[Trigger warning: domestic violence]
At the centre of all our work is our clients. Below is Seema’s story, one of the many clients that we’ve walked alongside…
Please note an alias has been used to project the privacy of the client and her family.
In 2012, Seema came into our immigration advice session. Seema, her husband, and their two children were Indian and had been living in New Zealand for two years. Seema had fled from her husband two nights before with her two young children after her husband had attacked her and threatened her children. Seema and her children had left the house on foot taking only a school backpack and a phone with them. Fearing that her husband was following them they ran to a friend’s house, but found the friend was not there. Seema did not know where else to go as her social circle was very small, her husband did not allow her to have friends. They ended up at the home of a family that Seema vaguely knew through the children’s school. Fortunately for Seema, this family understood the gravity of the situation took them in and then called the police. Seema also made contact with Shakti, a service providing support to ethnic women experiencing domestic violence.
The Shakti support worker brought Seema to see us. Seema explained that her husband had always been violent towards her but it had recently escalated. He was now abusing her on a daily basis (sometimes in front of their children) and forbidding her to speak to anyone. He had also been violent towards their children. A few days before leaving he had threatened her with a knife. On the night that she left him she believed that he planned to kill her. Seema was fearful of returning to India as she was from an area where honour killings still occur. She felt that she would be in danger of “disappearing” or being killed. Seema explained that her actions, in leaving her husband and involving the police, would be viewed as bringing unacceptable shame on her husband’s family. In India she also faced the prospect of losing custody of her children. They would suffer further due to the stigma of divorce and the shame that she had brought on the family.
Seema’s husband’s family was wealthy and very well-connected and already putting significant pressure on her to return to her husband and to withdraw the complaints that she had made to the police.
Our first step was to put Seema in touch with a family lawyer to apply for a protection order and a parenting order. Seema and her children also moved into a new home and kept the location secret.
Once she was in a safe place, we then turned to her immigration situation. Seema had a temporary partnership visa and her visa status was dependent on her relationship with her husband. By leaving her husband, her visa became invalid and she became liable for deportation. When we explained the situation to Immigration New Zealand (INZ) they assisted Seema granting her a short-term work visa while Community Law looked for a long-term solution.
In addition to her visa difficulties Seema had constant worries about how she would manage financially especially as Work and Income support is not available to non-residents. Seema was incredibly motivated to support herself and her children and had found a job shortly after coming to us for advice. However her husband began attempting to contact her through her work colleagues. This led to Seema eventually giving up her job.
We continued to work on analysing Seema’s immigration situation and researching solutions. Seema did not meet the criteria to apply for any visa under the immigration policy in place at the time. We spent a number of months researching solutions and documenting the risks Seema faced in returning to India, particularly around the genuine risk of honour killing. We also sought advice from a range of organisations and experts. Eventually we drafted comprehensive submissions, collated extensive evidence and made a request to the Minister of Immigration that they grant an exception to immigration policy to allow Seema and her children to apply for residence. Our application was supported by a Family Violence detective from the NZ Police as well as a number of people who were providing support to the family.
We then waited to receive a letter from the Minister of Immigration on whether we had established that an exception was warranted in this case, which is not a simple matter. We were very nervous about our chances of success as the Minister of Immigration rarely grants exceptions to policy. The Minister has complete discretion as to whether they will consider a request or grant a request. The Minister does not have to give any reasons for their decision and there is no right of appeal against the Minister’s decision.
While waiting for a resolution of the immigration issue, the case continued through the family law and criminal law proceedings. Seema and her children were going through the family court process regarding issues of custody. The family was also preparing to be witnesses in the criminal prosecution against Seema’s husband for the abuse of the family. Seema’s husband repeatedly breached the final protection order that was in place. We were very worried about the safety of Seema and her children.
Approximately a year after first calling the police Seema’s husband was found guilty of most of the charges against him. He was later sentenced to 16 years in prison, indicative of the gravity of his offences and the family law issues were resolved in favour of Seema as well.
Though relieved by the outcome of the family and criminal proceedings, the family was under significant stress which was exacerbated by the uncertainty of their immigration status. A few days after the verdict we found out that the Minister had granted an exception to policy to allow Seema and the children to apply for NZ residence. Their residence applications were granted a few months later.
Seema’s life has now vastly improved since she was able to resolve the issues brought on by her ex-husband’s abuse. Seema now has a job and her children are well-settled in school. Seema has built a small network of trusted friends. Her children now can lead normal lives outside of the shadow of abuse and control. They now have pets, play X-box and musical instruments such as the guitar. They can invite friends over to their house and or go to visit their friends. The family intends to apply for New Zealand citizenship when they become eligible. Though it took time, the family is now on the way to live a much happier and less burdened life.