Migrant women and family violence

By BRONWEN BEECHEY. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Content warning: Suicide, violence against women. Note: The case studies in this article are based on the experiences of several women who I supported in my role as a social worker. Names and identifying details have been changed.

Tina Sharma arrived in Christchurch in June 2017 to join her husband. By September, she was dead. According to Coroner Alexandra Cunninghame’s report, released in April, Sharma took her own life because she was in a violent relationship. Evidence was given to the inquest that her husband, Narinder Singh, was controlling and abusive.

Sharma and Singh married in India in January 2017. Following her move to Christchurch, according to the coroner:

There is no evidence that she ever left the flat by herself to exercise, explore her new city, or shop. She did not have her own EFTPOS card or New Zealand bank account, and she could not drive.

The inquest heard that Singh discouraged Sharma from talking to her brother, who also lived in Christchurch, or her best friend. There was also evidence that Singh physically abused his wife.

According to Sharma’s relatives, she would not have known that there were organisations that support women experiencing domestic violence that she could have approached.[1]

While intimate partner violence is a widespread problem in Aotearoa New Zealand – we have the highest rate in the OECD – women from migrant communities are particularly vulnerable. Approximately half of the homicides in Aotearoa New Zealand are family violence-related, and a large proportion of these are migrant women. As well as language barriers and cultural beliefs that normalise IPV, many migrant women struggle with complex, bureaucratic and inflexible immigration and social welfare systems.[2]

Migrant victims of IPV can apply for the Family Violence Temporary Work Visa and Family Violence Residence visa if they were in a relationship with a New Zealand citizen or permanent residence. The latest figures show that 1,614 of these visas were granted between 2010 and 2021. The five main source countries have been consistent during this period: India, China, the Philippines, Fiji and Tonga. As the first three countries are major sources of immigrants to Aotearoa New Zealand, this partly accounts for their predominance in these statistics; but all of these countries have high rates of IPV (as does Aotearoa NZ). The number of FV visas granted in that 10-year period is low compared to the levels of family violence in Aotearoa New Zealand, and it has been noted that women from Middle Eastern, Latin American and African backgrounds make up only 11 per cent of applications.[3]

For many migrant women, their immigration status is tied to that of their husband or partner. Usually, the male partner is the principal applicant for a temporary or resident visa or sponsor for his wife’s application. This means that he can delay her visa process and/or refuse to sponsor her partner resident visa, leaving her on a temporary visa, restricting her access to employment, education, welfare and health services. The threat of withdrawing sponsorship or removal from a joint application for residency is often enough to stop victims of IPV from seeking help. An Australian study in 2017 of family violence against women on temporary visas found that many women had not been directly involved in obtaining their own visas, and the majority did not know their migration status or visa type[4].

The Australian study reported that out of the 300 cases that they examined, 20 involved forced domestic labour, where women are sponsored to migrate (usually after an arranged marriage) and then forced to maintain the household for the immediate or extended family of their partner. In some cases, the woman’s passport and documents were confiscated, her movement restricted, and the perpetrators told her that they were a “slave” or “owned” by the family[5]. A 2016 study conducted in Aotearoa New Zealand among Indian women survivors of domestic violence also found that this occurred frequently[6].

“Ayesha” is one Indian woman who experienced this form of abuse. Ayesha was from a relatively well-off family and had a university degree. She had married an Indian-born New Zealand resident who lived with his family. Ayesha was expected to do all the housework and cooking, including heavy lifting that caused her to have a miscarriage. She was physically and emotionally abused by her husband and also her mother-in-law. After becoming pregnant again, Aysha fled the home and went to the police station. Fortunately, she was taken to a refuge, where she stayed until she gave birth to her child. Ayesha was eventually offered accommodation by a member of her church.

Because she had married a NZ resident, Ayesha was able to apply for a Family Violence residence visa and temporary work visa. However, she had no income during the 3 months it took to grant the visa, other than child support and her Best Start payment Work and Income will pay a special benefit, Emergency Maintenance Allowance, once the temporary FV visa is granted, but not before because the Social Security Act specifies that only NZ citizens and permanent residents are entitled to any Work and Income benefit.

The process for granting a FV temporary work visa or residence visa is complicated and confusing, particularly for those who do not have English as their first language. The application is usually lodged by an immigration lawyer, not many of whom will agree to work pro bono. The applicant needs to show documents such as police reports, protection orders, criminal convictions for family violence or a statutory declaration stating that the violence has occurred plus two supporting statutory declarations from professionals. If applying for the FV residency visa, the applicant also needs to satisfy the health and character requirements for residence, and give reasons why they would be unable to return to their home country (such as having no way to support themselves financially) or facing abuse or social exclusion due to stigma associated with reporting family violence, being separated or divorced, or a sole parent).[7]

Ayesha was supported with food parcels, clothing and baby gear by the refuge and social workers, as well as advocacy with Work and Income and Immigration NZ. She was able to get her learner’s permit and once her temporary visa was granted, moved into a flat with her child who was also enrolled in daycare. Because she was an educated, articulate woman with good English, Ayesha was in a better position than others to find support and advocate for herself, but she still found the process stressful and frustrating.

For “Mele”, the process was even harder. Mele came to New Zealand from Tonga on a visitor visa. She then met her partner and they eventually married. He was also Tongan but had permanent residence. Mele believed that once they married, she was covered by his residency. Her husband was abusive, and the abuse worsened after Mele gave birth to their child. After a violent assault by her partner, Mele called the police who removed her partner from their home and served him with a police safety order. He was charged over the assault and Mele was given the number of a women’s refuge outreach service.

Because Mele was not legally in New Zealand, she was not able to apply for the FV temporary visa immediately. Instead, she had to apply for a visa under Section 61 of the Immigration Act as a “special case” to allow her to stay in the country. [8]As part of that process, she had to apply for a police report from Tonga to prove that she had no convictions there. After receiving the report back from Tonga, the report was sent to Immigration NZ. After several weeks passed with no response, contact was made with INZ who said they were still waiting for the police report. It turned out that the report had been received and scanned, but not attached to Mele’s file. The Section 61 visa was granted, but Mele was not eligible for the Emergency Maintenance Allowance until she was granted the Family Violence temporary visa. (She also had to request another police report from Tonga, despite the fact that the information had not changed since the first one). Mele survived on her Best Start payment (which she was entitled to due to her ex-partner’s residency) and food parcels.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 made the situation for Mele even worse. Immigration NZ, like other government departments, closed its offices and sent its workers home. However, apparently, INZ staff were unable to access their work files for some time, so Mele’s case, along with everyone else’s, simply came to a halt. Phone calls and emails went unanswered. Mele was not in a position to return to Tonga even if she wanted to, due to border closures, but Work and Income still refused to grant any payment. Mele felt hopeless and depressed, even considering giving her child to her ex-husband to care for as she worried that stress and lack of money were affecting her ability to care for the child.

At this point, social workers supporting Mele took the issue to her local MP’s office, and a couple of weeks after that, Mele’s Temporary FV visa was granted. She was finally granted an Emergency Maintenance Allowance which was back-paid to when she had applied for the visa. Mele is still waiting for a decision on her residency visa, and her economic situation is still precarious as most of her benefit goes on rent.

Both Ayesha and Mele are educated women who speak English well. They had good support from community agencies and, unlike many other survivors of family violence, did not have serious harassment or pressure from ex-partners or family to return to their abuser. Yet they still struggled with a complicated, inefficient and inflexible response from government agencies that were supposed to help them. For many other migrant women, the struggle is too much and they go back to the violent relationship.

If Mele and Ayesha’s partners had not been permanent residents, neither would have even been able to apply for the FV visa. The only recourse for those women is to apply to the Immigration Protection Tribunal on the basis of “exceptional circumstances of an humanitarian nature.”[9] This is a long and expensive process. Women in this position will often stay in the relationship until their partner has residency, but sometimes the abuser will remain on a temporary visa so that they are able to keep their victim dependent on them. This is particularly the case when the abuser is on a long-term temporary visa with high-paid employment, such as a Talent Work Visa, as they are eligible for publicly funded healthcare and have no need for any other benefit of permanent residence.[10]

Aotearoa New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In 2018, CEDAW’s monitoring committee raised concerns about Aotearoa New Zealand’s treatment of recent migrant victims of family violence, including:

  • The situation of migrant women with children who do not hold permanent visas and lose their partner’s sponsorship through separation or divorce; and in some cases, women have been deported to their countries of origin, leaving their children with the abusive partner
  • That women may stay in violent relationships so as not to lose their visa status
  • Migrant women face obstacles in seeking justice due to knowledge and language barriers, as well as a lack of legal aid

The committee recommended that Aotearoa New Zealand’s immigration laws be changed to allow access to permanent residency for mothers of children who hold Aotearoa New Zealand nationality. It also recommended that shelters and free legal, counselling and support services be provided for migrant women victims of family violence; and that information on family violence and how to respond to it are available in community languages[11].

However, even these modest recommendations have been ignored. There need to be major changes to the Immigration and Social Security legislation so that migrant women can leave violent relationships, access benefits and “fast-track” residence visas. Successive governments have treated migrants as a source of cheap labour, causing many to live in poverty and substandard housing, which increases the possibility of family and intimate partner violence. While this continues, more women will die.


[1] Gates, Charlie. Woman takes her own life after being in abusive relationship, coroner says. Stuff, 14 April 2022. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/128358803/woman-takes-her-own-life-after-being-in-abusive-relationship-coroner-says

[2] Ministry of Business,Innovation and Employment. Recent migrant victims of family violence project 2019: Final report. Wellington, NZ, 2019. https://www.mbie.govt.nz/dmsdocument/12138-recent-migrant-victims-of-family-violence-project-2019-final-report

[3] Ayallo, Irene. “Intersections of immigration law and family violence: Exploring barriers for ethnic migrant and refugee background women.” Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work [Online], 33.4 (2021): 55–64. Web. 19 Apr. 2022. https://anzswjournal.nz/anzsw/article/view/913

[4] Segrave, Marie, Temporary migration and family violence: an analysis of victimisation, vulnerability and support, Monash University, Melbourne, 2017. https://www.monash.edu/arts/gender-and-family-violence/research-and-projects/completed-projects/temporary-migration-and-family-violence

[5] Ibid.

[6] Somasekhar, Sripriya, “What will people think?”: Indian women and domestic violence in Aotearoa / New Zealand, A thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at The University of Waikato, New Zealand, 2016. https://researchcommons.waikato.ac.nz/handle/10289/10592

[7] Community Law Manual. Immigration: Family Violence, vulnerable migrants and other special visa policies. https://communitylaw.org.nz/community-law-manual/chapter-29-immigration/family-violence-vulnerable-migrants-and-other-special-visa-policies/

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Recent migrant victims of family violence project 2019: Final report. Wellington, NZ, 2019. https://www.mbie.govt.nz/dmsdocument/12138-recent-migrant-victims-of-family-violence-project-2019-final-report

[11] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of New Zealand. 2018. https://women.govt.nz/sites/public_files/CEDAW_C_NZL_CO_8_31061_E%20%283%29.pdf

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