Singapore’s immigration policies on the spouses of migrant workers — the vast majority of whom are women — presents challenges in the process of escaping abusive marriages, obtaining custody of children and securing housing rights in the country independently of their citizen spouses.
These challenges are particularly heightened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as strict social distancing measures and travel restrictions under the circuit breaker earlier have hindered the ability of migrant wives to return to their home countries, or for their families to visit them in Singapore for support, according to a report released by the Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE) on Monday (1 June).
“Our hidebound immigration policies inadvertently compound the challenges of migrant wives,” stressed AWARE’s head of Research and Advocacy Shailey Hingorani, noting that non-resident spouses “are not eligible for the same relief schemes as Singaporeans, and their chances of employment are diminished”.
Wives make up 70 per cent of migrant spouses in Singapore to date, many of whom originating from developing countries across Asia and “poorer socio-economic backgrounds” with “limited social capital and support systems in Singapore”, said AWARE in its “Migrant Wives in Distress: Issues facing non-resident women married to Singaporean men” report.
“These women [migrant wives] are integral parts of Singapore communities and families, yet too often they are treated as visitors,” said Ms Shailey.
Noting that around one in four of all citizen marriages is between a non-resident migrant and a Singapore citizen, AWARE said that these non-residents “depend wholly on their citizen spouse for the right to reside in the country if they are not on a work visa”.
“The power imbalance that arises can lead to abuse and violence on the citizen spouses’ part,” said AWARE in a statement today.
At least 20 migrant wives have called the organisation’s Women’s Helpline due to domestic violence since January this year, said AWARE in its report.
On a larger scale, at least 137 migrant wives have called the hotline from 2016 to 2018 to seek assistance on domestic violence, divorce and immigration-related issues, the organisation added. The majority of the callers — 83.2 per cent — were still married to their citizen spouses, while the remaining percentage had been previously married to citizens.
In its report, AWARE noted that callers have indicated being threatened by their citizen spouses to have their visas or visit passes cancelled “as a way of inflicting psychological abuse and preventing their non-resident wives from seeking help or reporting them to the police”.
“For example, one caller reported that her husband would threaten to cancel her LTVP and return her to her home country whenever he was angry at her.
“Another caller described being beaten up by her husband, who also threatened to kill her if she told anyone about what happened. The caller said she did not want to “implicate” him for fear that he would not renew her LTVP.
“Fear of losing their right to stay forced these women to compromise their own safety and stay in abusive marriages,” said AWARE.
Based on findings from AWARE’s survey, the organisation found that migrant spouses called the Helpline to seek help on domestic violence “at twice the rate of local women” — at 27.5 per cent against the 13 per cent comprising Singaporean wives.
Ms Shailey said that while Singaporean women — even with their status as citizens — are already facing difficulties in seeking support in precarious domestic situations, migrant wives face even greater risks due to “being isolated from their local networks”.
While some Singaporean wives “may be able to temporarily seek refuge with friends and family”, such an option “is often not available to migrant wives”, partly due to reasons illustrated above, according to AWARE.
“Being isolated from their local networks makes it especially difficult for them to overcome language barriers, financial dependency and confusion about their own rights,” she said.
Limited access to legal aid in obtaining divorce and children’s custody, uncertain right to remain in S’pore among issues faced by migrant wives ineligible for employment-based passes: AWARE
While most of the migrant spouses who called the AWARE Helpline did not specify the type of pass they held, the majority of spouses who did specify reported having Long Term Visit Pass or Long Term Visit Pass+ (LTVP/LTVP+) passes.
LTVP/LTVP+ enable migrant spouses who do not qualify for an employment-related pass to stay in Singapore for a longer period than those on short-visit pass, in addition to several other rights not available to holders of SVPs.
The LTVP is a renewable pass that is valid for three months to two years, under which holders can apply for Letter of Consent (LOC) to work. Holders of the LTVP also qualify for limited types of public housing. However, they do not have access to healthcare subsidies.
The LTVP+ remains valid for three years initially and up to five years upon renewal. LTVP+ holders can similarly apply for LOC to work and are qualified for limited types of public housing. However, unlike LTVP holders, LTVP+ holders qualify for some in-patient healthcare subsidies.
SVP holders, in contrast, are not permitted to work and do not qualify for any government subsidies.
Migrant wives in Singapore, AWARE said are often disadvantaged in terms of divorce due to the absence of an independent right to reside in the country, as the sponsorship of their LTVP/LTVP+ ends after the marriage is terminated.
For migrant spouses who remain married to their citizen spouses and whose LTVP/LTVP+ are cancelled or not renewed by the said citizen spouses, they cannot be sponsored by any other party, AWARE highlighted.
In cases of non-renewal or cancellation, the migrant spouses will usually be put on an SVP, which has to be renewed monthly at the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA).
“However, renewal is completely at the ICA’s discretion and so this can be a stressful event every month for the migrant spouse,” said AWARE.
In addition to such restrictions on the renewal of their passes, migrant spouses have also reported being “denied legal aid elsewhere because they are neither citizens nor permanent residents”.
“For low-income migrant spouses, legal fees incurred in divorce proceedings could be prohibitively high if they engaged private lawyers. This limits their options when it comes to legal representation, and puts them at a disadvantage in divorce proceedings,” said AWARE.
The lack of accessible legal aid often place migrant spouses, especially migrant wives, in “a relatively poor bargaining position during divorce proceedings” which will impact their chances at obtaining custody and care and control of their children, especially when their children are Singapore citizens, the organisation added.
“According to a family lawyer experienced in assisting migrant spouses, nationality is one of the factors that the Court will consider in awarding care and control.
“Based on her experience, care and control of Singaporean citizen children is usually awarded to their citizen fathers if their mothers are unable to retain residency in Singapore on their own merit post-divorce.
“This is because the children derive benefits from their Singapore citizenship (e.g. public education, medical treatment) with the security of residency in Singapore.
“Subsequently, without custody or care and control of their citizen children, nonresident mothers face even more difficulty remaining in Singapore because, for
example, they would not qualify for subsidised housing,” said AWARE.
AWARE added that according to Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong in 2016, a non-citizen, non-resident spouse of a Singaporean can retain the deceased citizen spouse’s flat if the migrant spouse becomes a Singapore citizen or PR within a one-year period.
The migrant spouse can also retain the flat if they include a Singaporean or PR family member who is at least 21 years of age and satisfies the eligibility rules and conditions to own a flat.
“If the non-citizen widow or widower has Singaporean children who are minors, HDB can consider exercising flexibility, on a case-by-case basis, for the flat to be held in trust by a Singaporean or PR trustee, on the condition that the flat is to be given to the Singaporean children when they reach 21 years old,” said Mr Wong in a written answer to a Parliamentary question on ownership of HDB flat of deceased Singaporeans with foreign spouses and children.
AWARE, however, said it has encountered several cases in which “the ownership of the flats went to another Singaporean citizen family member”, for example, an in-law who may already
have been a joint-owner.
“There is no guarantee that the migrant spouse (and their children) would be able to continue residing in their home, as the owners may want to sell the property or simply not want them to live there anymore.
“This creates great uncertainty and anxiety for the migrant spouses and their children as there is no guarantee of a roof over their heads,” said AWARE.
S’pore Govt should allow migrants who are subject to domestic abuse the right to renew LTVP/LTVP+ passes independently of their citizen spouses, right to apply for legal aid through state-funded bureau: AWARE
Citing immigration laws in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States where migrants subject to domestic abuse can apply for residency status independently of their citizen spouses, AWARE recommended the Singapore Government to allow holders of LTVP or LTVP+ passes to renew their status independently of their citizen spouses.
“For still-married migrant spouses who are already on an LTVP/+, they should be allowed to renew their own passes or allow another Singaporean citizen to renew it if there is evidence of domestic or family violence.
“The status quo is forcing some women to stay in abusive marriages because they do not want to lose their right to remain in the country,” said AWARE.
The organisation suggested that proof of domestic violence “should not be onerous and could include any of the following”:
• Personal Protection Order;
• Police report;
• Medical records documenting injuries;
• Survivor’s personal statement (oral or written);
• Photos of injuries; and/or
• Testimonies from other family members/witnesses.
AWARE also suggested the Singapore Government to grant the LTVP+ to all migrants with Singapore citizen spouses who do not qualify for employment-based passes, given that the LTVP+ offers the most security in terms of the period of validity, the right to work via the LOC, and access to certain healthcare subsidies.
This should be extended to migrant spouses undergoing divorce, the organisation added.
“There could be a policy prohibiting the citizen sponsor from cancelling or not renewing their migrant spouse’s LTVP+ (without consent from the pass holder) once divorce proceedings begin, until at least the issuance of the Final Judgement of Divorce.
“This is to ensure that the migrant spouse has a fairer chance at contesting the divorce terms (if necessary) as they can physically be around to do so,” said AWARE, especially when divorce proceedings “sometimes take several months or even years to resolve”.
Migrant spouses of Singapore citizens should also be allowed to access existing pro bono or low bono legal services that are presently only available to citizens, said AWARE.
While Project LEAF (Legal Empowerment & Assistance for Foreign spouses) was launched by the Law Society Pro Bono Services Office in March last year to help migrant spouses who have children of Singapore citizenship in their matrimonial disputes, AWARE called upon the Government to give migrant spouses of citizens should the right to apply for and receive state-funded legal assistance through the Legal Aid Bureau.
Permanent residency, AWARE added, should be granted to all migrant spouses upon having a citizen child, the death of the citizen spouse, or after three years on the LTVP+ at most. The pathway to citizenship should also be made available to such PRs “after a clearly defined and transparently published period”, the organisation added.
“The right of migrant spouses to remain in the country is endangered upon divorce or widowhood. This can be highly disruptive to women who have invested years in building a life in Singapore. In particular, mothers may face the risk of separation from their citizen children (or children may have to emigrate).
“Offering migrant wives a clear, timed route to PR will ease their housing access in the long term and allow their family lives to proceed on a stable footing. It will also prevent divorced mothers and widowed wives from having to leave their homes because they are ineligible to own or inherit them,” said AWARE.