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Caught between domestic violence and a visa: the suffering of migrant women

SPECIAL REPORT | Frontline workers in South Australia have revealed the extent of poverty, isolation and uncertainty in the lives of migrant women who experience domestic violence – and they say responses from the Department of Home Affairs and SA Police have added to women’s suffering.

Jul 06, 2018, updated Jul 06, 2018
File image: Kat Jayne/Pexels

File image: Kat Jayne/Pexels

Case managers working with migrant women at Women’s Safety Services SA told InDaily approximately 75 per cent of their clients experience issues with their visas – with those problems exacerbated by limited financial support, language barriers and family ostracisation.

While the prevalence of domestic violence against migrant women is unknown in Australia – in part due to migrant women’s tendency to not disclose or report violence to police – frontline workers said migrant women were particularly vulnerable to abuse from their partners due to differing attitudes towards violence against women in some of their home countries.

“I was working with a woman who came here with her children sponsored by her government to do study in Adelaide,” one domestic violence case manager told InDaily. 

“Her husband – she’s been married for eight years – he’s supposed to support her financially… he’s been abusive but that’s the norm in their country. Not only does he physically abuse her but he abuses the children as well.

“She had to study, she had to cook and wash – he was sitting at home doing nothing. She had to take her kids to school, help them with the schoolwork and he just enjoyed abusing all his family.

“Finally she decided to report to the police and now she’s saying, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

The case manager said the man was sentenced to prison “for a few months”, leaving the woman with no income as she was ineligible for Centrelink payments.

The woman is still in Australia waiting for the outcome of a 1410 Family Violence Provision from the Federal Government, which would grant her permanent residency in Australia if it deemed she had sufficient evidence to prove violence in the family home.

According to the Department of Home Affairs, on average, approximately 500 visa applicants seek to remain in Australia under family violence provisions each year.

The issuing of these provisions can be a lengthy process – workers have told InDaily it can take months – leaving women uncertain about their future in Australia.

“She’s now asking how long this process is going to take. We don’t know, no-one knows,” the case manager said about the case.

“She’s now here with her children, no income, she cannot get a job – though she speaks reasonable English.

“She has now suffered from post-traumatic stress.”

The police told her, ‘You can go but the boys have to stay – they’re Australian citizens, you cannot take them with you.’

Migrant Women’s Support Program manager Milenka Vasekova said it was common for migrant women who experienced domestic violence in Australia to also endure economic hardship, particularly in cases where the husband was the main income earner in the family.

According to Vasekova, Australia is leaving migrant women in “complete and utter destitution and poverty”, due to the lengthy visa provision process.

“For some of them, their immigration status doesn’t allow them to work, some of them can only work a certain amount of hours,” Vasekova said.

“Even though they might be allowed a certain number of hours we know the circumstances here in Australia, that if you don’t speak English and if there are cultural barriers, if you don’t understand systems, to find employment is incredibly difficult for this group of women.

“We shouldn’t have a group of people in a country like Australia living in those circumstances.”

Difficulties with policing

Frontline workers said reporting incidences of domestic violence to police could be a confronting task for some migrant women – with that process made harder by SAPOL’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to family violence.

“I got a referral for a middle-aged lady who doesn’t speak a word of English but who met this Australian man through a friend,” a second case manager told InDaily.  

“They got married about a year ago (and) the husband supported her on an 820 partner visa.

“The husband then just out of the blue withdrew that application. She doesn’t know why and then she came to me saying, ‘What can I do?’

“She said, ‘He has been really abusive to me (and) he’s now withdrawn the visa. I know I’ve got the option to report it and go to the police through the DV provision but out of cultural aspects I still see him as my husband.”

The case manager said the woman was sent a letter from the Immigration Department informing her that she had 28 days to declare the changes in her marriage.

The manager said during the 28-day window the woman was struggling to decide whether to end her marriage and report the domestic violence to police or to wait for her husband to change his mind and continue to sponsor her.

After being granted an extension, the manager said the woman eventually decided to make a statement to police.

Vasekova said women’s hesitance to report domestic violence to police was frequently driven by a reluctance to break cultural expectations and end a relationship.

She said the commitment of the majority of migrant women clients was to preserve their marriage and keep their family together.

Sometimes there are changes of immigration policies that impact our client group that we’re not advised or informed about and we can’t find out.

While Vasekova said Women’s Safety Services was “very much in favour” of SAPOL’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach to domestic violence, she said swift police action could also be a “turn off”.

“The cultural barriers and values request that you don’t do to report on your husband to police,” she said.

“When it comes to a right of the person to make a decision – how they want to respond to a problem, how they want that to be addressed and at what pace at the time that they’re ready – the response of SAPOL sometimes strips them of that right to decide.

“We take a client to the police to make a report and the police will take action straight away, whether she wants that action, whether she wants that level of intervention, whether she is ready for it.

“Sometimes the police’s actions can be a turn-off because women are afraid that they’re not ready, they think it will jeopardise a relationship, they think it will break a relationship to the point where it is beyond repair.

“Sometimes even the best approach might not be the best for everyone.”

In a statement to InDaily, SAPOL said while police were sensitive to cultural differences, when an incident was reported police were obliged to take “positive action” to ensure the safety of those involved.

“We appreciate that on occasion this may cause disruption and affect different cultures in varying ways, but our concern and priority always remains to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those involved,” a spokesperson said.

Vasekova said many migrant women would prefer a more rehabilitative approach to domestic and family violence.

“They believe that would strengthen their family relationships, instead of what they perceive to be a punitive criminal justice measure that breaks their families apart.”

“Concerning” gaps in translation services

Frontline workers have also highlighted gaps in SAPOL’s use of translators and interpreters for women who do not speak English as their first language.

One case manager said that rather than calling an independent translating service, SAPOL requested she act as translator for one of her clients.

She said in another case, SAPOL requested a child act as translator for his mother.

“She has two sons with this perpetrator – one son is supporting the father and the younger son is supporting her,” the case manager said.

“When an incident happened, a neighbour called the police. The police attended the property (but) the perpetrator had already left.

“Then the police were talking to the lady, she can’t express herself, so then the police started talking to the older son to ask what happened. He gave the police a totally different story to what the mother was saying.”

As a result, she said, “the police didn’t do anything to protect this lady from being abused by the perpetrator”.

Regional Domestic Violence Services executive manager Sue Underhill said the appropriate use of interpreters was important for women’s language, safety and confidentiality.

“We get fabulous responses from police so it is very important to highlight and acknowledge that, but I think what is really critical is there’s obviously still some work to be done around educating police around the use of interpreters,” she said.

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“You really need to ensure that you’ve got interpreters that speak the right language – for example, there might be different dialects – so it’s really important that you’ve got the right interpreter for the woman.”

SAPOL said it had strict policies in place relating to the use of interpreters, which it said were sourced through Government services and complied with national accreditation.

“SAPOL aims to avoid using family or friends in the place of interpreters to ensure there is no conflict of interest particularly when preparing material for court proceedings,” a spokesperson said.

“However, upon initial police attendance at the scene of an incident this may not immediately be available when police are attempting to understand the situation at hand and family or friends may be utilised.”

But Vasekova said problems with interpreters was happening at a “concerning” level.

“Even when we take women to the police station to report, often they ask the worker if they can translate,” she said.

“Sometimes our workers can’t translate so the police will ask the client if they can come back with a friend – like anything they can think of to not spend the budget on translators.

“How on earth can the police conduct a risk assessment and plan their intervention if they can’t even communicate clearly with the clients? That defeats the whole process.”

Women’s right to freedom “jeopardised’

Vasekova said migrant women’s freedom to move back to their country of origin after they experience domestic violence could be “jeopardised” when their Australian-born children are requested by law to remain in Australia.

“There are clients who would actually prefer to return to their home country and if they have children born here they lose their options,” she said.

“Their human right of freedom of movement is immediately jeopardised and its existence is questionable.”

One case manager described a case in which a woman who lived overseas with her children was manipulated by her Australian husband to bring the children to Australia on tourist visas.

“The Australian man, he used to live overseas and he met a woman and they had children together,” the case manager said.

“He decided to bring them here on a tourist visa (but) behind her back he applied for their citizenship, for passports for his children without the mother knowing.

“She had return (plane) tickets so at the airport, she was stopped by Federal Police because he (the husband) had put the boys on the airport watch list.

“The police told her, ‘You can go but the boys have to stay – they’re Australian citizens, you cannot take them with you.’”

“She said, ‘I’m not going to go back without my children,’ – her tourist visa only had three days left before it expired.

“Thank god, through somebody else she was able to contact our service and things got to this lawyer who worked for free.”

The case manager said the case was brought to court and the children were eventually allowed to return to their country of origin with their mother.

“This is not uncommon,” Underhill said.

“I’m so sad to say these horrific stories – they’re all unique but the common thing is that they’re often quite horrific in terms of what these women are subjected to.”

Communication between DV services and Department of Home Affairs a “struggle”

Frontline workers have described the uncertainty women face while waiting for the outcome of their family violence provision application as stressful.

Vasekova said the communication line between domestic violence services and the department was not transparent, meaning women were left in the unclear about their future.

“Sometimes there are changes of immigration policies that impact our client group that we’re not advised or informed about and we can’t find out,” she said.

“Because it impacts our clients we believe there should be some clear process of information transfer so we can work collaboratively and more efficiently and hopefully improve outcomes for these incredibly disadvantaged women.”

A South Australian parliamentary committee report into domestic and family violence in 2016 recommended that the State Government lobby the Commonwealth Government to ensure that decisions for victims of domestic violence applying for the 1410 Family Violence Provision be made “in a timely fashion and to explore options for income support for these victims whilst a decision is pending.”

Women’s Safety Services SA said former Minister for Women Zoe Bettison did raise the recommendation with her Commonwealth counterpart.

In a statement to InDaily, Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said the current State Government supported the recommendation and had raised the matter with the Federal Government.

But Vasekova said she had not noticed any changes in the Immigration Department’s handling of 1410 provisions since the recommendation was published.

She said she was in the process of exploring strategies with the Department of Home Affairs to develop better communication between the agencies.

“We want to foster positive collaboration, not create adversity but work collaboratively with the government with the same goal to improve services and resources,” she said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732. 

If this article has raised issues for you, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 

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