By Anna Pujol-Mazzini
LONDON, April 20(Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Maria wasn't sure which was worse - questions from the British police or another bloody beating by her boyfriend.
Her abusive partner knew the answer full well when he drove Maria - bathed in her own blood - to the doors of the police station and dared her to walk in and report him for assault.
Maria chose silence.
"The minute they heard about my legal situation, I was not going to be a victim anymore. I was going to be an illegal immigrant," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Living in Britain illegally, she was far more scared of being sent home to Cuba than of any beatings he might mete out.
For many migrant women, especially those without legal documents like Maria, the fear of arrest and deportation trumps the abuse they suffer, so many such crimes go unreported.
"You have a partner who tells you all the time that if you leave or if you do anything, you're going to be deported and the children will be taken away," said Carolina Gottardo, director of the London-based Latin American Women's Rights Service (LAWRS).
"Women actually believe that, because they don't understand the language, they don't understand what are their rights in this country," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While researchers say a woman is assaulted 35 times on average before her first call to the police, LAWRS estimates this figure rises to 60 with the undocumented women they help.
Fear of deportation, stigma around domestic violence and a simple language barrier can trap undocumented women in abusive relationships, according to Hillary Margolis, women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit that operates around the globe.
When they do come forward, shelters and other potential sources of help might turn them away as the women do not qualify for state-funded services, Margolis said.
Maria did not want to use her real name as she is a political dissident who fled Cuba in 1998. After overstaying her visa, she endured a decade of violence at the hands of her partner, suffering broken ribs and stitches to her face.
She never reported him to the police, and the abuse only stopped when he left her. As Maria explained:
"I didn't feel that I could ask for help from anyone."
Women who are more scared of the authorities than of their abusive partners face different scenarios in different countries.
In the United States, a transgender woman seeking court protection against a violent partner was arrested in February for a suspected violation of U.S. immigration law.
But in many European countries, women should - in theory at least - enjoy the protection of E.U.-wide standards aimed at preventing such violence.
The so-called Istanbul Convention provides for the protection of all women without discrimination on the grounds of migrant or refugee status, although it has only been ratified by one of every two European Union members.
Many state-funded groups that help refugees feel wary of speaking about undocumented migrants, whom they are not funded to help, in case it hurts their work.
"Advocates supporting undocumented victims are often overwhelmed and under-funded," said Eve Geddie, deputy director of a Brussels-based advocacy organisation, Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants.
"Many risk repercussions if speaking publicly on this issue – from loss of funding, to public backlash, and even attacks on their organisations and staff," she added.
But this means their story goes untold, said Geddie, and "the under-reporting fuels lack of recognition, response, and responsibility."
A WAY FORWARD?
In Amsterdam, home to more than 20,000 undocumented migrants, a pilot project began in 2013 to let undocumented communities report crimes free of worry about their status.
"We tried to get rid of their fear," said Michael Zwart, who works with undocumented communities for the Dutch police.
Zwart told the Thomson Reuters Foundation how he tried to build trust by setting up personal relations with community leaders, churches and charities that work with the undocumented.
After positive feedback from police, the policy was last year extended to every police station in the country.
"In Amsterdam, we saw an increasing number of undocumented people who came to the police, reporting serious crimes, domestic violence, trafficking," Zwart said.
Back in London, Maria feels she did not have that option.
For her, the violence was "horrible, but the hitting would eventually stop," whereas she said a return to Cuba would be like death.
It is nearly 20 years since she came to Britain and still Maria is trying to regularise her immigration status.
"Sometimes I wish he had killed me," she said. "He acted like he was invincible because in the end, that was the truth."
(Reporting by Anna Pujol-Mazzini @annapmzn, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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