This chapter covers a range of safety concerns including foreign interference, media influence and other safety concerns in Australia and overseas as well as racism, discrimination and domestic violence.
Foreign interference with diaspora communities
As a starting point, Mr Mike Burgess, Director-General, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), made the distinction between foreign influence, which is conducted openly, and foreign interference:
Foreign interference, from ASIO's perspective, is activities that relate to Australia and are carried out on behalf of a foreign power, and where those activities are clandestine or deceptive. That can be done for intelligence purposes, it can be done to interfere in our political system or system of government and it can also be anything that is detrimental to Australia's national interest and, of course, where it's clandestine and deceptive and is a threat to a person's safety or security. That's the foreign interference threat that we focus on in this country.
ASIO is aware of numerous individuals from a range of diaspora communities who have reported being subject to threats against themselves and family members due to 'their voicing of opinions on political and ideological issues which a foreign country deemed to be a threat to their government'. ASIO submitted that these threats came directly from foreign government representatives and 'other members of the diaspora communities themselves, acting at the direction of the foreign government'. These activities against the diaspora communities have related to issues including:
…overseas electoral events, pro-democracy movements, and human rights, as well as issues associated with protecting the image of the foreign country.
Mr Burgess added that diaspora communities are vulnerable to being instrumentalised for foreign interference purposes:
Yes, elements of some communities can be used to do a foreign government's bidding, and that is an issue we will focus on. But for the most part, they are vulnerable to it and actually find themselves on the receiving end of some form of threatening action or coercive direction that will have them under pressure to do things which are counter to our national interest. All of that concerns us and is very much a focus for us.
Mr Burgess elaborated that foreign governments focus on diaspora communities in Australia because:
There are things that Australian diaspora communities will say which they believe are counter to their national interests–dissidents for example. They do not like that and they will seek to understand who is saying that. In some cases, they will attempt to take coercive or threatening action to try and quell that. That happens across more than one diaspora community in this country. They can use the diaspora community in our country to acquire information they might need to meet their national interest…'
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a non-governmental organisation that investigates and reports on abuses around the world, told the committee that '[i]n recent years, we have become aware of increasing instances of surveillance, harassment, and intimidation within certain diaspora communities in Australia'.
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) submitted that types of foreign interference:
…range from foreign government surveillance, harassment, intimidation and extortion, through to the use of threats and/or violence against family or friends in other countries as a mechanism for silencing, controlling or extorting money from members of a diaspora community. Cases of foreign interference RCOA is aware of or have heard reported include: foreign governments detaining or threatening family members in other countries when a member of the diaspora in Australia speaks out about human rights abuses; harassment, intimidation and defamation of community members (particularly leaders or spokespersons) publicly through media and/or within diaspora networks; foreign governments reporting or accusing diaspora associations of being affiliated with terrorist groups as a way of discrediting diaspora voices and stifling dissent, and; human traffickers extorting money from members of diaspora communities to secure the release and safety of a family member.
RCOA reported that '[t]hreats to safety can thus be experienced by both individuals in Australia and people in other countries who have connections to diaspora communities in Australia.
RCOA also pointed out that:
lack of safety can also be an issue for individuals when tensions within diaspora communities are exacerbated, such as when conflict overseas between different groups plays out in the Australia-based diaspora. Examples of safety concerns raised in community consultations include: members of a diaspora experiencing bullying, harassment and threats from people within the diaspora community in Australia; services being withheld or denied by people working in government-funded services based on a person’s perceived diasporic affiliations, and; members of diaspora communities feeling unsafe because services in Australia do not recognise their experiences of persecution overseas and the importance of providing culturally-safe services that are attentive to languages and faith that were denied to people in their homeland and in displacement contexts.
HRW said it is aware of 'several cases of Chinese students in Australia who were monitored or 'reported on' by fellow classmates for comments that were critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in class or online whilst studying in Australia'. It urged the adoption by Australian universities of a code of conduct to protect from 'Chinese government threats to the academic freedom of students, scholars, and educational institutions.'
Ms Yun Jiang noted that many members of the Chinese diaspora welcome the current focus on foreign interference as they are often the targets:
Groups vulnerable to PRC [People's Republic of China] coercion include ethnic minorities and dissidents who vocally speak out against the Chinese government. There are documented cases of PRC authorities going after families of dissidents in China, with the aim to silence these dissidents who live in Australia.
This form of foreign interference severely impedes the freedom of speech of people with close connections to the PRC. The Australian Government, working with people at-risk from PRC coercion, should look for more effective ways to protect these individuals' freedom of speech, which is one of the central tenets of democracy in Australia.
The Falun Dafa Association of Australia pointed to analysis conducted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), for example in the report The Party Speaks for You: Foreign Interference and the Chinese Communist Party's united front system by Mr Alex Joske, which states:
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is strengthening its influence by co-opting representatives of ethnic minority groups, religious movements, and business, science and political groups. It claims the right to speak on behalf of those groups and uses them to claim legitimacy.
These efforts are carried out by the united front system, which is a network of party and state agencies responsible for influencing groups outside the party, particularly those claiming to represent civil society…
The Falun Dafa Association of Australia outlined CCP influence in Australia noting that 'Falun Dafa practitioners, Tibetans and Uyghurs are victims of vilification and hatred among the Chinese community here in Australia':
This occurs through the Chinese Communist Party’s use of Chinese groups they control and the efforts of the Chinese embassy and consulates. Hong Kong students at Australian universities expressing support for freedom and human rights for Hong Kong people have been attacked by pro-Beijing students who see any protests as ‘anti-China separatist activities’.
Ms Denise Goldfinch, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Diaspora Action Australia (DAA), reported that many Chinese community members had 'concerns for their own safety here as individuals, if they were to speak out against government practices occurring back in their home country.' She added that:
It's very important that government be quite conscious of the risks for many communities if they're seen to be speaking against governments, regimes and practices in their home countries. We need to find some good ways to be able to engage diaspora community members in conversations safely to be able to hear about their experiences and to be able to hear their views and their perspectives of what's really happening.
Responsible Technology Australia (RTA), which raises awareness and advocates for solutions to address the digital threats to democracy, pointed to the manipulation of diaspora communities by CCP 'efforts to stoke division within Chinese-Australian communities'. RTA also referred the committee to the ASPI report The Party Speaks for You: Foreign Interference and the Chinese Communist Party's united front system by Mr Alex Joske.
The Australia Tibet Council (ATC), a national advocacy organisation promoting human rights and freedoms of Tibetans, and the Australian Tibetan Community Association (ATCA), a national association of nine local Tibetan community associations, reported that the most significant threat facing Australia's Tibetan community comes from the Chinese government, 'in particular through the United Front Work that has been reinvigorated in recent years'. They explained:
The United Front Work primarily involves co-opting and influencing key targets at home and overseas and helps the Chinese Communist Party to win legitimacy and mobilise supporters outside of its traditional constituencies. To this day, it has played a central role in shaping policy on issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang and ethnic affairs. Today its oversees activities, many of which are covert, include increasing the Chinese Government’s influence, interfering in the Chinese and Tibetan diaspora community and undermining dissident movements, among others. Tibetans believe this is undermining their voice, dignity and safety.
ATC and ATCA recommended that the government undertake a detailed investigation of China's United Front Work 'across the country, including how it is impacting Australia's Tibetan community, and ensure existing legislation and policies on espionage and foreign influence are fully enforced'.
ATC and ATCA pointed to the Australian Tibetan Friendship Association which 'is designed to create disunity in the local Tibetan community and support the Chinese government's narrative on Tibet'. It also reported that '[a]lthough the extent of China’s espionage in the Tibetan community is unclear, Tibetan-Australians fear the Chinese Embassy monitors their political activities'. It also detailed cyberattacks:
…the Tibetan community and the Australia Tibet Council have been targeted by other espionage operations that use malware to attempt to infiltrate their online communications and monitor their activities. Twice in 2017, the Member of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile representing Australia received emails which contained repurposed legitimate information with the aim of enticing recipients to open malicious documents containing malware viruses. Research by the Citizen Lab on the attempt to infiltrate the communication of the Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile validates long-held concerns of Australia Tibet Council and other Tibet support groups around the world, for whom cyberattacks are a regular occurrence.
Mrs Kyinzom Dhongdue, Member representing Australasia, Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, said that, over the past few years, the Chinese government has been exporting 'censorship and dictatorship far beyond Tibet's borders.' She continued:
China's surveillance and influence operations are undermining the freedoms, the liberty and the security of people living in Australia, and that includes members of the Tibet community who are Australian citizens now.
HRW reported that '[m]embers of Australia's ethnic Uyghur community have also documented fears that their political activities in Australia are being monitored by the CCP and that their relatives in China have been singled out for detention and harsh treatment as a result of their activism in Australia'.
The Uyghur Association of Victoria (UAV), which promotes the interests of the Uyghur community in Victoria, reported intimidation and harassment of Uyghurs in Australia by authorities in China:
This typically takes the form of WeChat calls from family members back in China (often in the presence of local law enforcement personnel) warning Uyghurs in Australia not to say anything unfavourable to the Chinese government lest something happen to these family members.
It is apparent to us that some Uyghur and Chinese folk have been offered inducements to disseminate Chinese government propaganda in the Uyghur community and/or keep tabs on the activities of Uyghur people in Australia. United Front organisations are also used to influence Uyghur Australians to either to[e] the Chinese Communist Party line or keep their heads down and their mouths shut.
UAV also noted that the CCP has established proxy Uyghur groups. These groups are designed to 'create disunity in the local community and support the Chinese Communist Party's narrative' on Uyghurs.' Mr Alim Osman, President, UAV, added:
These proxy groups remain active with the assistance of the Chinese embassy in Canberra. We strongly recommend our government use foreign interference legislation to inquire into these proxy groups, register them as foreign government representatives in Australia and cut all taxpayer funded grants to these proxy groups immediately.
The Khmer Community of NSW provided the committee with examples of intimidation and interference by the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). The Khmer Community of NSW stated that 'New South Wales is on the front line of a long-term strategy of political interference and influence'. Ms Srey Kang, President of the Khmer Community of NSW, further spoke of the Cambodian government's 'long-term, systematic political strategy, establishing a network of Cambodian People's Party branches and organisations in Australia to counter opposition here as well as in Cambodia.' The establishment of the CPP network in New South Wales has fostered 'anger, fear, insecurity, mistrust and division among the Cambodian diaspora in NSW'. The Khmer Community of NSW indicated that many Australian Cambodians are afraid to speak out publicly or freely for fear of 'possible recrimination for themselves personally or for their relatives in Cambodia'.
In the face of a 'concerted and systematic campaign of political interference by the Cambodian Government', the Khmer Community of NSW recommended that the government take active measures to protect the political rights and freedoms of diaspora communities in Australia, including:
…communicating clear expectations to ambassadors, refusing visas to political agents of foreign governments, strengthening the democratic governance of community associations and conducting ongoing communication and dialogue with community organisations on these issues.
The Khmer Community of NSW felt that:
the occasional single incident reporting to police or via the national security hotline is an inadequate mechanism for reporting on foreign surveillance, interference and intimidation in diaspora communities and does little to engender confidence among diaspora communities in police or government follow up and response to these issues.
Mrs Khim Chy, Association Member, Advisory Group Member, Khmer Community of NSW, further recommended that the government assist the Cambodian diaspora community in Australia by placing sanctions on those responsible for the interference.
The Cambodian Australian Federation (CAF), a national body consolidating state organisations providing services to Cambodian settlers in Australia, and the Cambodian Association of Victoria (CAV), a CAF member organisation, also spoke of their concerns in relation to the CPP providing examples of threats which 'form part of a concerted effort to surveil and intimidate members of the Cambodian community in Australia that are critical of Hun Sen and the Cambodian government'.
CAF and CAV pointed to examples of threatening behaviour highlighted on the Australian Broadcasting Commission's (ABC) The World program on 25 October 2018:
The program depicted Cambodian community members being accosted on the street in Melbourne by high ranking members of the regime, death threats to community members in person and by phone, as well as death threats to family members and friends still residing in Cambodia.
At a hearing, Mr Hong Lim, President, CAF, also drew attention to its concerns regarding intimidation of Cambodian students in Australia:
The major concern in practical terms is that we used to have a very close relationship with the students that came under Australian scholarships. We had a very close relationship with them in the past, but now they're so fearful of the threat by the Hun Sen government, that when they go back they'll have no job if they are interacting with us. So they isolate themselves.
The Kampuchea Krom Cultural Centre of NSW spoke about 'an authoritarian network [which has] successfully divided and infiltrated our community' and 'put surveillance on members and associations'. It suggested imposing visa sanctions or cancelling visas for officials where evidence is provided to the government by the community. In addition to surveillance, the Centre spoke about some being blacklisted in Cambodia and having family members approached by authorities.
CAF and CAV suggested an independent review of Australia Awards scholarships awarded to Cambodian students and better oversight of the program, increased monitoring of activities of the Cambodian government and its embassy in Australia, refusing visas for political agents of the Cambodian government and better engagement with Cambodian community organisations.
HRW also provided examples of Cambodian students in Australia receiving threats after criticising the Cambodian government.
The committee also received evidence regarding Vietnam's Communist Party, alleging interference in Australia aiming to neutralise criticism by Vietnamese diaspora communities. The South Eastern Melbourne Vietnamese Associations' Council (SEMVAC) reported:
Some members of our Vietnamese community have been interrogated by Vietnamese police while visiting family in Vietnam then gently invited to spy on fellow Vietnamese activists after returning to Australia. We therefore think the scope of Australia’s Counter Foreign Interference Strategy should include acts done outside Australia with potential consequences for Australia.
SEMVAC indicated that the Vietnamese Communist Party uses a wide range of tools 'including police in Vietnam, hackers, and its Fatherland Front'. Mr Trung Doan, SEMVAC Representative, further noted that interference activities 'are a lot wider than just lobbying' and that the relevant law should be broadened to reflect that.
Mr Paul Huy Nguyen, President of the NSW chapter of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, a non-profit organisation representing Vietnamese immigrants and Vietnamese Australians, stated that '[t]here is always a potential trap if you speak out' and that 'there is always some perceived pressure that, if your relative from abroad is saying something against the government, there will be some repercussions for the family members.' He elaborated:
The state police can come and visit them and ask questions about their connection with an individual abroad who is saying something very bad about the government. They exert some coercion, some pressure, to intimidate the members. The state police in Vietnam are very powerful and very forceful.
The Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE), a non-profit organisation with a mission to improve the human rights situation in Vietnam, cautioned that Australian universities are so reliant on international students that they have 'become acquiescent to some foreign government's demand and allowed the government from those countries to influence its internal decision making and censoring of students' activities'. It further explained:
Universities in Australia have hosted Confucius Institutes, Chinese government-run bodies which offer language and cultural programmes overseas. Such programmes permit China to decide the teaching at the facilities. Students at university have found themselves being silence[d] by universities to please the foreign government, in the case of an Australian student, Drew Pavlou, who was critical of the University of Queensland ties with the Chinese government and its Confucius Institute. The university suspended him for two years after organising a rally which turned violent when the students supporting the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students defending their government clashes.
VOICE concluded that '[i]t is despicable that we allow foreign governments to interfere with the freedom and democracy of Australians in our jurisdiction'.
HRW pointed to the case of Mr Van Kham Chau, arrested in January 2019, who is a member of Viet Tan, a pro-democracy advocacy group labelled as a terrorist organisation by the Vietnamese government. Mr Nguyen also drew attention to this case, noting that his organisation took information about the case to parliamentarians and DFAT and that DFAT 'has not done enough to clear his release.' He further noted that a lot of his community's members 'have felt that the Australian government has not done enough in order to raise their voice and at least front up to the Vietnamese government on this issue.'
The Yazidi Australian Association (YAA), which represents the needs and issues of newly arrived Yazidi community members in Australia, drew attention to the concerns of many of its community members about the safety of their friends and families who remain enslaved and are often 'requested huge sums of money to secure their release'. In addition, it highlighted that:
There have been threats made against Yazidis in Australia and their families overseas. We need direct contact with the Australian Federal Police and prompt response to any of our concerns reported. We are also concerned about potential human rights abusers from Iraq and Syria obtaining Australian visas and settling in Australia.
HRW provided evidence about attempts by other governments to influence diaspora communities in Australia. HRW detailed information from a 2019 ABC report on 'Rwandans in Australia living in fear due to consistent monitoring and threats.' HRW observed that Ethiopian officials arrested relatives of participants of a protest against the visit of a regional Ethiopian government delegation in Melbourne in 2016. It noted a 2019 ABC report of Saudi men living in Australia, at least one of which worked for the Saudi Ministry of Interior, harassing and intimidating female Saudi asylum seekers. HRW further cited reports from Australia's Eritrean community of being 'forced to pay a two percent "diaspora" income tax to the Eritrean consulate in Melbourne'.
Mr Paul Power, CEO of RCOA, said the Council was aware of instances of foreign interference 'just in the last few weeks' involving 'people originally from Iran, Iraq and the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq, as well as Burundi, Rwanda, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, Vietnam and Myanmar.'
Issues reporting interference
HRW acknowledged that the government had taken some significant steps to address foreign interference. However it cautioned that:
[d]espite these efforts, many communities are still not aware of these efforts, and therefore still do not know who to turn to when such incidents occur. For these actions to be truly successful, the rights and safety of those affected need to be at the centre of the government's efforts to counter foreign interference. Relevant government departments working in this area also should acknowledge the lack of trust many vulnerable diaspora communities have towards law enforcement and other government agencies'.
Dr Sev Ozdowski, Chair of the Australian Multicultural Council (AMC), considered that 'quite often people do not know where to go or with whom to speak' in the early years of their stay in Australia if subject to attacks by agents of foreign governments. He further noted that refugees 'possibly need more systemic governmental support' to lessen any consequences from speaking against the governments of the countries they have escaped.
Mr Power echoed this view:
…at the moment people who are experiencing intimidation and threats don't know necessarily where to take them. In some cases, they are taken to the police, but I'm not really aware of too many examples where people have had satisfactory responses…We're hoping that there could be further dialogue about what communities should do now that the issue of foreign interference in communities is on the agenda.
The RCOA indicated that for refugee diaspora communities it can be challenging to raise concerns about foreign interference and lack of safety with the government. It added:
It is RCOA’s experience that even when it is Australian citizens or permanent residents whose safety is threatened, including being threatened or detained overseas, the responsiveness of Australian government departments can vary significantly. For individuals seeking asylum or on temporary visas, mechanisms for raising safety concerns and experiences of foreign interference are even more limited.
RCOA recommended that the government establish clear mechanisms for members of diaspora communities in Australia to safely report on foreign surveillance and intimidation through the establishment of a diaspora liaison unit within DFAT. Further discussion of calls for a diaspora liaison unit is contained in Chapter five.
Improving data and research on foreign interference
HRW recommended the government ensure that those tasked with investigating foreign interference 'document and investigate the scale of harassment, intimidation, and surveillance of diaspora communities and release annual reports disclosing the extent and type of intimidation that diaspora groups have faced'. It further recommended the government:
[i]nitiate an interagency Diaspora Communities taskforce, working across the AFP, Home Affairs, and the Human Rights Commission that would also include community leaders from diaspora communities targeted by foreign governments. This taskforce should meet regularly to discuss patterns of intimidation and harassment, and hold public meetings to identify concerns, responses, and steps that are being taken to protect members of the community.
The Khmer Community of NSW called for the creation a 'national monitor to receive and investigate complaints from diaspora communities and provide valuable data to inform any supplementary annual dialogue on human rights with diaspora communities'.
Several submitters supported Australia adopting Magnitsky-style legislation as a strategy for discouraging individual agents of foreign governments engaging in interference. Magnitsky-style legislation refers to legislation that 'enables jurisdictions to impose sanctions an on an individual who has committee human rights abuses or is guilty of significant corruption'.
YAA informed the committee that it was:
aware that Australian Government will be considering Magnitsky-style legislation that could result in sanctions against such individuals and their families. We are supportive of this legislation and we would like civil society to have a clear pathway to request sanctions against individuals or their families.
HRW called for government to:
[e]nact legislation to allow targeted sanctions against serious human rights violators abroad. Such a law should be similar to Magnitsky-style legislation enacted in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. It would authorize targeted sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, against people implicated in serious human rights violations.
Mrs Chy of Khmer Community of NSW underscored the view that the Australian government 'should help us by placing sanctions on them for interfering in our elections and our peaceful life out here.'
The Khmer Community of NSW suggested that the government communicate 'clear expectations to ambassadors, refusing visas to political agents for foreign governments, strengthening the democratic governance of community associations and conducting ongoing communication and dialogue with community organisations on these issues'.
CAF President, Mr Lim, also supported the notion of a Magnitsky-style act:
I'm just saying that some sanctions should be put on them. Their visas should be squeezed–and their whole family, not just them.
Mrs Kyinzom Dhongdue, Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile, called for Australia to ban Chinese officials who have oversight over Tibet policy from entering Australia.
Mr Daniel Teng, Sydney Representative of the Epoch Times, a Chinese and English language newspaper associated with Falun Gong, could 'see the benefits' of Magnitsky-style legislation, which could be a 'good deterrence' against human rights violations for Chinese officials hoping to immigrate to Australia.
Ms Janice Le, Director of Advocacy, VOICE, also viewed the introduction of Magnitsky-style legislation as important to 'support the interests of Australians.'
Mr Nguyen, NSW Chapter, Vietnamese Community in Australia, said that his organisation attended the bilateral Australia-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue annually, but that it 'hasn't been working at all…that it's just like a pop festival.' He suggested that including human rights conditions in the trade relationship with Vietnam may be more effective.
The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade – Human Rights Sub-committee recently tabled its report on the use of targeted sanctions to address gross human rights abuses. The Sub-committee noted that it received evidence from a large number of diaspora groups, including 'Australians who experienced human rights abuse and corruption in their homeland before migrating to Australia, and also people who have been subjected to abuse, or threatened while living in Australia.'
The importance of ethnic media was emphasised to the committee. The Epoch Times, however, submitted that the important role played by Chinese language publications has been 'hijacked and distorted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) via its widespread overseas influence operations'. It added that '[t]he CCP also expends considerable resources attempting to shape the views of the Chinese diaspora in Australia so it is receptive and supportive of Beijing'. Influence strategies include:
incentivising local Chinese-language publications to ‘to[e] the Party line;’ taking advantage of Australia’s free press laws and establishing local pro-Beijing publications; and undermining and intimidating independent Chinese-language press.
The Epoch Times reported that it has experienced 'a wide range of intimidatory actions' over the years, identifying two broad categories of CCP influence:
the CCP and its affiliates directly discouraging businesses, organisations, and political leaders from engaging with The Epoch Times; and
the powerful and wide-ranging influence of “fear.” Businesses, organisations, and politicians will avoid associating with The Epoch Times and other independent press, due to concerns over potentially offending Beijing.
As an illustration, Mr Teng, noted that one Epoch Times staff member had been 'afraid of attending this hearing, because her partner in China faces almost immediate threats or retribution for any of her actions locally.'
The Epoch Times suggested establishing a framework around the ethnic press to protect its integrity but cautioned against introducing onerous regulation for what are mostly small businesses. Other suggestions included a declaration for ethnic media publishers to sign indicating that their publications will seek to uphold Australian values, greater scrutiny over how government advertising is allocated and establishing a formal register for ethnic newspaper publications.
Mr Teng affirmed that The Epoch Times was in contact with Australian intelligence and law enforcement authorities about the alleged interference, but noted that it was difficult for authorities to respond to so-called 'grey zone activities' such as advertisers pulling out or stacks of free newspapers going missing.
RTA drew the committee's attention to how 'the attention economy propped up by the digital platforms has facilitated specific and unique harms to diaspora communities in Australia'.
Mr Matthew Nguyen, Director of Policy, RTA, described to the committee how digital platforms can be used to harm communities in a variety of ways. These include:
…the proliferation of hate speech, misinformation and disinformation. A report published by the eSafety Commissioner last year said that one in five culturally and linguistically diverse Australians experienced online hate speech within the last year.
through these platforms diaspora communities are at risk of foreign interference, the clearest example being WeChat, which is regularly used as a channel for disinformation within Chinese communities
the potential for these platforms to contribute to radicalisation, which disproportionately affects diaspora communities.
RTA drew attention to the dangers of unregulated data collection and the difficulty of accessing that data. Mr Chris Cooper, Executive Director, RTA, contrasted the more open API access for researchers and government on Twitter with other platforms such as Facebook and called for greater transparency 'around the way that they promote content and the way that content is being amplified to the platforms'.
Government initiatives to counter foreign interference with diaspora communities
The Department of Home Affairs (Home Affairs) is responsible for countering foreign interference and indicated to the committee that '[f]oreign interference activity against Australian interests is occurring at an unprecedented scale'. It cautioned that:
Left unchecked, it can adversely affect social cohesion and amplify fracture lines in our community. For example, hateful, inauthentic and divisive disinformation may be promulgated or amplified by foreign actors seeking to sow discord and confusion in the community. Foreign actors may also seek to silence, monitor, harass, coopt or coerce community members to advance their own economic or political interests. Such activity could undermine social cohesion and Australia’s free and open society if it is targeted towards CALD groups.
Home Affairs submitted that:
Australians, including members of our diverse ethnic and religious communities, have reported being victims of foreign interference. Threats of foreign interference are not constrained to one section of the Australian community nor perpetrated by a single nation-state. Building a strong and trustful relationship between government and CALD communities, complemented by a shared community awareness of the threat of foreign interference, will strengthen the resilience of our society and deter false narratives and disinformation used by foreign actors to exploit or exaggerate divisions within the Australian community.
Home Affairs reported that, in April 2018, the government established the Office of the National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator which 'coordinates Australia's whole-of-government efforts to respond to acts of foreign interference'. In addition, in 2019, the government established the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce 'to disrupt and deter any foreign actor attempting to undermine Australia's national interests'. Home Affairs has also adapted the National Security hotline 'to provide an avenue for the public to report potential acts of foreign interference'. Additionally Home Affairs stated that:
The Government has invested $126.6 million since 2018-19 to bolster our response to foreign interference, including the introduction of legislative measures to make it more difficult for foreign actors to interfere. These legislative measures are aimed at keeping all Australians safe from foreign actors who seek to target and divide us. This includes:
The introduction of new foreign interference offences under the Criminal Code through the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018.
The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 to increase visibility of foreign influence in Australia’s government and political processes.
The Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018 to strengthen visibility of the ownership and control of critical infrastructure, establish an information-gathering power, and provide a Ministerial directions power.
The Electoral Funding Act 2018 which restricted foreign political donations.
The Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2017, which established security and notification obligations on regulation entities to protect networks and facilities from unauthorised interference.
ASIO maintains a longstanding program of engagement with leaders and representatives of diaspora communities. ASIO emphasised that diaspora groups are often the victims of foreign interference and the organisation actively works with diaspora communities to help protect them from these attempts.
ASIO submitted that it 'currently has contact with over 100 different ethnic and religious groups', adding:
For ASIO, our engagement is a critical component of scanning for future threats, both locally and within the communities’ countries of origin. Our engagement supports advice on threat assessments, strategic analysis, border integrity, special events, counter-espionage and foreign interference and counter-terrorism matters, as well as providing community-based situational awareness.
Mr Burgess of ASIO told the committee that all Australians have a role to play in identifying and reporting inappropriate behaviour:
…the obligation on any Australian, wherever you come from—that your role, when you see something that is inappropriate, is to call it out. You challenge it. You can go to the police. You can call the National Security Hotline. You can engage in your community groups. You can engage your local member, your local member of parliament or council, or federal or state members. It's really important that we do that.
Mr Burgess felt that raising awareness of available resources is an ongoing task:
…I think that is a constant message to raise awareness so they can recognise what it is and who to speak to when they see it. I think the settings there are adequate at this point in time, but the thing we could continue to do—and I know that our Home Affairs colleagues take this seriously with the work they are doing—is the constant narrative that reminding people about this actually does help.
Speaking to the issue of trusting the authorities, Mr Burgess discussed developing relationships with communities. While understanding the reticence of some groups, given their background, he encouraged people to 'remind themselves that they're in Australia' and '[i]t is safe to [report these issues]'.
In relation to media and apps used to promote propaganda to diaspora communities, Mr Burgess noted the importance of a counternarrative:
A counternarrative in an open and free society really does help and does matter, yes. Of course, propaganda itself is not actually foreign interference…
Of course, as I said, if there are narrower paths which are not as open to all of us then, yes, I get interested in that. But the best way to counter that is actually the counternarrative, which happens as a matter of recourse in our great society.
When asked about the state of language capability and cultural understanding in government agencies in order to take effective action, Mr Burgess replied:
From an ASIO perspective, obviously we need a range of capabilities and understanding, and people who are proficient in foreign languages is an important capability for us. I'm satisfied that we're managing that well. There is more than one country…that actually engages in acts of foreign interference in Australia. So we have to have a range of languages. We are well served—remember, you are talking to a security service. Finding people with the right language skills who can pass a security clearance will always be a problem for us, but that's a fact of life that we deal with. We have training mechanisms in place to take people through—it's not just the language that we need; it's also the cultural understanding. As you would appreciate, it's not just the ability to read text or what's in the media; cultural understanding is critically important.
Racism and discrimination
A number of organisations noted the issue of racism for members of diaspora communities in Australia. The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported that:
The Commission is aware of multiple safety concerns impacting diaspora communities in Australia, including the fear of threats and acts of violence based on race and religious hate. The Commission has been consistently advocating for the strengthening of race and religious hate protections for vulnerable groups.
The Commission pointed to surveys and findings involving Muslims as well as highlighting the ASIO's Annual Threat Assessment Address 'which found that far right violence represents a serious, increasing and evolving threat to security'.
Ms Catherine Duff, Director, Race Discrimination, AHRC, noted 'the serious problem of online hate, including online race hate' and that 'cyber-racism was also specifically identified as a serious concern during community consultation…especially as it related to children and young people in diaspora communities.'
The Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA) submitted that racism experienced in Australian society today is different to that experienced after World War II, stating that:
The racism faced by our new and emerging communities from Africa, West Asia and South Asia is not the same as that experienced by those coming from Europe after WWII. Today's racism has been described as being premised more around religion than country of origin.
cohealth noted that racism reduces access to employment, housing and education, resulting in low social-economic status. cohealth emphasised that as socio-economic status declines, so does mental and physical health.
Ms Duff did however note that data on racism in Australia was lacking detail and inconsistent, given that it comes from various sources such as the Commission itself, the eSafety Commissioner, state and territory human rights organisations, state and territory police and various independent bodies.
The Commission also recommended that 'further research be undertaken to develop nationally consistent legislative protections against race and religious hate' and that 'the definitions from this work be used to develop either a centralised, or a nationally consistent, reporting framework for race and religious hate incidents'.
The AHRC reported that vulnerable communities have advised the Commission that political and media narratives are a key concern threatening their safety. It recommended that the government develop Special Standards for Reporting on Multicultural Communities, like the Special Standards of Reporting on Domestic Violence'. The Commission further recommended that the government 'consider strengthening legislative protections against online race and religious hate and fund programs to counter the online organisation of far-right extremism'.
The Multicultural Communities Council (MCC) of NSW raised racism as a key issue that needed to be addressed particularly for 'people of faith and colour'. MCC submitted that racism often goes unreported 'as victims are fearful of complaining so it does not jeopardise their visa situation and gaining permanent residency'.
The Migration and Refugee Research Network reported research indicating that 'experiences of discrimination affects social inclusion and can be damaging to well-being':
Our research with over 400 people from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds found more than 1 in 5 had experienced discrimination, with further interviews indicating this is likely an underestimate. Participants had experienced discrimination in a range of aspects of their lives including in local neighbourhoods, transport and employment. Experiencing discrimination was significantly associated with lower levels of trust, belonging, control and hope. Another study of refugees resettled in a regional town likewise revealed experiences of discrimination within employment, housing, education and in public spaces.
Pointing to racial discrimination rates in Australia, FECCA noted the Scanlon Foundation's annual survey on social cohesion showing that in 2019, 19 per cent of respondents reported experiencing discrimination in the past year on the basis of their 'skin colour, ethnic origin or religion'.
The Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network (MYAN) noted an 'increase in racial abuse and violence towards Asian-Australians has been well documented by organisations including the Asian Australian Alliance'. MYAN also noted that this increasing racism is concerning for young people because:
…we are still developing our identities and negotiating our connections to our communities. It creates hostile environments that disrupt our ability to feel connected to our families and ancestral cultures. It also makes it unsafe for us to fully embrace or accept our dual cultural heritages in our workplaces, schools and in public domains, compounding the existing barriers to career development and political representation that young people already experience. This is leading to significant mental health impacts, social isolation, adverse employment outcomes, and a limited sense of belonging.
Mr Nguyen of RTA also noted the 'proliferation of hate speech, misinformation and disinformation' online:
A report published by the eSafety Commissioner last year said that one in five culturally and linguistically diverse Australians experienced online hate speech within the last year. These communities are also prone to the harmful spread of false information, either within the community, such as when a Melbourne Albanian Muslim community refused COVID-19 testing due to circulating misinformation, or at the expense of their community, such as when a network of Facebook pages out of the Balkans profited by driving engagement through stoking Islamophobic sentiments.
Impact of COVID-19
Ms Duff of the AHRC told the committee that:
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how racism and xenophobia can threaten community harmony and social cohesion and cause disunity. Racial tensions are likely to remain an issue of concern moving into the post-pandemic recovery phase and as the global and local economies remain weak.
Even absent consistent national data, there is consensus that there has been an increase in racism against some communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has occurred in both the physical and online worlds and is an issue for some Australian diaspora communities.
Ms Duff further cited a study conducted by the Australian National University which indicated that 'almost 85 per cent of Australians of Asian descent experienced at least one incident of racism between January and October of this year '. She added that around one third of racial discrimination complaints accepted under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 from February to June 2020 related to COVID-19.
Professor Wanning Sun identified that anti-Chinese sentiment has been on the rise for several years, particularly 'since the gradual ascendancy of the discourse of Chinese influence in the mainstream media', and it has been brought to forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Professor Sun pointed to growing levels of racism since the pandemic:
Since its outbreak, members of the Chinese community have been subject to growing levels of racism and have experienced increased fear for their physical safety and mental wellbeing.
Ms Wesa Chau also noted that '[s]ince the COVID pandemic impacted Australia, anyone who appears to look Chinese has been blamed for the pandemic'.
Referred to above, the Asian Australian Alliance provided the COVID-19 Racism Incident Report covering the period 2 April to 2 June 2020. It submitted that the data collected 'has cumulatively shown that there has been a clear pattern of racist attacks against Asians and Asian Australians as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and that they are not isolated incidents'.
Mr Chin Tan, Race Discrimination Commissioner, AHRC, raised this at Budget Estimates hearings in October 2020 and spoke about the work being undertaken to respond:
COVID-19 has seen some concerns, in terms of the substantial rise in race activities, more in terms of being focused at some communities, particularly the Asian communities. In terms of the work that we are doing, and have done, it's a continuation and reinforcement of the strategy that we have in place, which is the It Stops With Me campaign as well. What we have done is to refresh, very much, and update all the activities and information and build a different level of connection with our allies and partners and reinforce the capacity to deal with racism, particularly at a time like this.
In the times of COVID-19, the activities that we have engaged in have been largely about supporting governments, both the federal and state governments, and reinforcing capacities to deal with racism. For instance, we're able to work with the federal government in ensuring that there are support mechanisms, tools and devices, within the government framework of tackling COVID-19, that respond to the needs of the multicultural communities.
In response to increased reports of abuse and discrimination against Asian Australians during the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government launched an information campaign to support and inform multicultural communities affected by COVID-19-related racism. Mr Richard Johnson, First Assistant Secretary, Social Cohesion Division, Home Affairs, informed the committee that the campaign encouraged people to speak up if they experienced or witnessed racism.
Experience of particular diaspora communities
Professor Sun submitted to the committee that in recent years, those in the Chinese diaspora have:
…been placed under growing pressure to declare their political allegiance to Australia, and their loyalty to their adopted country has publicly been called into question.
In recent months, the mere mention of PRC [People's Republic of China] students and migrants has conjured up the popular narrative about their overriding patriotism towards China at best and their role as agents of Chinese influence on the other.
Professor Sun suggested that members of the Chinese diaspora in Australia are 'becoming more concerned about the political distrust in them that has been displayed extensively'.
MYAN also pointed to family, cultural or business ties of Chinese in Australia saying 'these attachments are increasingly unfairly misconstrued as political ties or as support for the Chinese government, regardless of individuals' personal views on China as a political entity'. MYAN noted the role of the media in this regard saying the media is 'often exaggerating and stoking unfounded fears about Chinese people in Australia as "CCP agents" or sympathetic to the "Chinese regime".'
The role of the media was also emphasised by Ms Yun Jiang who pointed out to the committee that media reporting in recent years:
…has portrayed some Chinese-Australians as possible agents or perpetrators of foreign interference, due mostly to alleged associations and links between them and the CCP's United Front system or even simply due to their political views. The focus on these, rather than actual improper or illegal actions, is concerning — especially as the implications of these alleged associations and links are often misrepresented or not properly contextualised. In the absence of direct evidence of wrongdoing, allegations of guilt based only on associations and links should be treated with a high degree of caution.
Ms Jiang emphasised that some members of the Chinese diaspora:
…may have joined an organisation "linked" to the CCP's United Front efforts, such as one of the hometown associations, business associations or dance troupes for social and economic reasons, rather than out of political conviction. But they are now seen as part of CCP's foreign interference effort in Australia. Their loyalties to Australia are being questioned simply for embracing the "Chinese" part of their identity.
Ms Jiang further told the committee that it is not fair that Chinese-Australians have their loyalty questioned and are forced to take positions, 'such as critiquing Beijing, when similar requests are not made to other Australians.'
Ms Chau also pointed out that Chinese Australians who are 'putting their hand up for public office or speaking out publicly…are required to make that allegiance and declare loyalty' and that 'this is unfair on the community.'
Professor Mobo Gao reiterated this growing concern for treating associations and organisations formed by the Chinese diaspora community with 'automatic suspicion'.
MYAN noted that '[m]any members of the Chinese diaspora in Australia have been direct victims of [racial abuse and violence] or have limited or changed their activities in public spaces due to the threat, whether perceived or actual, of being victimised'.
Professor Sun drew the committee's attention to the results of a survey conducted by Per Capita in conjunction with the Asian Australian Alliance. Since April 2020 there have been more than 400 responses which indicate that 'almost 90% of those who experienced anti-Asian racism did not report it to the police'. Professor Sun also pointed to a 2019 survey conducted by the Australian National University's Centre for Social Research, which found that '82% of Asian-Australians reported they had experienced discrimination'.
Professor Sun concluded that 'there is currently a profound and prevalent sense of alienation in the Chinese diaspora' with a 'widely shared view among the Chinese diaspora community in Australia that Chinese Australians have increasingly become collateral damage in the escalating diplomatic tension between China and Australia'. He suggested that the government should make it a priority to 'attack racism head on by introducing a new national anti-racism campaign and implementing a more effective and ongoing mechanism and framework to combat racism'.
Dr Casta Tungaraza, Chair, Advisory Group on Australia-Africa Relations, provided evidence that racial profiling, especially in media reports, was a key safety concern for African diaspora communities in Australia.
Expressing concern about far right extremism in Australia, Ms Duff of the AHRC told the committee that '[s]ome diaspora communities are targets of far-Right extremist groups, including Asian Australian communities, Australian Muslim communities and Jewish Australians'.
Mr Dau Atem of the Community of South Sudan and Other Marginalised Areas NSW, which represents the needs and issues of the South Sudanese community in New South Wales, discussed how 'the South Sudanese community and its young people have been put out as criminals and as gangs – that people in Melbourne can't come out because they're afraid of the South Sudanese community.'
Reverend Paul Aleu Dau called for action to address 'racial stereotypes' relating to 'so-called African gangs', which has been impacting the South Sudanese community.
The South Sudanese Community Association in Victoria (SSCAV) represents the voices of South Sudanese Australians in Melbourne. SSCAV President, Mr Ring Mayar, said that:
…over the last few years diverse media reporting has seriously damaged the reputation and image of South Sudanese Australians. That has destroyed the ability and the sense of belonging of young people who were born in Australia and has left them confused and distressed and not feeling accepted at the schools. It's impacted employability and pathways and opportunities for our young people, including university graduates. They are in despair. Their mental health is at risk.
Ms Duff informed the committee that the AHRC's role was not focused on direct assistance to recently arrived communities, but that it does 'address complaints with are brought to it' and provides 'education and advocacy for communities'.
A national anti-racism strategy was launched in 2012 for an initial period of three years. In 2015 it was extended until 2018. The strategy 'focused on public awareness, education resources and youth engagement underpinned by research, consultation and evaluation'. In August 2018, the Race Discrimination Commissioner released the Anti-Racism in 2018 and Beyond: A report on the Activities of the National Anti-racism Strategy (2015-18) report. It noted an 'urgent need to continue and extend efforts in anti-racism, in light of current public debates and the global rise of far-right national populism'.
In its July 2020 submission, the AHRC recommended that the 'Australian Government adequately fund a National Anti-Racism Strategy and associated action items that prioritise community owned and led social cohesion initiatives'.
Ms Alexandra Raphael, Director or Policy, said FECCA had been working with other groups, both from the community and private sectors, to push for an antiracism strategy:
One thing that such a strategy needs to address is not just incidents of racial abuse—obviously, they need to be addressed and it's important to look at people being racist in the streets; those sorts of things that are really shocking, and not the Australia that we want to live in. But beyond that and, more importantly, at the crux of everything, is looking at the hidden racism that happens in Australia and the more systemic nature of racism—how that is perpetuated by the structures of our society and also how that then impacts on people's everyday lives. We do hear a lot from our members and from our community members around things they face in Australia, their difficulty with discrimination that is not overt. For example, difficulty in getting a job because you have an accent; no-one will say anything, but it's clear that people's demeanour changes when you have an accent. So I think that an antiracism strategy needs to be very well considered and constructed in a way that is alongside these communities as well as mainstream Australia. We don't want a strategy that is targeted at either group but rather one that sees this as a complex issue that affects all Australians. Also, I think an important element within that is to promote the benefits of a country that isn't racist, a country that celebrates diversity and that sees how much we have to gain from diversity, not just the challenges that diversity presents.
She also suggested that for the strategy to be effective it needs to be 'very long term':
…it's almost like looking at an anti-smoking campaign or something; we know those take decades to really have any impact. So it needs to be funded for a long time and it needs to be done alongside communities in a way that really addresses the reality that people are facing.
This call for a national anti-racism strategy that recognises the systemic nature of racism was supported by Ms Jane Chen of MYAN:
…an antiracism strategy would have to acknowledge and really understand racism as broader than how we currently understand racial discrimination, which focuses on very interpersonal manifestations of racism – so violence, abuse and harassment – but there is less of a focus on how racism is also a lack of representation in decision-making, in the media and in other spaces. It can manifest as stereotypes and as a lack of culturally appropriate services. I think a really narrow understanding of racism is hurting our ability to respond to it. It's understanding racism is not just a phenomenon that a small minority might demonstrate in their behavioural actions but really embedded in the system.
Ms Wesa Chau also agreed that Australia needs a national antiracism strategy. The Kateb Hazara Association also expressed support for a national anti-racism strategy. The Chinese Australian Forum, a community association providing a voice for the Chinese Australian community, supported the development of a new national anti-racism strategy 'including the funding of targeted media advertisements and other community service announcements on anti-racism'.
Ms Janice Le, Director of Advocacy of VOICE, supported the notion of an anti-racism strategy. She also called for amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and more education and community outreach.
MCC suggested government agencies become 'more proactive in speaking out against racism/discrimination of diaspora communities'.
At the 2 November 2020 hearing, Mr Darren Dick, Senior Policy Executive, AHRC, made a distinction between the existing national anti-racism strategy and public awareness campaign and a national anti-racism framework. He indicated they are in the very early days of starting discussions with government on developing a national framework. Ms Duff elaborated on a national anti-racism framework saying it could outline a 'coordinated shared vision to tackle racism in Australia.' She further detailed that such a framework could:
…outline guiding principles and serve as a long-term central reference point for actions on anti-racism and social cohesion. It would contemplate action from across different parts of government as well as actively foster community business partnerships and build the capacity of communities to respond to racism. A national anti-racism framework would contribute to the aims of this inquiry as set out in its terms of reference – namely, by strengthening the protection and resilience of vulnerable diaspora groups, addressing barriers to the full participation of diaspora communities in Australia's democratic and social institutions, and by identifying and leveraging opportunities to strengthen communication and partnerships between government and diaspora communities.
Ms Duff informed the committee that the Commission considered that a first step for the development of an anti-racism framework would be mapping available data sources on racism in Australia, identifying gaps and proposing how to address those gaps. The Commission is conducting preliminary work in this area. Mr Dick further detailed:
We think a national framework should exist that can identify the extent of racism, cyber-racism and discrimination in Australia; who suffers it and the nature of what they suffer, and identify the intersectional discrimination that people experience based on a combination of different attributes that they might have, so we understand the experience as experienced by women, for example, as distinct from men from different ethnic groups. We would be able to have this data in a form that it could provide us with the evidence base to assist in priority-setting across governments, potentially to then establish national benchmarks that could be reported on and we could then start to have data that could tell us change over time et cetera.
Considering that previous process had 'been a little too ad hoc' and lacking 'clarity about who's responsible for what and what the scope of existing services and supports are', Mr Dick hoped a new anti-racism framework would instead take the form of a 'national agreement between all governments of Australia that can set out clear priorities' and 'be very ambitious'.
At October 2020 estimates hearings, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Chin Tan, explained that the current Anti-Racism strategy was only funded until 2015 but has been ongoing due to self-funding from the Commission. Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher, President of the AHRC, and Mr Tan spoke about discussions underway with Attorney-General's Department and Home Affairs about the development of a national anti-racism framework which would be:
more than a three or four year strategy, that will give us the capacity to play a significant role by outlining a coordinated shared vision to combat racism.
…it is my view that it is an important element for this country to have an overarching framework to deal with racism so that when it's asked, 'What is Australia doing?' and, 'How is its outlook in terms of tackling racism?' we have a framework that cuts across all sectors of communities, from government to the corporate sector community, about how we approach racism in this country.
Family and domestic violence was raised in a number of submissions. FECCA pointed out that:
Women from CALD backgrounds are made even more vulnerable based on a range of factors including: a greater likelihood of not being a permanent resident, having limited or no access to social services; lower levels of English proficiency that can impact employment, education and the ability to form connections with the larger community; being overrepresented in casualised sectors which leads to financial instability and dependency. These vulnerabilities can be amplified for older women, women with disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTIQ+.
Through community consultations, FECCA stated it was informed about problems in accessing appropriate family and domestic violence support services. FECCA advised the committee that currently, 'there are very limited multicultural service providers that cater to CALD women and their children', noting that existing service providers often deliver numerous other services including legal representation, resettlement and employment services without sufficient funding.
Ms Claire Cantrall, Family Law Committee, NSW Bar Association, a voluntary professional association, reported that Women's Legal Services Australia is 'having to turn away one in every two vulnerable women seeking their help.' It further raised concern that '[w]ithout access to 'culturally safe information and support, many culturally and linguistically diverse survivors of family violence will not report that violence.' Ms Suzanne Christie, SC, Family Law Committee, NSW Bar Association, added:
These barriers and disadvantages have compounded impact, placing culturally and linguistically diverse women and children in a high-risk group for family violence.
The Kateb Hazara Association identified a need in its community for domestic and family violence programs.
The Assyrian Resource Centre noted that Assyrian women are exposed to domestic and family violence:
This is a complex issue associated with multiple causative factors. However, it is essential to support women attempting to leave dangerous situations and provide them with all essential trauma informed and culturally safe services; but also work with Assyrian men, provide them with support and educate them about different and new approaches to family relationships.
Members of the South Asian youth community identified family violence as a challenge, emphasising the additional complexities facing women from migrant backgrounds that experience family and domestic violence, such as cultural values and immigration status. They also noted that women from these groups are less likely than other groups of women to report family violence:
Like other communities in Australia, ours is also dealing with high rates of family violence. However, unlike other communities, we have seen little investment to address these issues. Oftentimes for women from migrant backgrounds, cultural values and immigration status can enhance the complexities of family violence. Women from these groups are also less likely than other groups of women to report family violence (Bartels, 2010). This may be due to a number of factors such as being unaware of where to access support, the lack of culturally sensitive services available, being ineligible for certain services due to VISA status, language barriers, as well as threats of deportation due to a temporary visa status.
Many women from our community are here on temporary visas which often mean they are ineligible for Centrelink support, housing services, lowcost psychology and medical services, and even access to refuges at times (InTouch, 2020) These barriers can offer deter women from seeking help, or even from leaving an abusive relationship. Furthermore, the number of Victorian Family Violence services offering a specific culturally sensitive response is limited. The intersections of being a migrant, culture, and of family violence, cannot be overstated, and requires a different approach to that often offered at mainstream services. There are also specific forms of family violence that are specific to, or more prevalent in South Asian communities, such as dowry abuse, and forced marriage, thus requiring a more culturally nuanced approach. Family violence is sadly still a stigmatised issue within our communities, and it is critical for women to be offered spaces where their experience is heard, understood and valued.
A complicating factor raised by the MCC is the relationship with police stating that it is 'well recognised, even within our legal systems, that many diaspora communities, based on overseas and local experiences, do not trust the police'. MCC expanded upon this, submitting:
They are very fearful of authority and don’t know who they can trust and seek support from. At best they turn to friends or local community services. Yet often they have no alternatives but dealing with the police. Police need greater cultural awareness and options for understanding and dealing with the differences between diaspora communities.
The MCC provided the following two examples of the complexities between domestic violence in diaspora communities and the involvement of government institutions:
For example, an Indian student couple may well be individuals with separate visas but in effect are not independent identities, they are governed by their families. Serious violence often goes unreported. Alternatively, intervention by police may leave the victim isolated and without financial support from either their partner or their own family – the victim is then even more vulnerable.
A further example is women arriving on a spouse visas are not eligible for support like other visa categories, and particularly if they leave their partners. They tend to keep the abuse hidden and suffer in silence. This places enormous strain on their physical and mental health. Local agencies including police have limited success in being able to support these women as they are fearful of authority and they have nowhere to go. Service agencies lack of capacity in their organisations to support these women due to funding, lack of ability to access free interpreters and clients not meeting the residency criteria.
Home Affairs reported that individuals from CALD communities 'can seek protection from family violence via the Family Violence Provisions in the Migration Regulations 1994' which 'allow Partner applicants in Australia to be granted permanent residence if their relationship has broken down and they have suffered DFV perpetrated by the sponsor'. Home Affairs added that it 'ensures visa holders have access to information about support services through its 'family violence and your visa' webpage'.
National Action Plan
In August 2019 the Council of Australian Governments endorsed the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, which recognises the diversity of needs of women including those from CALD communities. The plan's priority areas are: primary prevention; supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children; respecting and responding to the diverse lived experience and knowledge of women and their children affected by violence (which includes taking into account the needs and experiences of different cultures); responding to sexual violence and sexual harassment; and improving support and service system responses.
In March 2019, the government announced a $328 million package as part of its contribution to the Fourth National Action Plan. In addition to this, two further measures were provided in the 2019-20 Budget to support people affected by violence, bringing the government investment in the Fourth Action Plan to $340 million over three years.
FECCA recommended that the next iteration of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children is more inclusive of CALD women, their experience and needs, investment in CALD-specific family violence services and upskilling of current services to ensure they are culturally competent as well as reviewing the eligibility criteria for those accessing family violence provisions.
Reporting indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have resulted in an increase in domestic violence reporting and those seeking support. The African Australian Advocacy Centre, which represents the interests of African Australian communities through advocacy, research and policy, undertook a survey of members in June and July 2020, which found 'increased levels of domestic and family violence due to confinement in proximity to large numbers of people and significant increased alcohol consumption'.
The committee notes that in March 2020, the government announced funding of $150 million to support those experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence due to COVID-19, which would boost programs under the National Plan to reduce Violence against Women and their children.
A new public communication campaign was also rolled out in May 2020. The 'Help is here' campaign directs victims of domestic and family violence to the counselling helpline 1800RESPECT. The campaign included 'advertising across television, digital, social media, radio, magazines and newspapers as well as in shopping centres, hospitals and GP surgeries'.
Home Affairs noted that during the COVID-19 pandemic, its Community Liaison Officer Network held domestic and family violence (DFV) sessions in partnership with other relevant agencies and that this included:
…disseminating information about options for visa holders experiencing DFV and improving access to support services. For example, on 23 July 2020, the Home Affairs’ South Australian Community Engagement Team facilitated a program of online DFV workshops with an aim to build the capacity of community leaders to connect to appropriate DFV services and find support for their own community initiatives. This meeting was chaired by the SA Regional Director and attended by Our Watch and the Australian nominees to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.