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covid-19 Domestic Violence Opinion

Christmas, coronavirus and coercive control

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coercive control

The number of reports of domestic violence related incidences typically surges during the Christmas-New Year’s break, due to alcohol, financial stress, a higher frequency of family gatherings, and families and couples spending more time together at home. 

This year has already seen a spike in incidents of abuse, thanks to Covid-19with couples and families further isolated from the outside world and social distancing measures making it more difficult for victim-survivors of abuse to seek help and extricate themselves from torturous relationships. 

A combination of the holiday break with pandemic restrictions could have grave consequences. 

At Settlement Services International (SSI) we are concerned about the impact of domestic and family violence – immigration facilitated coercive control in particular – in newcomer communities. We focused on that during 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, which concluded on Human Rights Day, December 10. 

NSW is currently debating whether coercive control should be legislated as a form of domestic and family violence (DFVabuse that can be prosecuted under the law, with the government releasing a discussion paper on the topic 

A perpetrator of coercive violence aims at controlling another person to achieve compliance and subservience, often rendering the victim-survivor feeling powerless and helpless.  

According to the government’s discussion paper, Coercive control is a form of domestic abuse involving repeated patterns of abusive behaviour – which can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse – the cumulative effect of which is to rob victim-survivors of their autonomy and independence.” 

In other words, it is a pattern of sustained abuse that inhibits another person from exercising their human rights.  

For newcomers to Australia, perpetrators may use levers that achieve coercive control that are not readily considered by others.  

Included here could be temporary visas holders, those who are sponsored to be able to travel to Australia, those on a partner visa, those whose partner has lived in Australia for a very long time, or all their life, and those where migration is a drawcard, offering a better life for themselves and the family back home.  

As multicultural practitioners we regularly see cases of coercive control where the perpetrators threaten to revoke the victim-survivor’s visa, ring the Immigration Department to cancel the visa, or initiate a police record so that the victim-survivor will lose the visa.  

Having lived here for some time, the perpetrator knows how to negotiate Australian service systems in their favour, prevent a victim-survivor from making social connections in Australia and, most of all, keep information from them, preventing them from understanding their rights. 

Temporary visa holders, unless on a partner visa, suffer the additional problem of not having any rights for income support, which renders them essentially without any support other than staying with the perpetrator.  

In NSW, there have been at least two deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, where the woman on a temporary visa returned to the perpetrator, due lack of income support.  

This is essentially a failure of government to protect those in danger of DFVThe exclusion from income support is even more significant during the pandemic when there are few jobs available 

Coercive control was discussed at a recent panel discussion organised by SSI and attended by Mark Speakman, NSW Attorney General and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, and Trish Doyle, Shadow Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. 

Five experts from the field of domestic and family violence who worked extensively with migrants and refugees, and of diverse backgrounds themselves, discussed the factors that influence DFV and help seeking behaviour in migrant communities.  

The panel also debated the federal government’s budget measures to combat DFV under the partner visa stream.  

The government suggested that any DFV from a previous relationship should be disclosed to the prospective partner, before the visa was granted. It made the panel wonder whether all fiancées in Australia should receive this information about their prospective spouse. Otherwise, one could think that there was a veiled form of racism at work. 

Coercive control also works in such ways that the victim-survivor is not necessarily aware that they are being groomed to become increasingly compliant. Once control is achieved it is very difficult to break out regardless of knowledge or English skills, as the victim-survivor is rendered powerless and feels that they must deserve whatever is meted out.  

To ensure the safety of women on temporary visas, and remove immigration legislation as a means of coercive control, we need a circuit breaker that only the government can provide.  

Women, and sometimes men, in an unsafe situation need access to an income stream until their visa situation is resolved in their own right. It is the only solution to enable a victim-survivor to leave a dangerous situation.  

SSI will support legislation that allows for persecution of coercive control, however it is concerned that all legal and enforcement agencies have the necessary training and skills to identify the problem at hand, that they can identify coercive control patterns and that they understand the levers that may be applied in the context of migration, leading to immigration facilitated abuse.  

In the meantime, holiday-makers in newcomer and established communities should keep on the lookout for family, friends, workmates and neighbours who might be experiencing domestic or family violence. Reach out to them, let them know you’re there for them, that they’re always welcome at your place, and listen without judgment. 

If advice is needed there are hotlines that operate 24/7 such as: 

  • 1800 RESPECT 
  • Life Line – 131 114 
  • Children’s Help Line 1800 55 1800 

The Translation and Interpreter Service (TIS) can be contacted on 131 450. 

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