One could be forgiven for thinking GetUp, the progressive online email campaigning outfit, had been taken over by a coterie of white radical feminists when they started campaigning for the Australian Government to refuse a visa to Chris Brown. This was on the grounds that Brown had severely abused his ex-girlfriend, Rihanna, in 2009, in a high-profile case of domestic violence.
Almost overnight, a crop of white self-styled experts jumped up to white-splain why the campaign was misguided, if not outright racist. In doing so they erase immigrant women from the situation entirely, in order to assert, in various ways, why the call to use racist immigration powers is actually detrimental to white people.
They rightfully pointed out that targeting a black man for this kind of campaign is unfair and disproportionate. A string of influential white artists and entertainers have toured Australia without white feminists so much as batting an eyelid. Targeting a black man draws from some ugly anti-black racism that paints black men as inherently violent – a myth created to justify unmitigated brutality towards black peoples.
Their relevant points stop there. They struggle to articulate why the campaign is precisely racist. This is because they are (although well-meaningly) white-splaining the issue. In seeking to denounce the relevance of a foreign entertainer to issues of domestic violence ‘at home’, they end up centring white experiences and erasing racist sexism towards women of colour.
The various articles argue:
This is just a distraction – the real problem is domestic & family violence towards (white) women in Australia committed by (white) men (Catharine Lumby, SBS; Clem Bastow, Daily Life; Jeff Sparrow, Comment is Free; Nick Pendergrast, The Conversation)
The real point is that racism hurts white women too! (Calendulate blog)
(Getting warmer) What about the abuse of women & children in immigration detention? Also abuse by white men??? (Hannah Hawkins, Junkee.com)
Border enforcement is a bad way to ‘send a message’ about social ills (Mathew Keneally, New Matilda)
Chris Brown’s fans are smarter than you think! They can be critical of his actions while enjoying his music! Don’t underestimate young people! (Osman Faruqi)
GetUp has since resiled from the campaign on the grounds that it had “racist aspects”. Without being able to really articulate what those “racist aspects” are, or what their effects might be, the statement appears more like a study in white fragility (specifically, of the ‘fear of being called racist’ variety).
In a way Hawkins and Keneally are right, but it isn’t just a bad way to “send a message” about violence against women. What the back-and-forth between all of these white commentators, including GetUp, erases is that the campaign actually sends the wrong message. The message it sends is one that harms immigrant women subjected to abuse and helps perpetrators.
Refusing and cancelling visas is already immigration policy. The Australian Government has demonstrated time and again that this will be their approach to harm experienced by migrants. The Australian Government has an overall victim-blaming approach to migrants, whereby they are made to bear the burden of any abuse they experience within the immigration system. This is both an ideological position and an actual one – immigration policy shifts the costs, accountability and penalties of abuse back onto the abused. (One only has to see a demonstration in how the government is handling the call for an amnesty for abused 7-eleven workers in breach of their visa conditions.) This is why the campaign is racist, although nobody is saying so.
Calling for enforcement of the character test in visa applications strengthens the institutional mechanisms that work against immigrant women experiencing abuse.
In relation to domestic and family violence, migrant women’s experience is made more difficult by the migration system.
Generally for the purposes of migration there is a primary applicant. Their ‘dependent family members’ (read: women and children) will be granted visas that are tied to the ‘primary visa holder’. In many cases dependent visas are more restrictive than the primary visa holder’s conditions in relation to work and study, reinforcing dependency. Coupled with the obvious inequality between men and women in employment and education, the immigration system propels immigrant women into dependency on men.
Of all the classes of visa that permit the inclusion of ‘dependent family members’ only an incredibly limited number allow for dependent family members to apply for a further visa on their own behalf where their relationship with the ‘primary visa holder’ has broken down due to family violence. These are known as the family violence provisions. Family violence provisions apply only to Partner visas, and a very limited number of Business visa applications.
In relation to all other visa subclasses – Student visas, Temporary work visas, Post Study Work visas (just to mention a few) – if a relationship breaks down due to family violence, the ‘dependent’ family member (usually being the woman) has absolutely no recourse to access another visa of her own and are granted no amnesty from the cancellation of their visa if their abusive partner reports the breakdown of their relationship to the Department of Immigration.
If the universal answer to family violence was to utilise the ‘character provisions’ in the Migration Act to cancel the visas held by violent men, the necessary result would be the cancellation of the visas held by their female partners and victims whose visas are tied to their partner’s. Where there are children of the relationship, it would spell cancellation of the child’s visa and any hope of the child and mother might have of establishing themselves independently in Australia.
Even when women whose visa is not dependent on their partners experience family violence, they can be at risk of breaching their visa conditions and excluded from the country if they report the abuse or seek assistance.
As you might imagine, perpetrators of violence against women on temporary visas regularly use this threat against their victims. Frequently, returning to their country of origin would also be unsafe. This is the greatest barrier imaginable for immigrant women seeking to escape from abusive relationships with partners who hold the key to their immigration status.
Even where family violence provisions are available, allowing women to apply for visas where the relationship with their former partner and ‘primary’ visa holder has broken down, these provisions are entirely restrictive, not to mention lengthy and costly to access.
For example, the Migration Regulations establishes a bizarre regime whereby women who survive family violence and seek to make a further visa application on that basis, must demonstrate that the family violence occurred at the same time that they were in a ‘genuine and continuing relationship’ with their abusive former partner. Women are left to prove the “genuineness” of their relationship with their abusive former partner well after the relationship is broken down, and obviously in the absence of the partner’s cooperation. This creates a situation where, for example, if women leave a relationship and the breakdown triggers retaliatory violence by the former partner, these acts of violence could not be taken into account when assessing whether the woman had suffered ‘relevant family violence’ for the purposes of making a further visa application.
Also, let’s be clear; the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and administrative bodies responsible for assessing claims of family violence, are steeped in a culture of victim-blaming and disbelief towards survivors of family violence. This combines with the inherent suspicion towards migrants that is built into immigration policy, resulting in an especially biased and judgemental process towards survivors of family violence. Every day of the week, migrant women’s claims of family violence – made in the context of Partner or Protection visa applications – are dismissed, based on essentially racist conceptions of the ‘credibility’ of people of colour.
In some cases, decision makers go so far as to allege “collusion” between women claiming family violence and their abusive partners. This was the case in the recent Refugee Review Tribunal decision 1310637 (27 February 2015), where the Tribunal held that the female applicant for refugee status had “contrived” with her husband to concoct claims of family violence (including staging a scene of violence that was later reported by the police) in order to achieve a visa outcome so that she and her husband could later re-marry.
In the meantime, immigrant women seeking protection from family violence continue to face elevated risk – we know that separation is the time of greatest risk of severe harm from family violence. Paradoxically, until their immigration status is resolved, a process which can take several months, immigrant family violence survivors are ineligible for most support services. Social security, public housing, and community services are usually restricted to permanent residents & citizens. Ironically, this means even women’s refuges are often unavailable to women on temporary visas. There are no specific services funded to assist women in these circumstances.
To be clear – promoting a ‘hard-line’ use of powers by the Department of Immigration is to give license to a system that fundamentally works against the interests of women of colour who have experienced family violence. There is nothing progressive or feminist about reinforcing an existing immigration policy of suspicion and victim-blaming towards immigrants. In both an ideological and an institutional sense, all it does is make things harder for women living with abuse.
Neither does opposing the refusal of Chris Brown’s visa on the grounds of avoiding perceived racism towards men of colour (black men in particular) address the real harm being done through immigration policy. White people and men of colour are not the real victims here. It is unjustifiable to focus on the symbolic harm to white people and men of colour while erasing the harm and danger to immigrant women as a result of racist immigration policy.