negative impact on access to justice. Foreign national women appearing in court are predominantly of Roma ethnicity, arrested on charges of theft/attempted theft from tourists in central London, who are disproportionately likely to receive a custodial sentence. These women have a very limited understanding of the prison
and the court proceedings. The majority are dependent on interpreter support and with some there is evidence of minimal literacy skills which interpreters do not always take into account. The resultant lack of engagement with, or understanding of, court proceedings was exacerbated by reliance on duty solicitors whose demanding schedule limited contact time and court interpreters whose service was limited to interpretation of dialogue with the solicitor prior to the hearing and of the official court proceedings.

Can you suggest other ways in which racial and ethnic disparities in the UK could be addressed? In particular, is there evidence of where specific initiatives or interventions have resulted in positive outcomes? Are there any measures which have been counterproductive and why?                                                                                               

An evaluation of Hibiscus’ pilot project at Westminster Magistrates Court in 2018 identified a huge need, no doubt replicated at other courts that experience with a high turnover of foreign national women, to improve dialogue and effective information sharing between the Bench and the defendant, and ensure that sentencing decisions take account of individual personal circumstances and awareness of specialist community provision. The impact of Hibiscus engagement with non-UK defendants at the court, the majority of whom they spoke to without the need for interpreter support, was noticeable in relation to ensuring women were better informed of the procedures and relevant information was gathered and shared with Probation and relevant others. This reduced the potential disparity of how these non-English speakers experienced the court process. One measurable impact of this was their involvement in five cases where requests for court reports resulted in community sentences with an expectation of engagement with service provision at the Hibiscus Women’s Centre.

Evidence matters

In 2019/2020 we provided support to over 2,300 people a year in prisons, in immigration removal centres (IRCs) and in the community. Evidence is important to us as it helps us untangle the facts behind sensationalist headlines and draw funders and policy makers’ attention to the multiple, complex challenges our clients face.

Evidence helps us demonstrate which services have the most positive impacts. For example, between 2016 and 2017 there was a 35% increase in people identified as potential victims of trafficking (National Crime Agency) and we too have an increasing numbers of clients seek our support with matters relating to having been trafficked. In the last year we’ve supported 264 clients with trafficking concerns.  Our analysis suggests that some women and men who are convicted on evidence of a crime, have in fact been trafficked or coerced into criminal activity, occasionally wrongly ending up in prison instead of being correctly identified and supported.

Evidence we gather from our own work and from other expert sources helps us to constantly assess the need for our existing services and development of new services. Only with evidence we can establish and demonstrate which services make a positive and tangible difference.

UK statistics


Approximately 11% of women in prison are foreign nationals. Some are known to have been coerced into offending or trafficked.

In September 2018 approximately 60% of foreign national women in prison were from Europe, with the largest groups from Romania, Poland and Ireland.


The UK has one of the largest networks of immigration detention facilities in Europe

As at the end of March 2018, there were 2,400 people in the detention estate (excluding prisons). This was 18% lower than the same time the previous year. In addition, 358 immigration detainees were held in HM Prisons.


In 2017 5,145 potential victims of trafficking were submitted to the National Referral Mechanism – a 35% increase on 2016. (National Referral Mechanism Statistics, March 2018)


Black women were twice as likely as white women to receive a custodial sentence in the Crown Court for drugs offences. Asian and other minority ethnic women were over 40% more likely than white women to be convicted at magistrates’ court.

UK prison statistics are from 2018: Ministry of Justice , Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings and the National Referral Mechanism Statistics (human trafficking)

Sentencing source: Analysis conducted for the Lammy Review of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation in the Criminal Justice System (2016)




Last year we supported 199 potential victims of trafficking in prisons, in detention and in community



Last year we supported 199 potential victims of trafficking in prisons, in detention and in community



Last year we supported 199 potential victims of trafficking in prisons, in detention and in community



Last year we supported 199 potential victims of trafficking in prisons, in detention and in community