'He cancelled my visa with no warning': how some Australians use partner visas to control and threaten migrants

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Georgia Hurley* was on the brink of becoming a permanent resident when her abusive ex-partner cancelled her partner visa. She told The Feed it’s been an exhausting and traumatising process trying to prove the abuse actually occurred.

It was love that made Hurley pack up her life in Germany and move to Australia to apply for a partner visa. But once she’d settled in the country, she said the cracks started to appear and her now-ex-partner became financially and emotionally abusive. 

“When we’d fight he’d throw things around the kitchen. He smashed the coffee machine, smashed plates. He’d call me a c**t,” she told The Feed.

“[One time] he cut up all my credit cards and my money when he got home. We had a joint account and every time he was angry he’d take all the money out and leave me with nothing,” she said.

Hurley claims her ex-partner tried to stop her from working full-time, bullied into having sex, and regularly abused cocaine and other substances like steroids. 

Whenever he was angry, Hurley's abusive ex-husband would tell her to leave Australia.

During the coronavirus lockdown, things took a turn for the worse, with her former partner cancelling her visa without warning before she was scheduled to become a permanent resident.

Despite living in the country for four years, Hurley feared she’d be forced to return to Germany, leaving her life and business in Australia behind. It was an impossible situation for Hurley, a personal trainer who, due to her temporary visa status, was ineligible for government assistance.

“He would threaten me all the time that he’d cancel my visa if I didn’t do what he wanted. He’d say ‘go back to Germany then’. He knew that my life is in his hands, he can do whatever he wants and he knew I couldn’t leave him,” Hurley said. 

“Two days before he finally withdrew as a sponsor, he told me to take him off the bills or he’d cancel my visa. I was alone in the house. I had so many expenses to pay and my business was closed,” she told The Feed.

Hurley’s only chance to stay in Australia was to make a claim to the government that domestic violence had occurred. On top of the more than $7,500 she’d already paid for costs associated with her partner visa, she had to fork out close to $4,500 to hire a migration agent and obtain medical statements and reports from overseas.

But after writing a 16-page statement, painstakingly detailing the abuse, she told The Feed that she still hasn’t heard back from the government.

“I was just crying every day and even with the statement, it was just too much for me to have to go over everything again and again,” Hurley said.

A new report released by the Women’s Safety NSW found migrant and refugee victims of domestic violence confront key barriers including a lack of crisis accommodation and free legal services, language difficulties, a fear of deportation due to visa insecurity and a distrust of authority.

Karl Konrad is a migration agent at Australian Immigration Law Services. He told The Feed that the requirements to prove domestic abuse occurred can be “pretty overwhelming”.

“There’s a whole lot of documentation required to prove domestic violence. If you don’t have police records or it’s been just threats and intimidation, it’s a lot more difficult to prove. In that way, the onus on the applicant should be relaxed,” Konrad said.

“Domestic violence is so prevalent in Australian society, the people who are victims need support they don’t need a battle with an oppressive system to prove it,” he added.

Hurley said her ex-partner was emotionally and financially abusive.

The Department of Immigration allows victims to submit judicial or non-judicial evidence to show family violence has occurred. This can include court documents or reports from doctors, schools, hospitals, police and psychologists.

If the non-judicial evidence submitted does not satisfy the department, the case is referred to a department-appointed Independent Expert for assessment. 

A spokesperson at the Department of Home Affairs told The Feed there were 774 claims of family violence in the 2019-20 program year, compared to 454 claims in 2014-15. Of those claims, 546 visas were granted.

They added that in 2016 the Migrations Regulations Act was amended to require all Australian sponsors of partner visas to provide a police certificate. 

“These amendments allow the Department to share the sponsor’s relevant offences with the applicant so they can decide whether to continue with the visa application process," a government spokesperson told The Feed.

The spokesperson said it also allows the government to "refuse to approve the sponsorship for people with serious and violent criminal pasts.”

But Konrad claims the government could do more to inform those on partner visas that they don’t have to remain in abusive relationships to qualify for permanent residency. 

“People who come from other countries, may not realise they have these rights. In reality, there’s no letter that tries to educate them about the rights they have in Australia,” Konrad said.

A spokesperson at the Department of Immigration told The Feed that “visa applicants are advised about the Family Safety Pack developed by the Department of Social Services”.

This pack includes factsheets about domestic and family violence, sexual assault, forced and early marriage, and family violence and partner visas.

They said the Home Affairs website also includes information on the “provisions for obtaining a partner visa if the applicant has suffered family violence”.  

But Konrad said lengthy processing times and the exorbitant costs of partnership visas -- which are currently priced at $7,715 -- can make victims feel trapped in the relationship. 

“Permanent residency is meant to take two years from the date their partner visa is lodged. At the moment, the assessment can take three to four years,” Konrad said.

“People may feel they have to stick in these relationships and tolerate everything until they get permanent residency. They may not realise there’s another pathway if domestic violence has occurred,” he added.

domestic violence
O'Brien experienced physical violence but was unaware she could make a claim and apply to keep her partner visa.
Getty Images/Kittisak Jirasittichai/EyeEm

This was true for Jessica O’Brien*, an English expat who told The Feed she wasn’t aware of her options after suffering in a toxic and violent relationship.

O'Brien was completing her 88 days of farm work, required to obtain a second working holiday visa, when she met her former partner in a small town in rural New South Wales.

It was her very first relationship and O’Brien said her vulnerability as a migrant resulted in her tolerating aggressive and demeaning behaviour.

“In arguments, he’d say ‘what are you going to do? I own you now’,” she said.

“Once he punched the door in and it was an old door with rusty nails, and he was whacking me with that and I had to get a tetanus shot,” she told The Feed.

“Another time he smashed my head against the wall and knocked me out. Then there was a time he was cutting into my arm. He had my arm gripped and he was carving in the words ‘fuck love’. It was intense. It got worse every time,” she added.

By the end of the relationship, O’Brien was forced to move out of their shared apartment under police supervision. 

After the police left, she claims her abuser forced her to hand over her laptop and car and she was left with nothing but her phone and a few pieces of clothing.

O'Brien wants to encourage survivors of domestic violence not to fear seeking help.

“It was hard building myself up again. The cost of moving, finding a new job, there’s no way I would have been able to afford a lawyer on top of all that,” she said.

After changing her number and moving states, O’Brien said she’s now happily engaged and is currently on a student visa. 

“For anyone who might be going through this, I just want to emphasise that there’s always a way out,” she said.

 “It’s okay to reach out, whether that be to a friend or to a professional. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed to seek help.”

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons

For more information on partner visas and domestic violence, visit the Department of Immigration website.

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.