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Experiences of human trafficking and related exploitation: Victim/survivors’ stories

Drawing on interviews with eight migrant women who were identified as victim/survivors of exploitative marriages, as well as analysis of these women’s case files, this section describes the women’s experiences. This section is divided into four parts. The first part begins with case studies that demonstrate some of the ways in which a person can be trafficked and exploited through marriage. The subsequent parts cover the victim/survivors’ backgrounds and how they entered their exploitative situations, victim/survivors’ experiences of abuse and exploitation and how victim/survivors exited their exploitative situations. In particular, these parts provide information about:

  • the demographic characteristics of the women;
  • the women’s lives prior to migrating to Australia as fiancés or wives;
  • how the women met their Australian partners;
  • the women’s journeys to Australia;
  • the women’s motivations for migrating to Australia for marriage;
  • the women’s experiences of exploitation; and
  • the help-seeking strategies employed by victim/survivors.

Throughout this section, the women’s experiences are compared and contrasted with information provided by stakeholders, which includes knowledge and perceptions of the experiences of additional victim/survivors as well as the particular victim/survivors interviewed for this research.

Case studies

The case studies described below are intended to show what human trafficking and associated exploitation might look like in the context of a marriage. The information used in the case studies is accurate and based on the evidence provided by the victim/survivors who participated in the research; however, in order to protect the women’s identities, each case study combines different elements of a number of women’s stories. To this end, the ages and nationalities used in the case studies have been changed and for the purpose of the case studies only, a pseudonym has been assigned to the ‘victim/survivor’ in each story.

Case study 1: Kanya’s story

Kanya was 17 years old when her parents told her that they had found a husband for her in Australia. Kanya had lived in India her whole life, had never travelled outside her country and could not speak much English. Her future husband was a family friend that was born in India but moved to Australia when he was a child. Kanya’s family believed that if Kanya married their family friend in Australia she would have better opportunities and bring honour to the family. Her parents would also receive a large dowry and if she got a job, she would be able to remit money back home. It is traditional in her culture for parents to arrange marriages for their children.

After one year of talking on the phone, Kanya’s future husband travelled to India when she was 18 years old to meet her in person. Kanya’s future husband told her that he would be able to take care of her in Australia and that someday they would start a family. After three days Kanya was married. Kanya’s husband then returned to Australia for several months while her visa application was approved. Once her visa was granted, Kanya travelled to Australia to live with her husband.

When she arrived, her husband picked her up from the airport, took her passport and drove her to his mother’s house. Kanya’s husband told her that his parents were getting older and they needed someone to look after them as well as his brother’s three young children. Kanya’s husband was not living at the house, but promised that if she cooked, cleaned and cared for his family then one day they could share a house together.

Her husband’s family were very demanding of her. She was made to cook, clean and take care of everything in the house. She never had any time to rest, but she knew that if she did not do as she was told she would not get food and would be not be allowed to sleep in the house. Kanya felt like a servant. She was not allowed to go out of the house by herself or talk to her family back home. Her husband and his family would verbally abuse her and threaten to harm her if she did not do as they said. They regularly threatened to send her back home. Kanya knew that she could not go back home because of the shame it would bring to her family.

Case study 2: Alina’s story

When Alina was 40 years old she joined an internet dating site to try and find a partner. Alina lived in the Ukraine and had previously been married to a Ukrainian man with whom she had two teenage children. Alina thought that if she married a man in Australia she could bring her children over once she had settled. She had read many books about Australia and believed it would be a good environment for her and her children.

Alina met a man who she talked to via email for a few months before he travelled to the Ukraine to visit her in person. The man met Alina’s children and told them that he would be able to take care of them once they moved to Australia. Alina and the man spent one month getting to know each other before they became engaged. Her fiancé then travelled back to Australia to sort out the visa paperwork to bring her to Australia as his fiancé to be married. When Alina’s visa was granted she travelled to Australia and they held the wedding six months later.

Shortly after the wedding, Alina’s husband became abusive towards her. He made her take lessons to improve her English and made her get a job. Alina’s husband took all the money she earned from her job and only gave her $20 per week to live off. When she was not at work, he made her do all the cooking, cleaning and housework. He forced Alina to have sex every day even though she did not want to and threatened her with a knife if she did not do what he said. Alina was too scared to seek help because she did not want her children to find out what was happening to her. She was also scared that she would be deported because she had not been married for two years and did not have permanent residency. Her husband told her that as her sponsor he could send her back home.

Case study 3: Farrah’s story

Farrah was 20 years old and living in Egypt when she saw a family friend while she was out shopping one day. Her family friend was with another woman who was introduced to her. This woman started talking to Farrah and said she thought she was very beautiful. She told Farrah that she had a son in Australia and was looking for a suitable wife for him and suggested that Farrah might be a good match.

Farrah had always wanted to travel to Australia and had seen lots of documentaries about Australian cities and wildlife. Farrah had not really thought about marriage before, but she thought she would talk to her parents about it. Her parents thought it was a good idea, especially as Australia appeared to be a safer country to live in than Egypt and was not experiencing war. Farrah agreed to the marriage and an engagement party was held for her in Egypt without her future husband.

On her wedding day two weeks later, she met her husband for the first time. He was the same age as Farrah and did not seem very interested in marrying her. In fact, he did not know that his mother had arranged a wedding for him until he arrived in Egypt from Australia. Despite his protests, his mother told him that it was her decision that he was to be married and she would be shamed if he did not go through with it.

Once Farrah and her husband were married they moved to Australia. In Australia, Farrah lived with her husband and his mother, as well as her husband’s brother, his wife and their two small children. She was made to care for the whole family, was not allowed to communicate with her own family back in Egypt and was not allowed to leave the house by herself. Her husband sexually abused her and because her mother-in-law wanted her to have children she was not allowed to use contraception. Farrah eventually became pregnant, but throughout her pregnancy she was only allowed to see the doctor on a few occasions and was still made to do all the housework, cooking and cleaning. Farrah was forced to have three children by her husband and her mother-in-law. Farrah was entitled to social security payments, however, these were directed into her husband’s bank account, which she did not have access to. Farrah’s husband was very violent and would threaten to hurt Farrah and the children. On several occasions he hit Farrah and would break things in the house in front of the children. Farrah wanted to go home to her parents, but knew that if she left she would have to leave her children behind.

Victim/survivors’ backgrounds and how they entered their exploitative situations

The eight victim/survivors interviewed for this study were female. The participants were aged between 18 and 49 years at the time they entered their exploitative situations and were citizens or residents of a range of countries prior to their immigration to Australia, including those in Asia (particularly southeast Asia), the Pacific, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Most participants were educated, with a small number undertaking tertiary studies.

The women’s lives prior to migrating to Australia as fiancés or wives

When depicting their lives prior to moving to Australia, most women spoke about their family, social lives, employment and education. The majority of the women had stable and successful lives in their home country, with supportive families and friends. Three women also had either family or friends in Australia. Three women were previously married, two were widowed and one left their previous partner due to the abusive nature of the relationship. The majority of women were employed in their home country prior to moving to Australia and one woman owned her own home. While most of the women believed there were greater opportunities in Australia than in their home country, few spoke negatively of their life in their countries of origin before moving.

In describing their home and social lives prior to moving to Australia, most women spoke positively of their relationships with family and friends. One victim/survivor explained:

I was spoiled as a child because I was the youngest…My life was good. I was with a family that loved me in every way.

Another victim/survivor described her upbringing:

I was raised in a good family. My family life was very good, I was very close to my mother and father. I had good family relationships. I have good relationships with my friends.

A third victim/survivor emphasised:

My life was very good. I had a lot of friends. I had children and friends.

Independence was a key characteristic of a number of women’s lives, which they achieved through study and employment. For example, in describing her life, one victim/survivor said:

Before, I had a very independent life. I was working. I tried to study as well but I had a good job. I could look after myself. I was a young single person working many hours but I had a social life as well. I would go out with my friends.

A second victim/survivor explained:

I don’t have any complaints about my life in [country X]. I had three jobs. I can’t complain. I had everything.

While a third victim/survivor described how she completed her education before moving to Australia:

I was studying at university just before I got married and came here.

A fourth victim/survivor spoke about how the success of her parent’s business helped her to achieve her goals of study and employment:

I am very well educated because my parents have a business so I have a good background. I had a very good life in [my country]. I helped my parents to run their business.

Only one victim/survivor described her life in her home country negatively. This participant experienced sexual abuse as a child as well as violence perpetrated by her first husband. She also described how her family disapproved of her second husband because the marriage was not arranged by her parents. In addition, two participants spoke of corruption, particularly in relation to the police, as well as war and civil unrest.

How the women met their Australian partners

The women met their Australian spouses by means of arranged marriages, family connections, online introductory or dating services and through chance occurrences. For most women, their marriages and how they met their partner was planned or intentionally pursued. Two women sought a partner through online dating services, while four women met their partner through a family connection or because their marriage was arranged for them by their parents or family members.

One victim/survivor spoke about her experience finding love through an internet dating site:

I couldn’t find any men from [my country] on the internet, so I met an Australian man. He emailed my friend and then my friend passed the email to me and I answered.

Another victim/survivor described how arranged marriages were a normal cultural and religious practice in her country:

In [my country] marriages are arranged by parents. Children must respect the wishes of their parents and have little choice in their marriage.

For others, however, it was only by chance that they met their partner or became engaged. For example, one victim/survivor explained the serendipitous nature of being chosen as a wife for her future husband:

I was visiting my neighbour and I saw a lady there who was coming from Australia to find girls for her two sons to marry. This was usual habit to do this. It was normal in my culture, so we thought everything would be alright.

A second victim/survivor described meeting her partner by chance while studying English in Australia on a three month student visa:

He asked me to stay with him in Australia so I agreed and then I quit my job [in my home country]. We had a party in [country X] but were married at a registry in Australia.

While the circumstances in which the women met their husbands indicate that the women consented to their marriages, in one case it became evident that the husband was seemingly forced into the marriage. In this case, the victim/survivor explained her husband’s situation as follows:

My mother-in-law was very confident, she knew she could choose for her boys and they would say yes. She was a very controlling woman, in a bad way. My husband did not know that he was getting married. I thought and my family thought that he knew and that he wanted to get married. When I arrived in Australia I saw a videotape telling him that he had a fiancé in Australia and that she would come soon and he started screaming and shouting that he didn’t want to get married.

Due to the nature of how the women met their husbands, the length of the relationships prior to marriage were generally of very short or no duration. Often the husband and wife met in person for the first time at their wedding or to be married within one month of meeting.

The marriages were both ‘intra-cultural’ (ie between Australian male citizens and women from the man’s country of origin; n=4) and ‘inter-cultural’ (ie between Australian male citizens and women of different ethnic backgrounds; n=4; see Iredale 1995).

The women’s motivations for migrating to Australia for marriage

While the literature often depicts women from developing countries marrying Western men out of economic desperation (Constable 2003), those interviewed for this research reported multiple and varied motivations, including:

  • the desire to travel and experience other cultures;
  • for love and to start a family;
  • to study and improve English language skills;
  • for safety and to escape war; and
  • to honour the marriage that was arranged for them by their family.

Importantly, many of the women were motivated to leave their home country after meeting their husbands through chance occurrences.

One of the victim/survivors who cited travel and the desire to experience other cultures remarked:

I didn’t decide I wanted to move to Australia, but I just wanted to meet someone from somewhere else. I wanted to search a bit wider and not just my local city. I wanted something new...In Australia so many young girls travel around with their friends, it’s not like that in my country.

Another victim/survivor explained that she migrated to improve her family life:

I was by myself and decided to organise my family life…I was all about my family.

For one woman, it was the opportunity to improve her English that brought her to Australia initially, before she met her partner and decided to migrate to live with him. She explained:

Once I graduated from university, I wanted to improve my English skills for my job so I came to Australia to study English for three months and that is when I met my husband…I chose Australia because my friend was here doing her degree. My husband told me to come to Australia because I could finish my study and get a job (victim/survivor).

One of the women that moved to Australia as a result of an arranged marriage explained how this customary marriage practice is beneficial for women in her country:

The reason why some women get married through an arranged marriage or an organised marriage is because of the war in my country. We have had war since I was born…We didn’t have a future there…I was in university just to study and not to work because the women are not allowed to work. If a woman works they say she is not well behaved. There was no future unless you get married and have kids…My family asked me many times if I wanted to do it and to be honest I wanted to do it, even though I didn’t get to talk to him or see him, which was the biggest mistake of course. I was 18 and some girls that age would refuse it…but for me I wanted to have a future and work and go overseas. I saw him in a videotape and I said ok. My parents said ‘no I don’t think you will be ok’, but I said ‘no I will be ok, I want to go, don’t be worried, even if I don’t love him and have never spoken to him, love will come’ (victim/survivor).

While women nominated varied reasons for migrating, many of the women revealed that they had no intention of leaving their home country permanently or to move to Australia specifically, but felt this was necessary to be with their husbands. This sentiment is reflected in the comments of one woman who said:

I would have liked to stay in [my country] and have my husband move there. I had a good job and my children, but I had to move to Australia if I wanted to be with my husband because of his work (victim/survivor).

Similarly, another woman revealed that:

I was pretty happy [back home]. I was happy with work and I had a boyfriend who I was nearly engaged to. I took the chance to come to Australia to study and then I planned to go back and get married (victim/survivor).

The women’s journeys to Australia

All but one of the marriages took place outside of Australia and the migrant wives were sponsored by their husbands to live in Australia on Partner Migration visas. One woman was sponsored by her husband on a Prospective Marriage visa before being granted a Partner visa once married to remain in Australia permanently. All the women entered Australia legally by air once their visas were granted. The women either paid for their travel themselves, or it was paid by their husbands.

Experiences of abuse and exploitation

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 experienced by victim/survivors interviewed for this study included assertions of ownership, debt bondage, domestic servitude, deprivation of liberty and restricted movement, threat of deportation, labour exploitation (commercial and/or domestic) involving excessive working hours with little or no pay, and control of passports and identifying documentation. The distinction must be made between abusive and exploitative situations (ie domestic violence compared with the higher order offence of human trafficking). While violent and abusive experiences alone do not meet the definition of exploitation for human trafficking offences, many victim/survivors of human trafficking experience these kinds of behaviours as they are often a way of controlling a person so that they can be exploited.

As such, the following section begins with a description of the various forms of domestic violence reported by victim/survivors and stakeholders, before discussing experiences of specific indicators of the exploitation associated with human trafficking.

Experiences of abuse

Domestic violence

Participant case files and victim/survivor interviews revealed that domestic violence was consistent in every woman’s experience and frequently involved physical, psychological and sexual violence to varying degrees. Victim/survivor experiences of domestic violence included:

  • serious and ongoing threats of violence towards the women and their children;
  • regular and severe damaging of property;
  • verbal abuse;
  • threats of harm or death if they tried to leave the relationship;
  • denial of education and employment;
  • denial of contact with friends and family;
  • daily fear and intimidation;
  • denial of religion; and
  • physical, psychological and sexual violence against the women and their children.

For example, one victim/survivor described an ongoing pattern of behaviour in which her husband verbally abused and threatened her and her child, as well as several incidents of sexual abuse and assault. Other incidents included being repeatedly threatened and intimidated with weapons and an attempt by her husband to run her over in his car. The woman described how her husband had firearms and knives that he kept in their bedroom at plain view and that he had threatened to use both weapons against her and her daughter. He initiated a ‘cycle of terror’ by threatening to harm her with a gun and a knife if she did not comply with the way that he wanted her to behave in their intimate marital life. Another woman was coerced through threats and intimidation to paint the house without the help of her husband so he could save money and build furniture for his home. A third woman described how her husband would control whether or not she was allowed in the house. She said:

Sometimes he would lock me outside and I would have to stay in the tree overnight (victim/survivor).

A small number of women in the sample reported that they, as well as their children, had experienced sexual violence committed by their husband. The International Organization for Migration (2007: 200) defines sexual violence as

any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or act to traffic women’s sexuality, using coercion, threats of harm or physical force, by any person regardless of relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work.

Sexual violence may include forced prostitution, forced exposure to pornography, forced pregnancy, forced abortion and forced marriage. Sexual violence is common in cases of human trafficking, even for victims trafficked for the purpose of labour exploitation (IOM 2007). Support providers interviewed for this research acknowledged the prevalence of sexual abuse experienced by victim/survivors of human trafficking, whether or not their exploitation involved an intimate relationship:

What we find is that we very rarely work with somebody who has not experienced sexual abuse, because that is the one thing that degrades a woman the most (service provider).

Victim/survivors reported instances of sexual violence that included forced exposure to pornography, coerced pregnancy and pressure to engage in unwanted sexual interactions. One woman described how

[m]any of my sexual experiences with [husband] were not experiences I wanted or was comfortable with. Many of these experiences were upsetting, traumatic and abusive (victim/survivor).

Another woman’s husband regularly exposed his genitals and touched her inappropriately. In response to her requests to end his behaviour he told her that she needed to ‘assimilate into Australian society’, saying that ‘Australian men do show their [genitals] at home all the time’ and that this behaviour was ‘normal’ (victim/survivor). His dominance extended to controlling her choice of religion by prohibiting her from attending the church of her faith and instead, forcing her to attend the church of his religion. As a result of frequently being forced to witness the overwhelming indecent exposure, she suffered long periods of trauma, stress, fear and depression. He exercised

extreme power and control over [his wife] and over her daughter, in the form of emotional, physical, material, cultural, religious and moral abuse and, on various occasions, assault. He stripped them of power to make basic decisions in their lives (an example of this is his refusal to allow both mother and daughter to access medical assistance) and he humiliated them constantly, dragging them to the confinements and darkness of an ill mind (service provider).

A different woman believed the sexual encounters with her husband were also a way for him to control her and she was told that ‘this is just what we do in Australia’ (victim/survivor). This led most of the women to believe that what they were experiencing was normal in Australian culture. For example, one woman remarked:

Some of the things I never knew I was being abused. I thought that women here in Australia do the same (victim/survivor).

Other women experienced pressure to have children, by both their husbands and their mothers-in-law. One woman said she was pressured by her mother-in-law and ‘coerced by [her] husband to have sex every day and was not allowed to use contraception’ (victim/survivor).

One woman’s husband attempted to pressure her into prostitution by telling her that ‘when a person living in Australia doesn’t speak good English, what they do is to sell their body because they cannot do other things’ (victim/survivor).

Finally, in an example of the degree to which the women were socially isolated and prevented from interacting with the wider community, some participants recounted instances when they required medical assistance but were denied the opportunity to seek treatment. Most commonly, the reasons why women were denied medical treatment related to the cost of seeing a doctor and buying medicine. One woman asked her husband if she could see a doctor but was told that because she had seen a doctor on a previous occasion she was not allowed any subsequent visits as it would cost too much. Another woman disclosed that:

The many times I got physically sick when living with my husband, it was a real struggle to convince him to help me to access medical assistance…both of my children got sick and I requested my husband to take some leave at work since I was also getting sick and my body was asking me to have some rest. My husband said no to my request and I was getting sicker and sicker…I was diagnosed with pneumonia in one lung (victim/survivor).

The victim/survivor’s traumatic experiences were often exacerbated as a result of being deceived and exploited by their intimate partner. As one service provider explained:

With [human trafficking involving] domestic violence and family violence it is hard because women are so damaged at the end of it…it’s intimate violence. It’s at the hands of someone that they trust and love.

Financial abuse

Many of the women experienced severe financial abuse and control. Most were exploited for their ability to earn an income for their partner and supply their partner with additional income through social support payments; however, the women also reported being targeted for their wealth and assets. Specifically, two women believed that their husbands had married them and brought them to Australia because of their ability to work and exploit them financially. One woman told of how her husband learned about her savings when she reported it on her forms to Australian immigration:

He asked to see my passbook and saw that I had [amount of money]…I worked very hard for this money…On two separate occasions [my husband] asked me to loan him money…I gave him the money and expected that he would pay me back some time later…I was not thinking he was going to cheat me (victim/survivor).

Another woman said that her husband thought she was a ‘golden egg’ and that he married her to ‘improve his economic situation’ (victim/survivor). His parents also thought she was a ‘good, strong, stable woman that could take care of him’ (victim/survivor). She remarked:

I wondered why he wanted to marry me, maybe because I have a job and money and because I study. When we went to my brother’s factory his eyes became very bright like he saw something golden, he was hunting for gold (victim/survivor).

Other financial abuses experienced by victim/survivors included:

  • having wages, social security and Medicare payments redirected to husbands’ bank accounts;
  • being denied access to existing bank accounts and being prevented from opening own accounts;
  • being denied knowledge of the husband’s financial position and the family’s assets;
  • control over finances and restricted access to money by husbands; and
  • not receiving agreed payment for domestic and other work.

For example, when one woman found a job, her husband filled out the employment forms on her behalf and nominated his own bank account for where her wages should be paid, despite having her own bank account. When she asked for her money, her husband would get angry and claim that ‘the [automatic teller machine] is closed’ (victim/survivor). Further, he linked her personal account to his own, which meant that he could access information regarding her personal financial matters. With this knowledge, he would take her bank card and make cash withdrawals as well as buying appliances, electronic equipment and furniture. A second woman was given only $20–25 per week from her husband to take care of herself and her child, while a third was given $50 each week for three years to live off.

Stakeholders provided knowledge and consequences of similar financial abuses faced by other victim/survivors in their care. One service provider explained the lack of financial freedom imposed on victim/survivors:

They don’t get access to any finances, or the money is applied for through Centrelink on their behalf and then they are restricted access to that. They don’t have access to what they are entitled to.

Another service provider revealed that sponsoring husbands will:

provide assurance of financial support to the person, which [was] a condition of entry to Australia [until 1 January 2012]. When [the victim/survivors] find they have no money and they apply for what they feel they would be entitled to through Centrelink they are told they have an Assurance of Support, whether it’s their mother-in-law or the husband who has said they have enough money to support the person and they find they don’t have access to anything else because someone has said they can provide the financial support to them. We see several mechanisms into how that person is controlled. They are very dependent.

Other stakeholders expressed how financial control restricted a person’s freedom. One service provider explained:

If they don’t have identity documents or a dollar to their name, leaving the house and not knowing where to go is daunting because of all the vulnerabilities attached to being a migrant in an unfamiliar place.

In addition, stakeholders provided details of cases where women have been deceived about their husband’s financial position and once in Australia they are coerced to work, usually in the sex industry, to provide money to their husband. This allows the husband to exploit the women for their labour and ability to earn an income for him, as well as to exploit her in the home as a domestic servant. The sex industry is chosen as the ideal type of work because large amounts of money can be made in a short period of time and because the women are made to believe they will not be able to find employment in other industries due to their limited education, qualifications and appropriate skills and language capabilities.

While financial risks are commonly associated with exploitation in labour industries, as well as romance and online dating scams, often there are fewer acknowledgements of the personal risks. For human trafficking involving marriage, the personal consequences can be greater than financial loss:

It’s not as if men are going around and plucking people out, they are pursuing relationships with people. They are leading them to believe this is what they want. We have read letters that have been sent from potential husbands during the dating phase, if you knew no better, it would look pretty legitimate. The women are genuinely broken hearted…they genuinely think the person loved them (service provider).

Abuse of children

All but two of the women interviewed for this study had children aged less than 18 years, either as a result of their marriage to their Australian sponsor or who resulted from a previous relationship and had migrated to Australia with them. In all of these cases, it was reported that the children witnessed and/or experienced serious psychological, physical and/or sexual violence. Types of violence witnessed and/or experienced by children included:

  • slapping, pushing and hitting;
  • household objects being thrown, broken and smashed;
  • yelling and verbal abuse;
  • witnessing and being subject to sexual violence;
  • being denied medical assistance; and
  • being denied adequate food.

For example, one woman described her husband’s violent behaviour in front of her children as follows:

He used to break things. When he got angry he broke things. He broke a fortune of mobile phones. He used to break chairs sometimes. One time he broke the glass dining table. I get scared when he shouts. I was shaking (victim/survivor).

Another woman revealed that:

[me and my children] were often hungry because we didn’t have enough food (victim/survivor).

Although there are currently no data on how widespread a problem the abuse of migrant children might be in Australia, these cases highlight the importance of assessment and support for children involved in such cases, in addition to support for the migrant women.

Experiences of exploitation

Based on the experiences of victim/survivors and the expertise of stakeholders, the indicators of human trafficking, slavery, slavery-like conditions (eg servitude) are discussed below.

Domestic servitude

In addition to the extreme abuse perpetrated by the husbands and the men’s families, women also experienced a number of specific indicators of exploitation associated with human trafficking.

All of the eight women experienced living conditions that could be classified as domestic servitude. The women in the sample compared their lives to being in a jail, like a prisoner, like a slave and like a servant. One woman spoke of being ‘treated like a possession’ (victim/survivor). Another was told by her husband:

These are the rules and regulations. You should be caring for everything in the house, doing the cooking, washing, cleaning, and whenever I go to the shower you have to give me my toothbrush and towel. You must iron my clothes and make my food whenever I like and whatever I like…You must care for me…You are here to do the housework. I brought you to give me money and help me in the house. If you don’t do those things I will send you back. Otherwise it’s no use keeping you here (victim/survivor).

The women talked about excessive housework and having to persistently care for their husband’s extended family and other children. On the day that another of the participants arrived in Australia her husband said to her:

I want you to look after my parents because I don’t have time. I have to be with my girlfriend (victim/survivor).

She continued by saying:

When I arrived in Australia, my husband and I never shared the same bedroom. There was a room for me to stay in. My husband and his girlfriend left to stay at their own place…They only came over when they needed something…There were 16 people living in the house…My life was like a slave…there was always work to do in the house. My mother-in-law was always with me…I hardly ever got any rest or break during the day. If I sat down for 5 or 10 minutes my mother-in-law would find me something to do (victim/survivor).

Evidence from family members of the participants also revealed the extent of women being exploited through domestic servitude. One witness observed that one of the women

was treated like a servant by her husband’s family. She was expected to do everything for [her husband’s] family. She did all the cooking and waited on [him] and his family. I saw that they did nothing to help [her] and acted like guests in their home (victim/survivor case file).

Evidence from stakeholders is consistent with that of victim/survivors. Knowledge of domestic servitude extended to victim/survivors being responsible for all household chores—washing, cleaning, cooking, caring for elderly or infant family members—and being restricted in their ability to rest, leave the house, use the telephone and contact family members and friends.

Deprivation of liberty and restricted movement

In contrast to the small number of women who were encouraged to leave the house for work and to study English to improve their employment opportunities, the majority experienced acute isolation and surveillance by their husbands and his family. For these women, opportunities to work and study were discouraged, they had limited involvement in the community, communication with their family and friends was restricted, their movements were controlled and monitored, and sometimes they were forbidden from leaving the house for long periods of time. Victim/survivors described how their husbands went to great lengths to maintain surveillance, isolate them and deny their independence, such as disconnecting telephones and internet connections, not permitting them to learn to drive or obtain a driver’s licence, disallowing them from leaving the house without being escorted, and being intimidated and coached into concealing their experiences in the home. One woman was told that ‘anything that happens in the house just keep it inside, don’t say anything to anyone’ (victim/survivor). Another woman disclosed that

since I don’t have close relatives in Australia I became very isolated and powerless to change things at home...I was confined to home on the days my husband worked…Living with my husband I experienced a lot of isolation and loneliness. I didn’t have a key to my house…My husband had disposed of a personal phone contact book I had in the kitchen with the numbers of some friends I had made…I knew that my husband’s intention was to perpetuate my isolation in this country (victim/survivor).

One woman described how she accessed DIBP’s website and found a list of things that immigrants should do once they move to Australia, including opening a bank account and obtaining a tax file number, however, when she showed this list to her husband he became verbally abusive towards her and would not allow her to accomplish any of the items on the list. This husband’s way of controlling the woman and her children was not by forcing them to obey his wishes, but by denying them basic ways of participating in society.

Significantly, the women’s isolation largely resulted from restricted movement and freedom. Women’s experiences included being locked in the house during the day and at night if the husband was out, being locked out of the house at night and being forced to sleep in the backyard in winter, and being accompanied at all times, even when travelling overseas, usually by the mother-in-law. One woman said:

[my husband] always told me not to tell my mother what was happening here and he warned me not to have any association with any friends here. I am not allowed to go out during the day…I am not allowed to associate with my friends and my family. Each time I go out I have to tell him (victim/survivor).

Similarly, another woman revealed:

If I wanted to go [outside the house and to the city] I had to go with his mother or his sisters or him. They thought that maybe I would get in contact with my parents to tell them what was going on. They didn’t want my parents or my family involved because they wanted to keep me under control (victim/survivor).

In contrast to the physical restraints that women experienced, stakeholders explained that victim/survivors in their care often had a psychological bondage with their husbands. One service provider elaborated that:

even though the door is open and the person may be free to leave, they are psychologically attached to their offender, because that person has taken them out of their unstable life that is characterised by poverty in their home country.

Women’s experiences of being restrained through psychological means include their financial dependence on their husbands, knowing their husband is their sponsor and thus responsible for their residency in Australia, being threatened with deportation, threats of their children being taken from them and being told that their neighbourhood is an unsafe place and as a result they should not leave the house or talk to people.

Threats of deportation

Participants were regularly threatened with deportation if they tried to leave the marriage or they did not comply with requests from their husband and his family. Threats of deportation were made by both the husbands and members of his family. One woman was told by her husband ‘I can destroy you because you are an immigrant’ (victim/survivor), while another was directly threatened with deportation:

I will return you to [country X]…The law in Australia says that in the first two years of marriage if the husband says he doesn’t want to live with his wife anymore, then he can send her back (victim/survivor).

Another woman described how her husband used the threat of deportation to control her:

My husband knew that my soft spot was to be sent back to [country X] and he used this to his advantage. He knew that it would be a disaster for me and people would look down on my family (victim/survivor).

Control of passports and personal documentation

Only one woman reported that her husband tried to take her passport, however, she convinced him that she needed it for her employment and because he encouraged her to work as much as possible he allowed her to keep it. This finding is in contrast to evidence that confiscation of personal documentation and passports is a key part of the control that offenders exert on their victims (APTIC 2009). However, it supports the emerging evidence that human traffickers are using less overt methods of control because of the psychological bondage they create (APTIC 2012).

Exiting the situation

Victim/survivors employed diverse help-seeking strategies, both formal and informal, to exit their exploitative situations.

Informal help-seeking behaviours

The victim/survivors in the study most commonly sought help from informal sources, such as friends, family, neighbours and people in the community. It was these less formal sources that often provided a first point of contact for seeking help. A study on effective options for help-seeking in cases of domestic violence demonstrated the importance of informal sources of help, as these were the most prominent sources chosen for support (Meyer 2010). This research found that ‘positive reactions of family and friends…encourage[d] more formal or professional help-seeking decisions, including the utilisation of law enforcement, counsellors, crisis accommodation and financial support’ (Myer 2010: 1). It is therefore important how the community responds. In the current study, victim/survivors utilised informal sources of help in several ways.

Victim/survivors most often sought assistance from people they knew personally, such as neighbours, family and friends. For example, one victim/survivor (interview 2011) described seeking the help of a neighbour to call her parents (which she was not permitted to do by her husband) in order to alert them to the situation and to gain their approval for her to escape. With the support of her family, and following her sister’s migration to another Australian city, this victim/survivor was able to escape her exploitative situation, taking her three young children to stay with her sister and her sister’s husband, before relocating to a women’s refuge on their advice.

Another woman described being so frightened that her husband would harm her that she snuck out of her house during the night to seek help from a neighbour. While this woman’s neighbours attempted to comfort her, they also incorrectly informed her that as her husband had not been physically violent, she could not report her situation to the police. Although this victim/survivor returned home following this attempt to seek help, she ultimately exited the situation by fleeing and staying with a local friend. Initially, this strategy meant leaving her children with their father; however, the victim/survivor removed her children from the situation a number of days later by picking them up from childcare. Once out of her exploitative situation, this victim/survivor sought help from a community worker and was referred to a women’s refuge.

Several women also reported leaving their situation with the help of other migrants. For example, one woman’s friends advised her to go to a migrant resource centre for assistance, who then contacted a domestic violence shelter to help her to exit her exploitative situation.

Of concern is that a number of women who sought help from people they knew who failed to act or who encouraged them to go back to their homes and deal with the situation as a private matter to be resolved with their husband. For example, one victim/survivor explained that when she confided her abusive and exploitative home life to a family friend she was told by her family friend that she was unable to assist her:

[My mother’s friend] asked me how life was at the house and I said I did not like it and wanted to move out. She said there was nothing she could do because it was an issue between me, my husband and his family (victim/survivor).

Another victim/survivor explained her attempt at seeking assistance from a neighbour who had overheard the violence in her home. She said:

One time the neighbour said to me ‘I don’t like what I am hearing and next time I will call the police’. I told her ‘yes, please do’, but she never did (victim/survivor).

Stakeholders reported knowledge of similar scenarios where women were not assisted by neighbours, family and other members of the community due to the private nature of their problem. One example provided by a victim support provider involved an exploitative arranged marriage between a man and woman whose families did not know each other and were from different parts of Australia. The woman initially left her violent situation with help from her neighbours and entered a domestic violence shelter. However, the wife reunited with her husband in response to pressure from her family and was taken abroad.

Formal help-seeking behaviours and detection by authorities

Mainstream and migrant community organisations and education providers played an important role in assisting half the women to leave their exploitative or violent situations. For example, on arrival in Australia, one of the victim/survivors was given a pamphlet on community centres and decided to enrol in a course. While at the community centre, there was a presentation on domestic violence. While listening to the presentation she recognised that she was experiencing domestic violence perpetrated by her husband. After the presentation, she spoke to a social worker who provided her with counselling and referred her to a women’s refuge that assisted her to leave her violent situation. Another victim/survivor was helped to leave her situation by a friend who was an English tutor who she met while taking English lessons. Her friend put her in touch with the local community centre where she was provided assistance. These help-seeking behaviours illustrate the importance of community and educational centres in assisting immigrant women experiencing abusive and exploitative marriage situations.

In the current study, only two of the eight victim/survivors left their situation with the assistance of formal authorities. On both occasions women were assisted by social workers at Centrelink, who referred one woman to a refuge and another to the Domestic Violence Crisis Service after she sought help because she did not have enough money to live. In another case, a third woman called the police in response to escalating threats of violence from her husband. She believed that police involvement was a useful immediate intervention, however, after a short period her husband’s behaviour became abusive once more and she feared the consequences and reprisals she may face if she were to contact the police again. This woman chose not to report her experience to police once she exited the situation and was receiving professional support because she thought the police would believe her husband over her as she had complained to the police once already.

While the majority of the cases of human trafficking and related exploitation involving migrant spouses appear to be detected through less formal means, stakeholders (interviews 2011) reported instances where formal authorities, such as police and immigration officials, had also detected and responded to cases. Cases had been brought to the attention of stakeholders in a number of ways, including:

  • state or territory police intervention following an escalation in domestic violence matters;
  • NGO referrals to the AFP;
  • Centrelink referrals to domestic violence or other victim support services;
  • referrals from the public to DIBP, mostly related to concerns about visa issues;
  • clients seeking sexual services;
  • Consulates and embassies, for example where a victim/survivor sought advice on their passport or visa; and
  • parents of victim/survivors reporting violence to the police.

DIBP also detected possible cases of sham marriages when victim/survivors sought assistance to apply for a divorce. In these scenarios, the relationship between the victim and the trafficker had ceased, but the victim was still married to a person they had no genuine relationship with, or who they might not have been able to locate. They therefore contacted Immigration to seek information on obtaining a divorce, at which point DIBP could investigate and identify the situation as one of exploitation, human trafficking or visa fraud.

Identification of victims in these ways is somewhat different from how victims of non-domestic exploitation are usually detected. Cases of labour exploitation, including in the sex work industry, are commonly detected by DIBP while investigating breaches of visa conditions that are then referred to the AFP. Notably, cases are rarely reported to formal authorities as suspected cases of human trafficking or related exploitation.

Barriers to exiting and help-seeking

Victim/survivors and stakeholders identified a number of barriers that prevented victim/survivors seeking assistance to exit their exploitative situations. These included:

  • victim/survivors’ lack of knowledge with regard to the existence of social services, the law and their rights in Australia, including the existence of the Family Violence Provisions;
  • lack of permanent residency and fear of deportation;
  • cultural disparities regarding gender and marriage that resulted in victim/survivors not identifying their experiences as being illegal or abusive;
  • fear of reprisals;
  • shame and stigma; and
  • mistrust of police.

These issues appeared to often be exacerbated by:

  • lack of family ties in Australia;
  • social isolation;
  • a sense of obligation to stay in a relationship; and
  • pressure to conform to cultural traditions of male dominance.

In some cases, these barriers were actively fostered by victim/survivors’ husbands, who almost universally sought to prevent their wives from seeking help by deliberately misinforming them about the role of police and about the ability they had, as Australian sponsors, to send their wives ‘back home’.

Victim/survivors’ lack of knowledge about the Family Violence Provisions and fear of deportation

The reasons why women stayed with their abusive partners was not assessed, however, it has been argued that:

the fact that under the visa system a marriage or relationship needs to be genuine and continuous for two years in order for the migrant woman to obtain permanent residency, means the woman is completely dependent on her partner for that period (Schloenhardt 2009b: 6).

This belief was entrenched in one woman who was repeatedly threatened with deportation by her husband. Another woman said she did not contact the police because she was afraid she would be separated from her son and have to go back to her home country because she did not have permanent residency yet. She stayed in her situation for three years until she was granted permanent residency, but still did not go to the police because she believed she would lose her son. These fears were perpetuated by her husband who took advantage of her lack of English and lack of knowledge about immigration law.

Although the family violence exception exists to enable victims of family violence to leave their abusive husbands and still remain in Australia, only one woman used these provisions to remain permanently in Australia after she escaped her abusive situation. The limited use of these provisions may be explained by migrants being largely unaware of their existence or availability to them. Further, even if migrant victims of domestic violence know about the special provisions, they may not seek help or report the violence because they do not recognise their experience as domestic violence, are fearful of the outcome including risk of deportation, perceive a poor response from the criminal justice system and feelings of shame (Schloenhardt 2009a; 2009b).

Cultural disparities

The impact of disparate cultural perceptions about gender and the institution of marriage are evident in the stories of the victim/survivors. One woman spoke of her husband’s very strong views about gender roles and how she would not be allowed to do anything without his permission. Consequently, she suffered tremendous isolation and emotional, financial and psychological abuse. Because of his cultural background (which was the same as hers), he had traditional views about gender roles, specifically that ‘women should stay at home, bear children and be the primary carers of the children, while men are the breadwinners and have total authority over their wives’ (victim/survivor). She remarked that:

From the beginning of my marriage my husband was very controlling and domineering. He was the one making the household decisions; he decided on my behalf without consulting me or even asking for my opinion (victim/survivor).

Another victim/survivor gave insight into her husband’s views about gender and marriage by relaying a conversation in which he stated:

I better marry [country X] woman, at least she will sit at home, she doesn’t go anywhere even shopping. I drive for her. Even she will not dare to go for shopping. I will buy for her, bring it home and she will sit in quiet, have children and raise them and that’s it (victim/survivor).

Only after years of living in controlling and exploitative conditions did a third woman realise that this was not normal and ‘started to realise that other women in Australia enjoyed more freedom and autonomy’ (victim/survivor). Another confessed:

I didn’t know a lot of things about Australia and how I could be protected, but in my culture you must follow your husband all the time (victim/survivor).

This same woman revealed that she felt her marriage and her situation was her responsibility and this was the reason she delayed seeking help:

I don’t want to upset other people. It’s my problem (victim/survivor).

A victim support provider explained how another ‘did not think it was wrong because it was normal to her’ (service provider).

Additional insights provided by the research participants revealed that many women did not associate their situation as being illegal, abusive or exploitative and overwhelmingly, respondents were poorly informed about the culture, laws and their rights in Australia. For example, one victim/survivor disclosed that she thought her husband’s behaviour was typical of Australian men:

I thought everyone was like [my husband]. I was frightened of everyone. I didn’t talk to anyone around me (victim/survivor).

Another victim/survivor conceded that her culture and the customs of her upbringing impeded her ability to identify her husband’s behaviour as abusive and to leave her exploitative situation:

Gender roles are very marked and views about some issues are very different to the Australian views…I did not think to call it an act of violence. But somehow I always felt belittled and worthless living with my husband (victim/survivor).

Most stakeholders identified key personal and family circumstances that increased the risk of trafficking and exploitation—cases where a man chooses a woman from a foreign country, where the woman is isolated from friends and family in Australia, cannot speak proficient English, is unaware of Australian culture and law and is therefore dependent on her husband. In these circumstances, the balance of power within the relationship is skewed and increases the potential for the men to control, exploit and abuse.

Power imbalances in cases where women are victimised were thought to stem, in part, from cultural expectations of marital relationships. Generally, stakeholders described marriages in which the wife was expected to be traditional, submissive, dutiful, compliant and obedient, and where men experienced more freedom, autonomy, assertiveness and control.

Representatives from an NGO explained that ‘women do not identify as victims because culturally they have been brought up knowing that a wife serves her husband in the home’ (service provider). These findings are consistent with the argument that

[s]ome refugee and immigrant women do not see sexual violence within marriage as a ‘real’ crime, or they may hold a sense of obligation to stay in the relationship due to religious beliefs or traditional attitudes and rules developed during their upbringing (Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski 2011: 6).

Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski (2011: 9) argue further that:

[at] a family and community level, sexual violence by a husband may not even be recognised as criminal behaviour. If a woman was to seek help—for example, for sexual violence by her husband—she may fear the subsequent loss of her relationship and her family as the crime may not be recognised by her community.

Fear of reprisals

Some immigrant women

have a legitimate fear of reprisal or escalating violence if they speak out against sexual abuse and/or domestic and family violence. This may be associated with fears of being disbelieved or blamed, and possible exclusion or persecution from their community (Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski 2011: 8).

Traffickers can also perpetuate this fear by telling women to remain silent and avoid talking to government, law enforcement, teachers and social workers, as otherwise they would be deported. This deliberate isolation of the women ensures they do not receive information, gain knowledge and start to understand that what is happening to them is illegal.

Shame and stigma

Further, in some countries, ‘divorce is not culturally acceptable and may lead to social isolation’ (Schloenhardt 2009b: 6). As stated by a service provider:

Cultural factors definitely play a huge role. Women feel like after they have experienced that kind of situation there is no way they could return home to their family as a divorced or separated woman. In some instances where the family hasn’t approved of the marriage and then they go back as a divorced woman, they are alone there too (service provider).

Similarly, many of the women interviewed for this study expressed shame associated with divorce and failing to build a safe home for their family, and subsequent consequences. For many, returning to their home country was identified as bringing shame on them and would add to the trauma they have already experienced. One woman expressed that in her home country there is a considerable amount of shame inflicted on women who leave their husbands; they are considered to be prostitutes. Another woman did not seek help because of the shame and the consequences for her and her family:

people would look down on me and my family. We would lose face and be embarrassed. No one would marry my younger sisters because of the scandal. I would not be valued in my community. I feel ashamed of myself (victim/survivor).

Another woman also ‘felt so much shame with the thought that my parents would know my marital situation after just four days in Australia’ (victim/survivor). Another told how in her culture, there would be great shame if the marriage did not succeed and she returned home:

I couldn’t share all the problems about myself to my family…I did not want my kids to know or hear me depressed (victim/survivor).

A different woman explained that although she had opportunities to inform her family of her situation, she chose not to. She said:

When I had the chance to call my parents I didn’t do it because I was too afraid [my husband] would find out or maybe one of his friends would see me. I didn’t want to get my parents in trouble or me in trouble (victim/survivor).

The ALRC (2011: 494) has also argued that

many victims of family violence find it difficult to return home due to cultural stigma, financial constraints and other reasons, if the marriage does not eventuate. In the worst case scenario, a person may risk persecution upon returning to their country of origin having failed to marry.

Stakeholders articulated similar concerns about the safety and wellbeing of women being repatriated after leaving their partner:

In some cases we have seen that the husband is well aware of what that marriage has meant for the (victim’s) family and that person then can’t go back to their family. They are using that as another kind of pull to keep that person there (service provider).

Consequently, ‘[f]ear of the shame of separating from their spouse, or not reporting incidents of domestic violence, may also result in exploitation or continuing abuse’ (Schloenhardt 2009b: 6).

Therefore, stakeholders (interviews 2011) expressed how important it is for victims to obtain permanent residency as they cannot go home for fear of being shamed, stigmatised and persecuted by their family and community.

Perceptions of police and consequences of reporting

The majority of the participants did not contact the police for assistance to leave their exploitative marriage. While this may be explained by the women being unable to recognise their situation as abusive or exploitative because of cultural norms in their country of origin, women also expressed that distrust in police, police corruption, fear of deportation, and reprisals from their husbands and his family contributed to their inability to seek formal help from law enforcement. Women reported feeling ‘scared to contact police’ or report to police ‘because of the repercussions’, as well as being fearful of the retributions they could face from their husbands. One woman expressed the fear her husband instilled in her if she was to leave her situation:

He had a certificate to be a private investigator and he said he could find me anywhere, he told me he would find me (victim/survivor).

A number of women also expressed concern about the legal consequences of escaping their situation and taking their children with them as this might be viewed by the police as abduction. Further, women were advised that the police would not be able to help them unless they could show physical signs of abuse. One woman was told by her husband:

I will not hit you because I don’t want a problem with the police report (victim/survivor).

Another told of how her husband would try to control his physical abuse because he knew he would get in trouble with the police. A number of women spoke about the alleged corruption in the police forces in their home country and how this influenced their decisions to contact the police for assistance in Australia. For example, one victim/survivor explained that:

It’s [country] mentality. Police never will help you. I never called police.

Stakeholders confirmed the lack of trust that migrant women sometimes have in law enforcement and the criminal justice system:

There is rarely a legal outcome at the end of these cases. They [the police] don’t proceed because there is no support from the victim; because they don’t understand and because they don’t want police involved. They have a misunderstanding of what the role of the police is in Australia compared to what is in their home country (service provider).

On the small number of occasions where women chose to involve the police, they did not receive the expected outcome of their attempt at seeking help. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW nd: 3) has argued that

[p]olice often have not been trained to identify a servile marriage as a trafficking case, not least because of the erroneous but widely held notion that human trafficking is limited to the sex industry.

Similarly, in the cases where women chose to contact the police, their situation was not recognised as exploitative or considered anything other than a domestic dispute.