The domestic violence safe house in Sydney providing a lifeline for temporary visa holders

A special women’s shelter in Western Sydney is helping to bring about change for those who fear disclosing abuse will impact their ability to remain in Australia.

Content warning: depictions of domestic violence

Mai* is originally from Laos and was referred to Safe Haven by her son’s Sydney school.

He’d told his teacher “mummy is dead”, service coordinator Sarah* explained to SBS News.

Mai had been experiencing domestic violence at the hands of her partner, the father of her three young children.

“When I met with Mai at the school, she was so sad, quietly crying, and could hardly look me in the eye. She told me that she just couldn’t take it anymore,” Sarah said.

“She told of terrible ongoing physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse throughout the duration of their relationship.

“Her partner drank heavily and was getting increasingly aggressive and cruel towards her. He would frequently lock her out of the house in a rage and she would wait outside until he fell asleep and then wake her eldest son to let her back inside.”

Mai came to Australia on a visitor visa and had limited English skills and little understanding of the immigration system.

"Her partner took her ID and documents but did not renew her visa, and so Mai became unlawful," Sarah said.

"Without a valid visa or good command of English, she became stuck; a prisoner in her very violent home.

Without a valid visa or good command of English, she became stuck; a prisoner in her very violent home.

- Safe Haven service coordinator 

"Reporting the abuse was out of the question since she was fearful of being separated from her children and the constant abuse she endured over 14 years had ground her down to where she felt completely worthless and devoid of any hope."

"Mai has no work rights, no access to income, no access to Medicare or any other government services or benefits."

That’s where Safe Haven stepped in.

An image of the inside of the Safe Haven facility in Western Sydney.
Source: Safe Haven

The facility in Western Sydney is unlike most women’s shelters. Opened in 1995 and run by St Vincent's Clinic charity Open Support, it predominantly caters to mothers and families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who hold temporary visas.

Most of the women they see are denied other employment and welfare assistance due to their visa conditions.

The facility provides culturally sensitive domestic violence support as well as help to secure longer-term housing and resolutions to their immigration status.

The centre has only female staff and can house up to four families at one time for about 60 days. 

It has helped women from countries including India, Vietnam, and Iraq. 

Source: Safe Haven

Sarah said the people they see are “some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in our community”.

“Across the sector, many women are turned away. Services are already stretched and lack the capacity to house and support families for such long periods of time without any clear exit pathway,” she said. 

Through the centre, Mai has been able to obtain a bridging visa so she and her children can remain in Australia, and she continues to receive advice from Legal Aid and the Department of Home Affairs.

"We have helped her with accommodation clothing, money, school expenses, a telephone and meals. We have supported her emotionally and assisted her to access counselling services," Sarah said. 

"We have also given her information on the dynamics of DFV [domestic and family violence] and access to other information that is helping her make important decisions about her future."

The centre is calling for more donations to ensure that the vital services provided can continue and expand.

It comes as Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a $328 million funding boost for domestic violence prevention programs on Monday.  

The package includes $82 million for frontline services, $68 million for prevention strategies and $78 million for safe places for family violence sufferers.

Labor has also pledged to create 20,000 funding packages for people fleeing domestic violence if the party is elected to government.

Scott Morrison launches the government's plan to reduce domestic violence.
Source: SBS News

'Community pressure'

Jane Brock from the Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association NSW says many newly arrived women who have experienced domestic violence have limited social networks and access to support, and centres such as Safe Haven are pivotal in filling a gap in services.

“There is a lack of understanding of their rights because of the lack of English language skills and the lack of knowledge of available services,” she said.

“There’s also the community pressure to maintain the relationship, especially for those whose families are in contact with the family of the husband who sponsored them.

“There is the pressure of family shame if they leave the relationship.”

Ms Brock said there were several factors at play for women on temporary visas.

“The major barriers include the risk, fear and threat of deportation because they’re on temporary visas. Many of them have been sponsored by their partners, so they’re in a de-facto relationship. There’s also risk fear and threat of being separated from their children,” she said.

“In many cases, the husband and the husband’s family make a threat of getting full custody of the child or children, and making the woman appear as a mother who is not fit to look after a child.” 

*Names have been changed

The location and contact details of Safe Haven in Western Sydney cannot be published. 

Those impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse can get advice and be referred to a facility by calling 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit They can also call Link2Home on 1800 152 152.  In an emergency, call 000.

Published 6 March 2019 at 4:17pm, updated 6 March 2019 at 5:03pm
By SBS News