A bill introduced by the Turnbull government to make families coming to Australia safer could have the reverse effect, writes Dr Marie Segrave.
After a call for submissions, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee has recommended that the Senate pass the Migration Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2016. This is despite 11 of the 14 submissions indicating that they did not support the amendments.
In introducing this bill, Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton stated the amendments can be considered “a very significant first step in protecting potentially vulnerable visa applicants from the risk of domestic violence when participating in the family sponsored visa program.”
Essentially the measures do the following. They add a sponsor assessment step into the visa application process (ie. the sponsor must be approved before a partner or family visa application can be submitted); they make the welfare obligations on partner and family visa sponsors (such as providing adequate accommodation) more robust by adding sanctions for failure to meet those obligations; and they enable personal information (such as police records) to be shared with the potential visa applicant.
Such measures might be well meaning. However, there is a clear concern that the specific situations of family risk that Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) women experience are not well understood by those making policy to protect them.
The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence acknowledged the specificity of risk for CALD women, and the recent report on family violence risk assessment in Victoria further identified that CALD women who do not have permanent residency or citizenship have particular risks that need to be better recognised.
This amendment and the subsequent Committee review, seems to have paid little attention to the complexities of situations of family violence, and how risk differs for victim survivors in CALD contexts, as detailed in a number of situations.
I raise four critical concerns here.
First, there is no recognition that those (in the majority of cases) applying for partner visas are already in a relationship with the sponsor. What this means is that the measures imply that CALD women are expected to leave and/or end their relationship if their partner has been violent in the past.
This runs counter to the recognition that women should be supported and empowered to know their options, and to provide comprehensive support so women can make the best decision for themselves. When children are involved the situation is different, as a criminal history check in mandated, and it is argued in many of the submissions that this is an appropriate protection mechanism.
Second, this process presumes that women are unaware of their partner’s history of and/or have not experienced any form of violence and abuse. For women who come to Australia having married their partner overseas or who meet and marry or plan to marry in Australia, there are many factors that impact a decision to remain in an abusive relationship and to continue to pursue a partner visa application despite abuse in the relationship.
In relation to migrant women in particular, there can be significant consequences – culturally, socially, financially, familial – for an accepted relationship breaking down. In recent research I was involved with in Victoria, a CALD family violence case worker explained that a client who had been married overseas did not want to report the offence or seek an IVO because she was afraid that this would mean she would have to leave Australia.
She told the case worker she would rather die here than experience the shame and abandonment that would await her in her home country. This attitude is not exceptional in CALD communities.
Third, it presumes that knowledge of a violent history empowers women. It is well known that knowing about violence and experiencing violence is not enough to enable women to be safer. We know that one of the leading risk factors for intimate partner killing is separation, which points to the need for intensive support rather than a refusal of the sponsorship application and then the provision of information that the sponsor has a history of abuse.
Finally, a significant concern is that this measure encourages women to remain silent. The message this sends to CALD women who are in situations of violence and whose migration status is tied to their abuser is to avoid interactions with the criminal justice system, as this may make any effort to access permanent status in Australia more difficult.
How could this be done better? In the submissions to the Inquiry there is a consistent call to follow the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2011 recommendations.
After considering this approach to sponsor checks, the ALRC recommended instead to focus on better informing and supporting women.
Reading the response of the Committee to the submissions, I think it is also worth saying that listening to rather than just acknowledging, those who are working with women in situations of violence is essential.
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