Resident evil

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 October, 2007, 12:00am

It's easy to see how picture-perfect New Zealand, with the bluest of skies, abundant sunshine, affluence and relatively friendly immigration policies, inspires dreams of an idyllic life for migrants from far away.

Add a good, welcoming education system, a vast safety net of social welfare and benefits and a decent law and order situation, and one begins to understand why the number of migrants from Asian countries has risen dramatically in the past 10 years.

The Asian population, according to last year's census, grew by almost 50 per cent between 2001 and 2006. Auckland, New Zealand's most populous city with about 1 million residents, saw its Asian community grow from 160,000 in 2001 to 250,000 people last year.

But behind the Chinese takeaway joints, karaoke bars, Indian restaurants and corner shops is an occasionally sinister force - a dream of a better life so strong that it permits exploitation and abuse by those with the key to that life: permanent residency.

The recent case of a doe-eyed three-year-old girl nicknamed Pumpkin has drawn international attention to the tragic story of one such immigrant. Pumpkin - whose real name is Qian Xun Xue - was found on September 15 at a railway station in Melbourne, abandoned by her father Xue Naiyin, who flew one-way to Los Angeles after leaving her.

It began as a mind-boggling story of abandonment and intercontinental flight. Then developed the mystery over the whereabouts of the girl's mother, Anan Liu. Fears deepened for her safety as it emerged her husband had a history of violence - Liu had spent time in a women's refuge and had a protection order against him.

Several days later, the worst fears of Auckland's Chinese community were confirmed: Liu's body was discovered in the boot of a car outside the family's home in the Asian-dominated suburb of Mount Roskill in Auckland.

A post-mortem examination confirmed she had died a violent death. A tie, a wooden staff and a dressing gown are being held by police as evidence.

As the search for Mr Xue continues, with the investigation spanning Australia, New Zealand and the US, Qian Xun Xue's face continues to look out from the pages of newspapers and from screens in television broadcasts.

The tragedy of Liu's death reflects an emerging pattern of domestic violence affecting migrant families.

According to the Families Commission of New Zealand, each year about 14 women, six men and 10 children are killed by a family member, and police are called to more than 70,000 incidents of domestic violence.

At a hearing in August of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the New Zealand government was called to account for the seriousness of the country's problem and a suggestion was made to send a special rapporteur to study the issue.

Although the Families Commission did not have a breakdown of the incidents of family violence recorded in Asian communities, it confirmed that 'immigration abuse' was an increasing component. The Ministry of Justice in Wellington is studying the scale of the problem of domestic violence related to residency status.

Auckland resident Lucia Tang, who migrated from Hong Kong 11 years ago and has since been working in the field of family violence, said it was common for immigration and residency status to be used as a weapon, 'as a tool [for men with permanent residency] to keep women under their thumbs'.

'In many domestic violence cases I have seen, the partner with residency, usually the man, has been here longer and knows the system, and he uses it to play a game, to make sure the woman is in his grasp and cannot escape from his fingers,' she said.

An Indian social worker who declined to be named said it was 'very easy for an abused woman to be kept ignorant about the complex immigration rules and requirements'.

'If she is disobedient, he can threaten to have her kicked out of the country,' she said. 'If she speaks out or leaves the home, she risks not only losing her marriage, but losing her visa, her children and having to go back to her home country, where, in some cultures, a married woman without her husband is a social undesirable.'

Joyce Chen, an Auckland resident from Tianjin, said she knew of 'heaps of cases of women putting up with abuse for permanent residency'.

'I know a 25-year-old who married a 60-year-old for [it] and he has been abusing her emotionally all along,' she said. 'She now has two children with him and doesn't know what to do. There is a lot of discussion in the Chinese community now, with people writing in to discussion groups, pleading with young women not to marry people just for permanent residency. You never know what you are getting into.'

In the Indian community, the prospect of permanent residency is also used to attract brides from India with hefty dowries. In one case published in the monthly newspaper Indian Newslink, the minister for overseas Indian affairs in New Delhi lashed out against the practice in New Zealand.

'We are aware of young brides being taken overseas after marriage only to be thrown out of their homes,' Vayalar Ravi was quoted as saying. 'They need protection and our government is determined to stop this nonsense.'

Ms Tang, who has worked in various capacities with the Shakti Asian Women's Centre and its sister groups serving immigrants since 1996, said she had seen cases where young women, married off to Indian men who are New Zealand permanent residents, ended up in dangerous situations.

'We have cases where the husband and his family keep telling the girl to ask for more money, more things from her parents,' she said. 'If she doesn't agree, they threaten to send her back or refuse to renew her visa. Sometimes the girls don't even share what's happening with their parents back in India. It's very dangerous.'

Immigration abuse is so common there is a section in New Zealand's Immigration Act providing that a residence permit may be granted to victims of domestic violence who are immigrants.

The problem is not unique to New Zealand. In the US, the Minnesota Centre Against Violence and Abuse has reported on the prevalence of domestic violence, with the abuser using immigration status as a tool. Liu was 22 when she arrived in New Zealand as a language student. She was 23 when she married Mr Xue, a self-proclaimed martial arts sifu who was 27 years older and had a 19-year-old daughter he had abandoned.

In a chilling blog she wrote weeks before she was murdered, she told of the violent, loveless union she had ended up in. She got permanent residency but found no peace.

'Life is like a [bad] dream,' she wrote. 'My life is unstable and I hope I can just have the freedom to come and go any time I want until I can find a place where I can emotionally have a rest. I am tired and lonely. Life is meaningless without love. Life is suffering.'

Amanda Heath, a spokeswoman for the Families Commission, said it had had many discussions about the causes of family violence in refugee and migrant communities. 'Some of the conflict arises from tensions and differences between young people and older members of their families, which are linked to the impact of the new culture on the family,' she said.

'Some migrant and refugee women remain in violent relationships because they are not aware of their legal rights in New Zealand and many are often entirely dependent upon men in all aspects of their life. For instance, they may not be able to drive, work or speak English very well and are living very isolated lives.'

Migrant women, who lacked the family and friend support networks that native New Zealanders or long-term residents had, were more vulnerable to being controlled and isolated than any other group, Ms Tang said.

'They come here with big hopes, hoping they will get a good job, a good life, but the gulf between the dream and reality is very large,' she said. 'It is hard to find a good job. Even if you were an experienced doctor in China, you have to requalify here. Unemployment and the pressures it causes upon self-esteem, upon finances, is a big problem. Then there is the culture shock. And people are not very tolerant of bad English - it's hard to muster the courage to go out and speak to locals.'

There is also the issue of the rapid growth in the Asian community not being matched by growth in support services for them. The coverage of Liu's case has brought the spotlight on the Chinese community.

Ms Heath said the Families Commission had been funding projects to raise awareness of family violence in migrant communities, citing two Chinese programmes, a Hindu programme and a project for ethnic communities in general.

But there is also the age-old issue of 'face' to reckon with, a cultural phenomenon that prevents those with problems at home from seeking help. Those who knew Mr Xue in New Zealand said he seemed to be a proud father, a successful businessman and a 'lucky man', having married a beautiful, intelligent woman half his age.

'One of the biggest curses of growing up Asian is the excessive emphasis our culture places on saving face, often resulting in people in trouble suffering silently rather than reaching out for help,' said local journalist Lincoln Tan. '[Liu] would still be alive today had Xue been man enough to admit he needed help.'