Temporary migrants in violent family situations denied welfare lifeline

A photo of a migrant woman who has experienced domestic violence from a photographic exhibition in Hobart and Melbourne. Source: Supplied

Women in Australia on temporary visas should be given greater access to welfare to prevent family violence, according to a report claiming to be the largest study of migrant survivors of violence.

A new study into violence afflicting migrant woman in Australia has recommended increased access to welfare for temporary visa holders.

The report from the ASPIRE project included 46 interviews with migrants from 20 countries and found that visa restrictions prevented many of the women involved from being able to work or access social security and health services. It found this makes women experiencing violence more vulnerable because it potentially increases their dependency on abusers. 

Currently only some visa-holders are eligible for the family violence exception, which provides access to welfare.

"(Action is required to) expand access to the family violence exception to persons on non-partner visas (e.g. students, partners of students, fiancées) and remove barriers to Centrelink income support and Medicare-funded services for any victim of family violence regardless of visa status," the report states.

"I think you really do need to be an immigration lawyer to get the bottom of it."

The report also found it was difficult for women to access the family violence provision when on partner visas, with evidentiary burdens around proving the relationship and the violence before an exception is granted.

"These are difficult tasks for women with communication barriers, limited experience of the Australian legal system and with a non-compliant former partner," the report states.

Dr Cathy Vaughan, from the University of Melbourne and one of the report’s authors, said access to welfare and working rights was inconsistent among the women in the study, with the reasons for the inconsistencies not always clear.

"A number of the visas have a number of subclasses - maybe (the inconsistencies are) to do with that," she said.

"I think you really do need to be an immigration lawyer to get the bottom of it."

Only Australian residents have access to most social security payments. According to the Department of Social Services website, “the Minister has no power to make exceptions to the residence rules on an individual or case-by-case basis”.

However exceptions do exist. Family payments do not have the same residency restrictions, and the government can decide whether certain benefits are available to different categories of visa holder. Currently people on spouse/partner visas (subclass 100 and 801), interdependency (110 and 814) and close ties (832) can access benefits.

The report highlights how women on bridging visas waiting for the outcome of protection visa applications may be left without income for extended periods, potentially making them dependent on those who might have committed acts of violence against them.

Dr Vaughan also said that more pro bono migration lawyers need to be funded, spotlighting the lack of lawyers specialising in immigration mattersin Tasmania.

"If you can pay for a lawyer you can get advice, but if you have no income you can’t do that,” she said.

The report is the result of research that includes interviews and focus groups with more than 200 community service workers and members of different cultural communities.

It includes confronting accounts from participants identifying the tensions between Australia's migration system and social services in circumstances of family violence.

One participant, referred to as "Frida", was recorded highlighting the positive impact of Centrelink payments on her life.

"I think that came as probably a blow to him that we were able to survive without him and we’re actually doing better and we’re not asking for anything," she said.

Another, "Bharti", described her struggle for financial independence.

"When I didn’t give him my money he was angry with me. One day I spent $60 so he got angry and he beat me very badly for not letting him know."

If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, you can contact 1800 RESPECT.

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