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Protecting women seeking asylum from violence – Is Australia doing enough?

by | Sep 18, 2019 | The Agenda

The case of Kokilapathmapriya ‘Priya’ Nadesalingam, a Tamil woman who escaped significant violence in Sri Lanka prior to seeking refuge in Australia, has recently generated strong media attention. Priya and her family had been living in a regional community on a temporary visa, then in Australian immigration detention. Now, against their will, she and her young family are awaiting imminent deportation to Sri Lanka.

The Australian Department of Home Affairs has determined that Priya and her family do not meet the eligibility criteria associated with refugee status. However, multiple advocacy groups and activists, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Torture, have made various pleas for governments not to return Tamils to Sri Lanka on the grounds of concern for their safety, calling for a more holistic approach to the protection of human rights. Although the details of Priya’s asylum claims are protected, we know from media reports that experiences and ongoing fears of violence are at the heart of her appeal.

Australia’s current policy frameworks to protect women from violence are failing women such as Priya. As an asylum seeker, she appears to fall between domestic policies to protect women from violence, and foreign policies designed to support conflict-affected women. Her case provides Australia with a timely opportunity to re-consider its policies on the protection of women seeking asylum.

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The Australian government has two major policy frameworks to address violence against women.  The first policy, released last month, is the fourth iteration of Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, spanning 2019-2022. This policy is designed to reduce family, domestic and sexual violence against women and their children within the Australian community.

The second is the next iteration of Australia’s National Action Plan (NAP) on Women Peace and Security (WPS). This policy acknowledges the unique and often-overlooked impact conflict has on women and girls, particularly conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, and the crucial role that women and girls play in achieving lasting peace.

Neither policy has so far adequately addressed conflict-affected women who are seeking refuge in Australia in a way that has translated into positive action

While these are complex policies, they both constitute a major part of Australia’s domestic and international efforts to promote gender equality and protect women from violence. However, neither policy has so far adequately addressed conflict-affected women who are seeking refuge in Australia in a way that has translated into positive action.  

Having worked in both civil-society and government on ending violence against women and the WPS agenda, I often analyse where these two agendas intersect, how they support each other, and if being siloed frameworks has negative consequences. This is particularly the case for women seeking asylum who experience violence in their country of origin, under Australia’s ‘care’ in offshore immigration detention or, in some cases, in the Australian community. While women continue to fall through the cracks, we need to think about why and how these two frameworks should be connected.

This is important for two main reasons. First, violence against women occurs along a continuum. Such violence occurs both in the public sphere and in the private sphere, as well as before, during and after conflict. We know that women who experience violence in their countries of origin are more susceptible to violence whilst seeking asylum. This is true for the case of Australia.

We also know that situations of conflict, post-conflict and displacement exacerbate existing violence. This includes both intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. Second, women seeking asylum are often uniquely affected and made susceptible to violence due to past experiences of violence and the associated trauma. So far, this has been inadequately addressed by either framework.

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The WPS agenda acknowledges conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence in many UNSC resolutions; however, for the most part, women seeking asylum are absent from the agenda. This is despite the recommendations to ensure the inclusion of women seeking asylum made in the 2015 Global Study of the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 released by UN Women. Not surprisingly, the majority of Western countries, including Australia, fail to align their domestic asylum and refugee policies with their NAPs on WPS.

There is irony and hypocrisy in the fact that Australia advocates so strongly for the protection of women from violence in conflict zones, but does not afford these same women protection when they claim refugee status

There is irony and hypocrisy in the fact that Australia advocates so strongly for the protection of women from violence in conflict zones, but does not afford these same women protection when they claim refugee status. Instead, the current policy often subjects them to further violence in costly and unnecessary offshore immigration detention. Similarly, while Australia has adopted increasingly strong domestic violence policies, women seeking asylum face constant barriers in seeking support. These are major concerns which need to be addressed, but there are signs of reprieve both domestically and internationally.

The Final Independent Review of Australia’s NAP on WPS 2012-2018 specifically acknowledges displacement as an issue which increases the vulnerability of conflict-affected women. Furthermore, internationally, more recent NAPs include WPS principles in asylum procedures. The review also mentions the continuum of gender-based violence, and the direct linkages between conflict-related violence and family violence. NAPs internationally are beginning to acknowledge the crossover by linking national level policy frameworks with the WPS agenda. There is an opportunity for the Australian government to translate these recommendations into policy in the second NAP.

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There is a clear need to recognise asylum-seeking women’s unique experiences of peace and security, and value their participation in the Australian community by involving them in the NAP consultation process. Furthermore, Australia should acknowledge their agency and resilience, and draw upon this to better inform their protection. Finally, a link between the WPS NAP and the National Plan to Reduce Violence should be provided to ensure that holistic and non-discriminatory protection is provided to all women across the continuum of violence.

The latest iteration of Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2019-2022 acknowledges the experiences of women from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, including those seeking asylum. Yet many barriers still exist to these women accessing services, including financial assistance, housing, legal assistance and counselling. To address this, implementing government agencies need to analyse the eligibility criteria that excludes women seeking asylum and their children.

Gender equality is at the heart of ending violence against women. Australia has taken admirable steps towards achieving gender equality, demonstrated in its commitment to these two agendas. However, in order to achieve sustainable and holistic change, we must avoid siloing the two frameworks. Instead, we must align the two approaches in ways that include the non-discriminatory protection of all women and girls from violence.

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