The federal government’s plan to force people seeking a partner visa to learn English could leave them without a safety net from family violence, critics have said, despite the Coalition’s claim that the measure is aimed at protecting women.
The government announced in Tuesday’s budget that from late 2021 it would require partner visa applicants applying for permanency to have made “reasonable efforts” to learn English. The same test would apply to their permanent resident sponsors.
The acting immigration minister, Alan Tudge, said “reasonable efforts” could include taking 500 hours of the free adult migrant English program classes.
The government is boosting the number of partner visas available this financial year from just under 40,000 of the 160,000 overall visa cap to 72,300 in total. There will also be a new fee, with sponsors being charged $420 on top of the usual $7,715 partner visa application fee.
The increase in partner visas will rake in $4.9m extra for the government. The boost is due to a lower number of skilled visas – which cost significantly less – being issued.
Both Tudge and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, have said a lack of English language skills among partner migrants put them at risk.
“In many communities … a lack of English language for, particularly for wives well, you know, we know that that can lead to women being put in very vulnerable positions in the workplace, even in the home and domestic situations,” Morrison told Sydney’s 2GB radio on Thursday. “Now, that’s that’s an unhappy fact, but it’s a reality.”
But Assoc Prof Marie Segrave, the deputy director of the Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre, said the move ignored the reality that women seeking partner visas often came to Australia already married, or with children, and the requirement could push them on to other visitor or temporary visas with no support.
“It needs to be very clear that visa status is used as leverage by perpetrators, all the time, and locking women out of the partner visa actually just enables perpetrators to continue to have control,” she told Guardian Australia. “So it’s very concerning.”
In a 2017 study of family violence involving visa holders, Segrave found perpetrators often used the visa status to control their victims. Women on temporary partner visas have access to financial support, housing support and income while their application is being processed, but those on student visas or other visas would not have the same safety net.
“We should not have women in a situation where they’re forced to stay with their perpetrator,” the academic said.
“The suggestion that proficiency is linked to safety does not understand that people are already married, that people already have children with this man, and that it’s actually locking them out of the only safety net Australia has. The consequences are really significant.”
The risks have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with women on temporary visas who lost work unable to obtain financial support or jobkeeper payments. In a study of 100 women, Segrave found 55% had been threatened with deportation. There were threats to withdraw sponsorship for temporary partner visa holders in 60% of cases.
The proposed language requirement is supported by one of the major institutions teaching English to students, Ames Australia. The organisation’s chief executive, Cath Scarth, told Guardian Australia that learning English would help migrants access employment services and help women in family violence situations understand their rights.
“Access to domestic violence services, understanding the laws, and understanding that husbands can’t threaten you with losing your visa if you leave – and all those kinds of things – is just that much harder if you don’t speak English,” she said.
Scare details about the new requirement have been released so far, with Scarth noting the “devil will be in the detail” when it comes to how “reasonable effort” is defined. Tudge indicated the detail was still being worked through but people would need to demonstrate they had undertaken the 500 hours of lessons if they did not want to take a test.
“There will be one of two requirements you’ll have to meet: either demonstrate that you’ve got functional-level English – you may be able to demonstrate that by the fact you went to an English-speaking school – or demonstrate that by passing an English language test,” Tudge told the ABC.
At the end of June, there were 100,000 permanent partner visa applications in line to be processed. Some 90% of applicants had waited at least 27 months for their paperwork to be processed as of the end of July.
“What we do know is under this government, we have a massive backlog in visa processing and a lack of attention to this fundamental function of what was the Department of Immigration,” Labor’s shadow minister for multicultural affairs, Andrew Giles, told Guardian Australia.
Giles said it was unclear who the government had consulted over the proposal. “It appears, in the very short time that we’ve had to consider this proposal, that very few stakeholders who might speak for multicultural migrant communities and multicultural and migrant women were consulted prior to this proposal being put forward,” he said.
He said Labor would investigate the policy through Senate estimates this month, and questioned why the government was trying to make it more difficult for people to move to Australia with the person they love.
“It’s entirely unclear why a person’s capacity to speak English should be relevant to the quality of their loving relationships, which is really what these visas are all about,” he said.
Tudge said more detail on the plan would be announced in the coming months.