Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) is an active member of the Australian Government’s Interdepartmental Committee on Human Trafficking and Slavery which coordinates the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery (Australian Government 2004). As part of this response the Australian Government funds the AIC to undertake timely research that can inform policy and programs that aim to combat this crime. To this end, the AIC has undertaken research to investigate various aspects of human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices.

This report explores the links between partner migration to Australia and human trafficking, and how marriage and other intimate relationships are involved in the trafficking of persons to Australia. This research is the first primary study to examine this issue and the first Australian study to engage potential or confirmed victim/survivors of human trafficking as research participants. As such, it responds to concerns raised in the literature as well as by stakeholders and addresses an important gap in the existing research on human trafficking and slavery.

In undertaking research on the nature of human trafficking involving marriage and partner migration, interviews were conducted with eight migrant women where marriage played a role in their exploitation or related victimisation. This analysis was supplemented by case file analysis and analysis of Australian immigration and Partner visa data supplied by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP; formerly the Department of Immigration and Citizenship) together with consultations conducted by the AIC with government and non-government agencies, law enforcement representatives and relevant victim service providers.

Key findings

This study confirms what some stakeholders in the human trafficking area have long suspected—that marriage and partner migration have been used to facilitate the trafficking of people into Australia. While the issue of forced marriage has received some government and academic attention, this research reveals that marriage relates to human trafficking in another critical way—it can be used as a means to traffic women into Australia for exploitation. This suggests that although human trafficking is usually categorised as being for the purpose of labour or sexual exploitation (ILO 2005), the problem of human trafficking is broader than this. Although some of the cases examined in this report could be classified as trafficking for the purpose of labour or sexual exploitation, in many cases, the experiences of victim/survivors would be better understood if framed as a different form of human trafficking.

The findings of this study suggest that a separate category of human trafficking exists, one in which the ‘exploitation’ element is neither considered sexual exploitation nor labour exploitation but the exploitation of the very personhood of the victim/survivor. This distinct form of human trafficking involves the exploitation of the victim/survivor’s:

  • labour (in the form of domestic servitude, forced labour outside the home, or both);
  • body (in the form of sexual servitude to their intimate partner and/or lack of control over childbearing); and
  • self (in the form of loss of freedom and psychological bondage).

Victim/survivor characteristics and the nature of their marriages

The eight victim/survivors who were interviewed for this research were aged between 18 and 49 years at the time of entering their exploitative situations and originated from a range of countries within:

  • Asia (particularly southeast Asia);
  • the Pacific;
  • the Middle East; and
  • Eastern Europe.

They met their partners in a variety of ways, including through arranged marriages, family connections and online introductory or dating services.

The victim/survivors had complex motivations for migrating to Australia for marriage. While the literature often depicts women from developing countries marrying Western men to improve their economic situation, those interviewed for this research reported more varied and complex motivations, including:

  • the desire to travel and experience other cultures;
  • to start a family;
  • to escape war; and
  • to honour the marriage that was arranged for them by their family.

Importantly, some of the victim/survivors in this study were motivated to leave their home country after meeting their husbands through chance occurrences. The range of motivations and circumstances that led to the women’s migration challenges the limited construction of migrant women as motivated to migrate primarily by their economic situation, which has important repercussions for the measures used to identify and respond to victim/survivors of human trafficking involving marriage.

All of the victim/survivors interviewed for this study consented to their marriages. While this may be at odds with the traditional view of passive human trafficking victims being forced or coerced into situations of exploitation, it does not mean that the women were not trafficked, as consent to the crime of human trafficking is irrelevant where coercion, threat and/or deception has been used to obtain consent (Article 3(b) Trafficking Protocol). As Vijeyarasa (2010) has argued, understanding the processes by which trafficked people reach consent is critical to understanding the drivers of human trafficking and what can be done to prevent it. The women in this research were deceived about the men they were to marry, the nature of their marriages and what was expected of them once in Australia.

No particular ‘type’ of marriage (eg arranged marriages, ‘choice’ marriages, marriages formed over the internet) emerged as particularly vulnerable to human trafficking in this study. Rather, each of these ‘types’ of marriage featured in the research. However, not all the marriages examined were genuine; the research highlights the use of ‘sham’ or fraudulent marriages being used to facilitate trafficking and related crimes. Further, the research indicated that human trafficking could occur regardless of whether the migrating ‘partner’ was complicit in the fraudulent marriage or had been duped into believing the marriage is genuine.

Experiences of victim/survivors

In addition to a wide range of abusive behaviours that characterise violent relationships (eg violence or threats of violence if the woman considers leaving the relationship; sexual, physical, psychological and financial abuse; surveillance; and isolation from family and friends), the exploitation described by stakeholders and experienced by victim/survivors interviewed for this study included a number of human trafficking indicators (see ILO 2009). These included:

  • assertions of ownership;
  • debt bondage;
  • deprivation of liberty;
  • threat of deportation;
  • labour exploitation (commercial and domestic);
  • confiscation of passports and identifying documentation; and
  • domestic servitude.

While in some cases extreme violence occurred, in others, victim/survivors were controlled through psychological bondage, whereby the level of control by their husbands or his extended family, coupled with their own heightened vulnerability as migrants (eg due to limited English and extreme isolation) appeared to render physical violence redundant.

Sexual violence was also found to be a common feature of the small number of marriages examined for this study and commonly involved sexual assault, indecent assault, forced exposure to pornography and coerced pregnancy. The research therefore confirmed the use of sexual violence as a control tactic in human trafficking scenarios, including those involving exploitation outside of the sex industry (see IOM 2007).

Victim/survivors also reported the serious abuse and exploitation of their children (both children of a previous relationship who migrated to Australia with their mother, as well as children of the exploitative marriage that were born in Australia). It is therefore important that appropriate assistance and support not only be provided to victim/survivors, but also to children who witness and experience abusive and exploitative behaviours.

Help-seeking behaviours of victim/survivors

The victim/survivors who participated in the study were more likely to seek help from informal sources, such as neighbours and people in the community, than from formal sources, such as the police. Most commonly, mainstream and migrant community organisations and education providers played a primary role in assisting women to leave their exploitative or violent situations. These help-seeking behaviours illustrate the importance of community and educational centres in assisting migrant women experiencing abusive and exploitative marriages. It further highlights the need for these sources to be aware of the indicators of human trafficking and related exploitation involving marriage to assist with correctly identifying victim/survivors and referring them to the appropriate services and authorities.

In responding to the help-seeking behaviours of victim/survivors, both formal and informal sources of help reported that they often misidentified the situation as domestic violence. However, even when cases were identified correctly as human trafficking, they were most likely to still be treated as cases of domestic violence for a number of reasons, including that:

  • it is unlikely that police will be able to gather evidence to begin an investigation and to pursue a prosecution;
  • the victim/survivors may not wish to prosecute members of their family;
  • support services may be more accessible to victims of domestic violence than to victims of human trafficking; and
  • the victim/survivor may obtain a better criminal justice outcome as a victim of assault, domestic violence or other violent offence, with a greater chance of successful prosecution and incarceration of the perpetrator.

What are the lessons for preventing and responding to human trafficking involving partner migration?

This study has shown that in many instances, cases of human trafficking are misidentified as domestic violence and are responded to as such. Victim/survivors of human trafficking are, however, likely to have needs beyond those that domestic violence service providers are equipped to address (eg if an individual has experienced labour exploitation). Correctly identifying trafficked people is also the first step toward protecting their human rights and ‘[f]ailing to identify a trafficked person correctly “is likely to result in a further denial of that person’s rights”’ (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights cited in Simmons & Burn 2010: 714). Further, correctly identifying human trafficking incidents, offenders and victim/survivors has important implications for detection, enforcement and monitoring.

A number of recommendations have emerged from the research and should be considered when developing strategies to prevent and effectively respond to human trafficking involving marriage and partner migration:

  • Improve provision and delivery of information to migrating partners by:
    • enhancing the content of the Beginning a Life in Australia booklet produced by DIBP to include information on intimate partner violence in the Family section and reference to the Family Violence Provisions;
    • enhancing the content of Partner and Prospective Marriage visa grant letters to include information about the availability and content of the Beginning a Life in Australia booklet;
    • improving the dissemination of information by distributing the Beginning a Life in Australia booklet and other important information at key places visited by migrant partners, for example Centrelink, educational institutions and migrant community centres.
  • Improve community awareness of human trafficking and slavery through government and non-government initiatives as part of existing community education campaigns on domestic violence. Awareness campaigns should include information on what human trafficking and slavery are, how to report these crimes, who can provide assistance and how to contact them, and the role of government, non-government organisations (NGOs), law enforcement and immigration authorities. All community awareness campaigns should be evaluated to examine their impact on improving community knowledge, reducing the incidence of human trafficking, improving victim detection and improving access to victim support.
  • Educate government, law enforcement and domestic violence service providers about human trafficking and slavery to improve detection and correct identification. This can be achieved through enhanced training for immigration officers and state/territory policing agencies, and presentations to domestic violence and refuge annual meetings.
  • Enhance education and training for migration agents by including a component on human trafficking in their professional development and training program. This component should identify indicators of human trafficking and provide information about how to report suspected cases.
  • Enhance immigration policy by:
    • interviewing migrant visa applicants separately from their sponsoring partner before a visa is granted;
    • conducting welfare checks several months after arrival;
    • mandating that eligible newly arrived migrants attend the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) with the requirement to report course completion to DIBP;
    • limiting a person’s eligibility to sponsor a migrant partner if they have been convicted of a serious violent offence, in addition to registrable offences against children;
    • amending the Family Violence Provisions to allow Prospective Marriage visa applicants to remain in Australia after the breakdown of their relationship due to family violence; and
    • amending the Migration Regulations 1994 to limit Partner visas being granted to spouses who have been married without first meeting in person as adults.
  • Regulate international marriage brokering agencies and online dating websites, and consider broadening prevention measures that address romance scams to assist in the prevention of exploitative relationships.
  • Respond using a multiagency approach as best practice that involves the development of multiagency guidelines to respond to cases of trafficking involving marriage, including how to identify cases, how to respond to cases and appropriate referral pathways.
  • Undertake further research that enhances knowledge of the nature and extent of human trafficking and slavery in Australia.