ON SUNDAY 11 MAY 2003, a report by Liz Hayes about Russian brides in Australia was aired on Channel Nine's 60 Minutes program. Ms Hayes referred to a "loophole" in legislation that, she says, enabled Russian women, sponsored as spouses by Australian men, to exploit those men by accusing them of domestic violence. Ms Hayes went on to say that the Australian Government even went to the trouble of telling these women about the domestic violence laws and how to access them before they entered Australia.
The laws to which Ms Hayes was referring are not a "loophole" in legislation, but are in fact a specific, intended and important provision in the Migration Regulation.
In the late 1980s - early 1990s practitioners in the field of domestic violence prevention were becoming increasingly concerned about an emerging pattern of abuse of women sponsored as spouses and fiancées by male Australian residents. Much of the concern related to the abuse of Filipino women and repeat sponsorship by individual men. For example, in June 1989, South Australian press reported the concerns of a refuge worker about cases involving men sponsoring three or more women, abusing each and causing their deportation (serial sponsors), followed in 1990 by reports at a South Australian Conference of the "plague proportions" of violence against sponsored Filipino women.
In response to increasing pressure from community groups, media and some state government organisations to address this issue, provisions were inserted into Australian migration law to protect sponsored spouses and fiancées from domestic violence. Further, the then Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs (DILGEA) invited the Centre for Multicultural Studies, University of Wollongong to research the link between repeat sponsorship and domestic violence.
The University of Wollongong research involved 110 active or recent (within previous two years) repeat sponsors. Of these cases, 53 had sponsored on two occasions and 57 had sponsored at least three times (with the maximum being five times). Of the 110 repeat sponsors 73% (80) were known to have perpetrated some form of domestic violence. Their research identified that repeat sponsors were more numerous in Queensland, the Northern Territory and the northern half of Western Australia, and that high mobility of repeat sponsors was a consistent finding.
As a result of their research, Iredale et al recommended changes in four broad areas to deal with serial sponsorship: 1) better counselling for overseas spouses/fiancées; 2) better monitoring to identify serial sponsors; 3) serial sponsors to pay a bond and the sponsored spouse/fiancée to be informed of history of domestic violence and sexual assault; 4) improved access to onshore community support for sponsored spouses/fiancées. The best government response to these recommendations was "the establishment of better procedures for identifying and monitoring serial sponsors".
Justice Elizabeth Evatt, for the Australian Law Reform Commission (1994), also investigated the issue of domestic violence and repeat sponsorship. Key recommendations from the LRC were that: 1) the Migration Act be amended to allow the collection of information about previous sponsorships and, where there was more than one sponsorship, any record of violence; and 2) that this information be provided to the sponsored person. In spite of strong advocacy from community groups, ethnic organisations, women's policy agencies and others, the latter recommendation has never been implemented, due mainly to privacy concerns.
Research by Cunneen and Stubbs, requested by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in response to the extent to which Filipino women and children in Australia were the victims of homicide, highlights the severity of the serial sponsorship problem. Their research showed that Filipino women (born in the Philippines but now living in Australia) were 5.6 times more likely than other women in Australia to be homicide victims. In 17 cases of homicide identified in their study, the perpetrator was an adult male and in the majority of cases he was either the spouse, ex-spouse, de facto or father of the victim. The relationship between these homicides and sponsorship was found to be significant, with only one case in 12 having met their partner onshore.
In one of these cases, the offender had "gone to the Philippines in the early 1980s with three mates to find brides. A 60 Minutes television program was the inspiration for the trip because it implied that there were young attractive Filipino women ready to marry Australian men".
In spite of the evidence in the various research reports, the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs has sought to review and restrict the use of the domestic violence legislation on three occasions. For example, the Migration Regulations (Amendment) 1997, sought to provide that "only final court orders are acceptable forms of evidence of domestic violence". An Explanatory Statement concerning the amendments states that its purpose is "to curtail abuse of the domestic violence provisions...". It is unclear what evidence of abuse, if any, the Minister is relying on, although one could surmise that it is of the quality provided for the 60 Minutes May 2003 story. That is, the versions of events presented by men whose partners have left them, without the opportunity to hear from the women about the abuse they have alleged. The 1997 amendments were blocked in the Senate on a motion from Senator Jan McLucas.
Further, and summarising Lesley Hunt's explanation of the legal requirements, the primary criteria for the sponsored partner visas are that the relationship is genuine and continuing. If so, a temporary (two year) residence visa will be granted and if, at the end of the two year period the relationship is again found to be genuine and continuing, permanent residence is granted. However, if the relationship does not continue because of domestic violence (which is evidenced through a court order, statutory declarations and/or police records of assault) permanent residence will still be granted.
As Hunt says: "It is important to note that... the relationship has already been assessed by immigration department officials, as being genuine and continuing. Therefore it cannot be construed that women are not in genuine marriages and are making false allegations of domestic violence in order to obtain permanent residence".
Also, obtaining the necessary proof of domestic violence is no easy task for anyone. Being in a foreign country, often with a foreign language, and often in isolated areas (as many sponsored spousal families are) makes it even more difficult. If these women were fabricating domestic violence to acquire permanent residency outside the relationship, why wouldn't they wait the two years, then leave? They don't wait two years because it is not safe for them to do so and they are prepared to go to substantial lengths to secure their safety. Domestic violence is a serious issue with serious impacts, including homicide. In June 2001, Australian parliamentarians at the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development, in Bangkok, reported, "Research has indicated that serial sponsorship of visa applicants seeking to migrate to Australia appears to be highly correlated with the perpetration of domestic violence".
While international conventions do not explicitly address serial sponsorship, several conventions contain articles that are relevant. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Article 5a) requires that States:
Modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women to eliminate practices, which are based on the idea of superiority or inferiority of either sex.
As Justice Evatt says, domestic violence is clearly such a practice.
While Liz Hayes' old tabloid standard of journalism 'never let the facts get in the way of a good story' is of general concern, there is much more at stake in this case. Every effort must be made to retain the integrity of the domestic violence provisions in the Migration Regulation, which are certainly no 'loophole' and without which many more women and children would suffer ongoing abuse, violence and possibly homicide.
N.B. This is a very brief overview of a complex matter. For further information on the domestic violence provisions in the Migration Regulation, see Lesley Hunt's paper on the Centre's website (see URL below) or contact Lesley Hunt Migration and Consultancy Services (phone: 07 3358 5844).
Also, the South Brisbane Immigration and Community Legal Service (phone: 07 3846 318) may be able to assist with related immigration matters, and the Immigrant Women's Support Service (phone: 07 3846 3490) may be able to assist women, particularly in Brisbane, affected by serial sponsorship.