Reflecting on women in migration law

International Women’s day was yesterday. I haven’t taken the time to celebrate it for a number of years. But this time I did. I attended a Vice Chancellor function, held my own afternoon celebration, drank a silent toast to a wonderful woman I know undergoing surgery and went to the Pamela Noonan lecture at ANU. It was a nice day.

Last night I thought about past clients, how women are treated in immigration policy and law in Australia.

In the last ten years I have worked with many women facing family violence and struggling to resolve their visa status whilst doing so. The ‘lucky ones’ fall under the family violence provisions within the Migration Act and may have a way to follow that legislative process and remain in Australia. In many instances even these provisions fail women.

For those that do not fall under these provisions, such as women on student visas or temporary work visas, the prospects of remaining in Australia without their husbands or partner are small. In many cases these women choose to remain with violent partners because to do anything else places them at risk of losing their children, their work and their ability to financially survive.

Women who have Australian children to an Australian citizen father are particularly vulnerable. There is no visa option available to them to ensure that they can remain in Australia with their child. These children are known in the department as ‘anchor children’, a term that reflects a policy perspective which indicates that these women had their babies for the sole purpose of gaining permanent residency.

So women who do not fall into the family violence provisions or those with ‘anchor children’ must seek ministerial intervention through one pathway or another. This is long and arduous and many times unsuccessful. It can take up to five years to reach the Minister, who is not obligated under law to consider the case. I have seen women separated from their children and made homeless trying to traverse this path.

I have also worked with women who have arrived under our humanitarian program and shown great courage when faced with the results of cultural practices they endured as children or faced with separation (sometimes abandonment) from their husbands here in Australia when their husbands decide they have become too ‘independent’, or abandoned because their husband wants to continue the cultural practice of taking a second wife and even third wife.

I have worked with women who don’t attend the English classes available to them because their husbands don’t believe these opportunities should be open to them. And I have worked with highly educated women who arrived on humanitarian visas with loving husbands and partners that were shattered emotionally and mentally by their efforts to save their families. These women then become the sole breadwinners in Australia, learning new languages and skills whilst raising their children.

I have even met and advocated for women on Nauru who were separated from their husbands, brothers and sons due to cruel policies which reduced them to faceless boat people.

I don’t work with skilled visa applicants. The stories I see only become positive when we can find a solution, when we can navigate the complex pathways of the Act, Regulations and Ministerial Directives.

Because of this the world of the women I work with is vastly different from that of an Australian citizen. These women remain the backbone of the family. For many, traditional roles have not changed and great employment advances have not been made. They work in low skilled jobs despite their education and background and their goal is to ensure their children have a better life.

The Migration Act is full of areas that allow women to fall into poverty and risk the safety of women and their children. It is time that a considered review of these areas was carried out so the impact of migration law and policy on women can be fully understood.

Marianne Dickie

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