‘Denied a voice’: how Australia fails migrant victims of domestic violence

·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Richard Milnes/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Richard Milnes/REX/Shutterstock

After the police arrived at her home, Lillian* began to feel dizzy. Her husband had attacked her with a military-style knife; the cut on her hand was so deep she could not stop the bleeding. The man had grabbed her throat and squeezed. He had punched her in the face, breaking her glasses.

Lillian had called triple-zero on that Saturday night and told the operator: “my husband wants to kill me”.

About an hour later when officers arrived, they observed the lounge suite “soaked in blood” and red stains throughout the house. Lillian lay down on a yoga mat, feeling cold chills, clutching a cloth to her hand.

Police asked Lillian, who was born in Asia, only one question during their visit on 9 December 2017: could she speak English.

“But they didn’t ask me what happened,” Lillian says.

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Lillian told the police she didn’t speak much English. The officers did not interview her or attempt to call an interpreter. Instead, they spoke with her Australian husband.

Despite her injuries, the police report characterised Lillian as “the offender” and she was issued a domestic violence order.

Speaking through a Mandarin interpreter, Lillian told Guardian Australia that being labelled a perpetrator, rather than victim of domestic violence, created further problems that ultimately placed her in more danger.

She was forced to return to a controlling relationship in order to protect her visa status. She feared losing custody of her child. Hospital records label her a domestic violence offender, and as a result she was denied access to a victims’ compensation scheme.

In July, the Queensland civil and administrative tribunal (QCat) member Glen Cranwell reviewed Lillian’s case.

“Women claiming to be the victims of domestic violence need to be heard before they can be believed,” Cranwell wrote in the first line of his extraordinary judgement.

“I have believed her.”

‘Dependent’ on husband

At the time of the incident, Lillian was living in Australia on a student visa and spoke little English. Her husband, who she had a child with, knew no Mandarin.

“I was really dependent on my husband, which meant I didn’t really lead a life of my own,” she says. “At the time I didn’t have any means of transport. Where we were living was far away from [Brisbane’s] Asian communities. I asked him to drive me there, where Chinese people were gathering, to do grocery shopping.

“Because my husband’s work was not that stable, we were always having quarrels about money.”

Despite her growing isolation, Lillian says she didn’t think the arguments with her husband were a “big deal” until late in 2017, when she was seriously assaulted during an argument about money, prompting her call to police.

Related: Migrant women ‘at risk’ in changes to Australian welfare access

In self-defence, she says she grabbed a metal broom and hit the man, causing a small cut on his arm.

The police report detailed what they found at their townhouse:

Observed wet red stains which appeared to be blood on the garage, laundry, dining room and lounge room floors. There was a clothing item on the lounge suite soaked in blood as well as pools of blood on the lounge suite. On the lounge room floor was a child playpen covered in blood smears.

Lillian recalls: “When the police arrived their attitude was quite strange. They treated me as if I was a prisoner and he told me ‘don’t move, don’t do this, don’t do that’.

“At that time I had lost too much blood and I felt really cold, so I wrapped my hand up with a cloth.

“When I was waiting for the ambulance to come, the police didn’t talk to me or ask me any questions other than asking me ‘can you speak English?’ I said I couldn’t speak much English and as far as I remember that was the only conversation I had with police.”

In the days after the incident, a friend helped Lillian and her young daughter move to a women’s refuge. Two months later, having been named as the offender on a domestic violence order, she returned reluctantly to her husband who had promised to help her with her visa.

Related: Melbourne project helps women recover from economic abuse by partners

“At that time I was on a student visa. If I wanted to stay in Australia, I must have a [spouse] visa. After that I went back to live with him.

“All he wanted me to do when I returned is to stay at home. To not go out to work, not to socialise with other people outside, don’t have contact with people outside. During this period of time we were still having disputes at home, he would push me. One time he pushed me down the stairs.”

Department Human Services website
‘At that time I was on a student visa. If I wanted to stay in Australia, I must have a [spouse] visa. After that I went back to live with him.’ Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

‘Blind spot’

The experiences of migrant women are a “blind spot” in the Australian understanding of domestic violence, says Yasmin Khan, who runs the Bangle Foundation, a women’s support service in Brisbane.

“One of the issues is we don’t have data, so we can’t measure anything,” Khan says.

“The experiences of [culturally diverse] women aren’t analysed anywhere, so it’s all anecdotal stuff.”

Khan says cultural isolation and visa issues are commonly used as tools for coercive control. Language difficulties in turn prevent women from being heard, reinforcing the power of the abuser.

“We don’t know about all the times when [a woman] is in a vulnerable situation and doesn’t report it. She doesn’t know where she will go, where she will escape to.

“Women in that situation can’t just make a phone call and get out. If these people don’t have a place to go to, don’t have access to a visa … the system makes it difficult for those women to report an issue or to get help after reporting an issue.

Related: Are police biased when responding to domestic violence?

“It’s this huge mountain of stuff she’s got to climb over just to be safe and secure.”

Khan says police rarely hire a translator in domestic matters, where they might seek to resolve the issue by use of a protection order, rather than treating an incident as criminal or requiring detailed investigation.

“A lot of women will tell you that they didn’t get a chance to speak, [that the police] spoke to him.”

Queensland’s domestic and family violence death review board, in its most recent annual report, noted that since 2006 there had been 41 domestic and family homicides where the victim identified as culturally and linguistically diverse.

The board found there was a “need for more culturally appropriate processes and services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander [people] and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds”.

Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety conducted a 2020 study into statistics that showed almost half the women murdered by an intimate partner in Queensland had previously been labelled by police as the perpetrator of domestic violence.

A Queensland police service spokesman said that since the incident involving Lillian in December 2017, police had made significant “organisational enhancements”, including new guidelines that officers “must access an accredited translator service” if any person involved in a family violence incident is unable to communicate.

Queensland police
Queensland police say they have made significant ‘organisational enhancements’ since the incident involving Lillian. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

Police said domestic violence risk assessments now recognise “cultural considerations” as a factor that must be considered by investigating officers.

A new training package – to be rolled out to officers later this year – will include “information on coercive control including specific links and acknowledgements surrounding culturally and linguistically diverse persons”.

“The situation confronting police upon arriving at a DFV incident is often challenging and complex,” the police spokesman said. “The QPS embraces the opportunity for continuous learning to ensure our DFV prevention response remains contemporary and reflective of best practice.”

Fight for compensation

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the same cultural and language barriers that make women vulnerable will also hinder their ability to seek justice.

Lillian ultimately obtained a visa to stay in Australia and escaped her violent relationship. To help support her daughter, she sought victims of crime compensation from the state scheme, Victims Assist, but was rejected. According to the system she was a perpetrator, not a victim.

She was able to dispute the compensation decision in QCat, with the assistance of the legal referral service, LawRight, and pro-bono representation by Brisbane firm Fuller and White.

“Lillian was on the back foot from the get-go as she went up against the significant power and resources of the state government,” says solicitor Kurt McDonald from Fuller and White.

“She had to take protracted and lengthy steps across multiple services to get a just outcome. She had to navigate a complex system in a language she struggled to understand and relied on community and pro-bono services.”

Her case went before the tribunal this year.

The judgment noted that Lillian’s husband would have had “considerable power over” her during the period while she was waiting to obtain a spouse visa.

Cranwell found it was “more probably than not” that Lillian’s version of events was true and that she had been “denied a voice” by not being allowed to tell her story to authorities.

“I felt that [not being interviewed] was really unfair,” she told the Guardian.

“At the time, people from the women’s refuge said that police shouldn’t do things like this. I feel really upset that no one trusted me.

“Now I think that no matter which country you are from, if you are going to stay in another country you need to protect yourself.”

*Name has been changed

• In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org.

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