Xanthe Emery: Family violence and immigration – is the message getting across?

Family violence in Australia is at epidemic levels, with some horrific high profile cases dominating the news in 2014. Migrant women in Australia are extremely vulnerable to violence from their partners. Threats to cancel a woman’s visa are used to frighten, intimidate, and coerce her to stay in a violent relationship. More could be done to ensure that migrants are aware you don’t have to remain in a violent relationship to obtain a visa.

Visas for family members of Australian citizens, permanent residents, and some eligible New Zealand citizens will make up 32% of the migration programme for Australia in the 2014-15 financial year. Partner visas (including spouses, de facto couples and fiancés) make up the vast majority of the visas in the family stream. In the 2014-15 year, the government has planned for 47,825 partner visas.[1] Generally, partner visas are granted first as temporary visas. After approximately two years, temporary partner visa holders can move to a permanent partner visa, once they have satisfied the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (“DIBP”) that the relationship with their sponsoring partner is genuine and continuing.

However, in certain circumstances, a person can be granted a permanent partner visa, despite the fact that the relationship with their sponsoring partner has ended. One of these exceptions is where a visa applicant can demonstrate that they have experienced family (or domestic) violence at the hands of their sponsoring partner during the relationship. Very specific evidence is required to satisfy DIBP that violence has occurred, and the burden of providing the evidence remains with the visa applicant. These are referred to as the ‘family violence provisions’, and are part of measures to ensure that vulnerable migrants (predominantly women) don’t have to choose between their visa and their safety. 

A number of recent high profile cases of family violence have caused politicians, the media, and the public to turn their attention to an issue that is a national disgrace. In 2013, there were 27,000 domestic assaults reported to NSW police.[2] And this only reflects assaults actually reported. An Australian Bureau of Statistic study in 2005 found that 82% of women who experienced violence from a current partner did not report it to police. Globally, intimate partner violence is one of the leading causes of death for women.[3]

For migrant women in Australia, social isolation, lack of English language skills, unfamiliarity with Australian law, or dependence on sponsors, means they may be particularly vulnerable to domestic violence, and less able to take steps to leave a violent relationship. One of the most powerful tools partners use to suppress and control migrant women is the threat to have her visa cancelled or have her “kicked out” of Australia. Many women disclose a fear of immigration officials appearing at their front door and escorting them straight to the airport. Coupled with this, is the fear many women have for their futures if they return to their home country, separated and shamed. Additionally, the fear of losing access to children influences women to remain in violent relationships.

In the 2012-13 financial year, there were 867 family violence claims made to DIBP. This is a small proportion of the number of partner visas but likely doesn’t reflect the true number of women at risk because many women do not report violence to police, let alone to Immigration.

Family violence is not unique to particular ethnic groups or people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Migrant women from a variety of countries, ethnicities, religious affiliations and economic standing experience family violence from their sponsoring partner.

So are we doing enough to ensure that migrant women are aware they can access protection in Australia and don’t need to choose between an abusive relationship and being forced to leave Australia? Many victims do not know that their partner has no power to cancel their visa and are unaware of the existence of the family violence provisions.

The challenge for DIBP and Australian policy makers is to protect the family violence provisions from fraud, whilst ensuring that migrant communities are aware of the existence of the provisions and the help that is available. Abuse and misuse of the family violence provisions will have the biggest impact on genuine family violence victims. If the family violence provisions are viewed as a loophole for gaining residency, genuine family violence victims are likely to be viewed with suspicion. Seeking and then accessing help, as well as speaking up about their experiences, can be an extremely difficult ask for migrant women. Adding to this a sense that they must prove what they have been through is real, can be too much for some to cope with.

Additionally, many women are unable to access legal assistance during this most difficult time. Financial vulnerability, and limited community legal services, means many women must try to fumble through complex immigration regulations unguided. For example, providing a letter instead of a statutory declaration, or a social worker failing to name the perpetrator of the violence in their evidence, can mean a person’s visa is refused. The consequences for mistakes here are serious. What is also important to remember is that while negotiating their immigration status and dealing with DIBP, many migrant women are also suffering from the trauma of their experiences, homelessness, and abject poverty.

Funding has been cut to women’s refuges in NSW and a number of refuges are closing down. This is a big problem because many women are referred via the refuge for further help, including legal assistance. Often, a victim’s first point of call is the Domestic Violence Crisis Line and/or the police. Victims who are then homeless are usually assisted to find accommodation in a women’s refuge. The refuges have great staff and social workers who then assist their clients to sort out their various issues. There are serious concerns that without refuges, many women will become homeless, but also this vital referral ‘hub’ will be lost. This will mean more women are unaware of what to do about their immigration situation if their relationship ends with their sponsor.

Australia’s migrant community, particularly women at risk of social and cultural isolation, would benefit from a targeted campaign that makes clear what their rights are once they arrive in Australia, and that violence need not be tolerated in order to hold on to a visa.

Xanthe Emery is a solicitor at the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre, a community legal centre in Sydney.

[1] Migration Programme statistics from the Department of Immigration an Border Protection: https://www.immi.gov.au/media/statistics/statistical-info/visa-grants/migrant.htm

[2] ‘Time to act on domestic violence’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March 2014: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/smh-editorial/time-to-act-on-domestic-violence-20140307-34cqt.html

[3] K.M. Devries et al, ‘The global prevalence of intimate partner violence against women’, June 2013: http://www.cugmhp.org/gamma/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/TheoVos2013-article3WomenViolence.pdf

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