Settlement Guide

Visa and cultural barriers trapping migrant women in abusive relationships


Anti-domestic violence advocates are calling for criminalising coercive control and expanding special provisions of migration law to provide a pathway to permanent residency for family violence victims on temporary visas.

'Invisible abuse'

Investigative journalist Jess Hill spent four years researching and writing about Australia’s domestic violence crisis in her book See What You Made Me Do, now an upcoming SBS documentary series.

She says the elusive nature of coercive control often makes it invisible to others.

Key points:

  • A recent study found that over half of the domestic violence victims on temporary visas were threatened with deportation by their sponsors
  • Anti-family violence advocates are calling for expanding the special family violence provisions of the migration law to cover temporary visa holders
  • Advocates are also calling for criminalising coercive control in all jurisdictions within Australia

She explains that common signs of coercive control include: 

  • Financial control
  • Isolating the victim from family and friends
  • Making it difficult for them to meet others
  • Threats to harm themselves, the pets or the children
  • Constantly belittling or degrading a victim-survivor

These sorts of behaviour, is not red flags for future abuse, this is the abuse.

The latest report by inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence found that 92 per cent of perpetrators of family violence had used controlling behaviours. 

Hispanic female young adult gesturing stop and social distancing
Many victims of family violence on temporary visas remain trapped in abusive relationship for fear of deportation.

'Cultural conditioning'

Anu Krishnan, a Melbourne-based social worker, says women of multicultural backgrounds may not often recognise coercive control as abuse due to their cultural conditioning.

For example, she says, forcing someone from a Muslim or Hindu background to perform something against their faith or forcing a vegetarian to cook meat and berating them if they refuse to do so is controlling behaviour.

"Some of these do not look like extreme coercive control, but they can be more harmful and eat away at a victim survivor’s core," she says.

This is a system of behaviour that basically doesn't stop. It's an ongoing coercive behaviour and even the good times are a part of the coercive control. The trapping nature of it is absolutely fundamental to it.
- Jess Hill

Data from Queensland’s Children by Choice reveal that over one in five women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds experience reproductive coercion. Three-quarters of these women also report experiencing domestic violence at the same time.

Brisbane social worker Jatinder Kaur who works with South Asian communities, explains that the partner or husband intentionally force themselves on the wife in the hope that she will become pregnant, making it easier for him to control the woman.

"Other aspects that I have seen is around whether it’s gender selection or forcing abortions and maybe the woman wanted to keep the child, but the partner does not want to have a child," says Ms Kaur.

Visa barriers and special Family Violence provisions

Journalist and author Jess Hill says that many victim-survivors on a temporary visa are reluctant to report an abusive relationship due to fear of losing their visa.

"People say, ‘why don’t people just leave these situations?’. You are so exhausted and working so hard to survive psychologically and physically, the idea of leaving, particularly if you are a migrant, particularly if you are on a temporary visa, is so complex," she says.

Jess Hill
Jess Hill, investigative journalist and author.

Australian migration law allows holders of temporary partner visas (subclass 309 or 820) or a prospective marriage visa (subclass 300) who experience family violence, to continue with their permanent partner visa application even after their relationship has ended. 

Ali Mojtahedi, the principal solicitor at the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre, says applicants must provide evidence that they have suffered family violence to access the migration law's family violence provisions. 

The easiest way is through what we call judicial evidence, which can include a court conviction or a court order, usually a final AVO.

In the absence of judicial evidence, non-judicial evidence, such as reports from a doctor, statutory declarations from psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, would be needed. 

"There are strict guidelines about what those reports need to include," says Mr Mojtahedi.

Calls for expanding the family violence provisions 

He says the family violence provisions are available to the holders of very few visa subclasses. However, he advises other temporary visa holders not to remain trapped in an abusive relationship for fear of losing their visa and encourages them to seek advice.

"So they might be able to apply for a visa on the basis of some other visa criteria that they may meet," says Mr Mojtahedi. 

Frontline workers and advocates are calling on the Federal Government to broaden the scope of the Family Violence provisions in the Migration Act so that temporary visa holders can be covered as well. 

"Australia should have a woman at risk on Shore Visa. So, any woman, regardless of which migration pathway they've come to Australia if they become a victim of family violence in Australia, should automatically get a two-year woman at risk visa to allow them to be able to get the help and support they need," says social worker Jatinder Kaur who has also made submissions to various government inquiries. 

Will Australia criminalise coercive control?

While coercive control is a key precursor to physical violence and murder, Tasmania is the only jurisdiction in Australia where it has been criminalised. 

"It's inevitable that it will be criminalised all over Australia," says Jess Hill. 

It's just about making sure that in that process everybody is represented... so that we craft legislation, we design training for the systems that need to respond to these laws are such that is not going to end up criminalising victims.

But migration lawyer Ali Mojtahedi says there are layers of complications that should be first addressed for women on temporary visas, including access to social services, housing, Medicare and legal support.

SBS’ series on Domestic Violence 'See What You Made Me Do' premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May. Watch on SBS or stream free on SBS On DemandThe three-part series continues weekly on 12 & 19 May, and repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND.

If you or another person is in danger, call 000

To talk to someone about family violence or sexual assault: or 1800 737 732

Findservicesineachstate and territory:

Lifeline 13 11 14 

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (24/7 counselling service)

Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491 (anonymous and confidential telephone counselling for men)

Q Life | 1800 184 527 Provides anonymous and free LGBTI peer support and referral

The National Disability Abuse & Neglect Hotline 1800 880 052 for reporting abuse/neglect of people with disability.

ELDERHelp | 1800 353 374 to know how you can get help, support and referrals. 

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