Between 3,000 and 7,000 people move to Australia on ‘Prospective Marriage’ visas each year. (ABC News: Erin Parke)
An explosion of social media sites promoting prospective young Asian brides has caused a spike in abuse and exploitation, with reports some women are being held captive in suburban homes in situations that could constitute human trafficking.
- Up to 7,000 people move to Australia on ‘Prospective Marriage’ visas each year
- There has been a spike in abuse in recent years, with reports women are held captive
- The Federal Government is implementing a number of changes to reduce exploitation
Six women from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines have revealed their stories to ABC News in the hope of preventing other women being lured into abusive relationships with Australian men.
“We have seen some horrendous cases where there’s been really severe physical violence and where women have simply felt unable to leave the house,” migration lawyer Kathy Bogoyev said.
“Some of the cases we’ve seen would step over into the federal jurisdiction in terms of sexual servitude and almost forced labour type of offences, so I think there’s a bit of overlap between these serious cases and some of the human trafficking and slavery-type offences as well.”
Social worker Alicia Asic, from the support organisation Multicultural Futures in Perth, said she was also seeing a growing number of so-called “internet brides” being abused.
“There’s been an increase in referrals for women, from mainly Asian backgrounds, who have married Australian men to start a better life and found themselves in a very unhealthy and dangerous situation,” she said.
“There is deprivation of liberty, imprisonment, physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
“They are extra vulnerable because a lot of them are still learning English [and] they’re not aware of their rights in Australia.
“A lot of them aren’t able to access a phone or internet, and they’re not aware of how to go about seeking help to get them out of the situation they’re in.”
Alicia Asic is assisting an increasing number over overseas-born women who are escaping violent relationships. (ABC News: James Carmody)
In their own words: Jane*
Jane* comes from a poor farming community in the Philippines. She was in her early 20s when she decided she wanted to marry a man from overseas.
“I was trying to save money to go to university but in my country the man is the one that has the decision-making. The woman just follows the man … and I heard things were better overseas,” she said.
“So I joined a dating website designed for Caucasian men to meet Asian woman, and that’s where I met my ex-husband, who was in Perth.”
She said he pressured her to get engaged quickly, but once they were married, he turned nasty.
“He was very jealous and controlling, and he made me pregnant … within three months because he thought that way I could not leave him,” she said.
Jane, 32, moved from the Philippines to marry an Australian man she met on an online chatroom designed for western men who want to meet an Asian bride. (Supplied)
“He got a security screen door put on the front door and he locked me inside when he went to work, so I stayed inside with my son all day.
“I asked him for my passport back but he kept it locked in a safe and I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. I had nothing, no transport, no money, no freedom.”
She said he forced her to have sex with him.
“I finally got a friend who told me you didn’t have to be intimate with your husband if you didn’t want to, even though you’re married. I never knew that,” she said.
Jane sobbed as she described the night that prompted her to escape.
“He picked me up and put me on the bed and shouted, ‘Don’t you move, stay there’, and I was so scared what would happen to me,” she said.
Eventually Jane was able to flee the house and in the past year has carved out a new, independent life in Australia.
She works full time at a hotel and was saving money to fulfil her dream of going to university.
She said it upset her to think there were other young women trapped in suburban homes in similar situations.
“I didn’t know the word slave before, but now I think that I was his slave,” she said.
“It’s because of the poverty at home that people come here for marriage, and I believe there are lots of women out there who can’t speak for themselves.
“I just want to tell them, there’s help. You can get out.”
In their own words: Menik*
Menik* first met the man she was to marry at the shopping centre where she worked in Bali.
They kept in touch online and he convinced her to visit him in Australia.
On her second visit to Perth, which he paid for, she began to feel scared.
“He [was] handsome. He [was] nice. He respected me the first time, he treated me very good in the beginning, but in Australia he changed,” she said.
“He would drink too much and would always ask me for sex. Even if I was tired and say no, he [would] still want it, sometimes two or three times a day.”
Menik, who is 36 years old, moved from Indonesia to Perth to marry an Australian man. File photo (Supplied)
Menik said she believed her husband targeted her because she was Asian.
“My husband hated Australian women, he says they’re useless. He told me they don’t cook or clean, and they don’t like having sex after a baby.”
Menik did not have money for a ticket home, so she had to beg him to buy her one.
“He said I had to pay him $5,000 if I wanted to go back to Bali, to repay the money he spent on my passport and visa,” she said.
“I didn’t have the money so I had to give him [a] massage and sex every day until he let me go.”
Back in Indonesia, a local man acting as a go-between threatened her and told her she needed to repay the $5,000 unless she returned to Australia.
She relented, concerned her family would be punished.
“When I got back, he slapped me until [I was] bruised and choked my neck until I thought maybe I [would] die,” she said.
“I [was] scared he would kill me. I think, this time I may die.”
After a year of escalating violence, Menik escaped to a women’s refuge where she is living indefinitely while she undergoes the long and expensive process of trying to get a special exemption residency visa to allow her to stay in Australia.
She said she did not want to go home because her family believes she should have stayed with her husband, despite the violence.
New era of ‘mail-order brides’
For decades, women from developing countries have moved to wealthier nations like Australia and the United States, often in mutually beneficial arrangements.
According to the Department of Home Affairs, between 3,000 and 7,000 people moved to Australia on “Prospective Marriage” visas each year.
Since 2010, the biggest numbers have been women arriving from the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Thailand.
Charlie Morton, who runs an international dating website called “International Love Scout”, said the “mail-order bride” stereotype was unfair.
“The guys who go for overseas dating tend to be older men who are not happy with the dating situation in their own country, and they find as soon as they go overseas, they suddenly become much more attractive and sought after,” he said.
“Beneath the surface of this there is a transaction being made — an average guy in Australia becomes a big deal in the Philippines, and for the women, marrying an Australian guy is like winning the lottery.
“Most of the time, from the feedback we get, things work out very well, and there are lots of happy marriages.
“But you do see the occasional guy with an attitude problem, more often using looser chat rooms, because they’re not vetted the same way the more reputable dating agencies vet the men.”
Others point out that the exploitation can go both ways, with some women leaving their Australian husbands as soon as they have secured permanent residency.
Perth-born Richard Olszowy, who has been happily married to his Indonesian-born wife Astrid for almost 30 years, said he had seen it happen.
“We fell in love when I was travelling for work to Indonesia, and Astrid was a travel agent there, and we are in a bit of a different situation in how we met,” he said.
“I think in the majority of cases it’s a plus-plus situation and everyone wins — the man meets a girls who loves and respects him, and the woman gets a better life and doesn’t forget that.
“But occasionally there will be a woman who’s exploited the man to get a better life, and after two years they want a divorce, so it can go both ways.”
Many couples settle down happily
At a busy, colourful Indonesian dance class in the southern suburbs of Perth, the ABC interviewed several couples who overcame language barriers and cultural differences to settle down happily.
32-year-old Kristianingsih Dian Rahayu moved to Perth in 2018 to marry a man she met on a dating website, and said they were very much in love.
Kristianingsih Dian Rahayu recently moved to Australia to marry a man she met online. (ABC News: Erin Parke)
“We met on the website ‘Indonesian Cupid’ and I liked him straight away,” she said.
“We met for five days in Singapore and it was awesome, we decided we matched well together straight away and we decided to continue with the relationship.”
Asked if there was a power imbalance in the relationship, Dian was thoughtful.
“I guess he still helps me with money, because I can’t get a job yet, so he is the bread-winner,” she said.
“So I tend to be at home, managing the home, while he works. But I am very happy, and I am so glad we met, and soon I will get my visa, so that’s good.”
Every week women attend an Indonesian dance class in suburban Perth, where they can chat to other women who moved to Australia for marriage. (ABC News: Erin Parke)
Government working to reduce exploitation
The Federal Government has made a number of changes to try to reduce exploitation.
The number of overseas partners a person can sponsor has been capped at two in a lifetime, and in 2018 laws were introduced making it mandatory for sponsors to undergo police checks as well as character checks.
There are also special exemptions for people on prospective marriage visas to stay in the country if they can prove they had to leave the relationship due to violence.
Each year about 300 to 400 people have their applications approved.
But those assisting the women exiting violent relationships said it remained rare for the offenders to be prosecuted, due to fear of retaliation, fear of police, and fear of deportation.
“We see men using the control they have over their partners’ visa status as a threat, to keep them in the relationship and be able to continue perpetuating that violence against them,” Ms Bogoyev said.
“It’s a form of coercion and control that can be potentially very dangerous.”
Women who do leave a relationship are often not eligible for Centrelink and Medicare, leaving them at the mercy of church charities and women’s refuges to shelter them.
Data collected in 2016 by the Women’s Council for Domestic and Family Violence Service of WA showed there were about 300 women and children without income or permanent residency staying at refuges across the state.
Some had been staying in the emergency accommodation for between one and two years while waiting for their visa applications to be processed.
*Names have been changed