Australia

Urgent need to overhaul migration laws to protect domestic violence victims

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Women living in Australia on temporary visas face additional hurdles to seeking help for family violence, according to a new report made public today.

It took a near-death experience for Sarah* to leave her husband. The beatings were incessant.

Sarah knew unless she walked out, she would never see her children again.  

“When he beat me, he didn’t just slap me or something like that,” she said. 

“He [would] punch me, kick me and hang me in his hands.” 

One beating – the last beating her husband would ever give her – drew a police response. 

It also caused Sarah to leave. 

"I had broken bones in my body, in my face, at that time. I was thinking, in that time, I'm gonna die. I'm not gonna see my kids," she told SBS News.

The Advocacy and Prevention Manager at Domestic Violence NSW, Monique Dam, says hundreds of women on temporary visas like Sarah face additional hurdles when they seek help for family violence. 

“One of the biggest fears and genuine risks that women on temporary visas experiencing violence - and their children - face is that they are concerned that they may be deported if they seek to leave a violent partner,” she said.

Domestic Violence NSW is one of 44 organisations to endorse a new report calling the situation for women on temporary visas a “national crisis”.

It calls for urgent government action to increase access to services such as Centrelink and Medicare, and to expand family violence provisions so people on temporary visas are able to seek help when needed.

“We want the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to work together to act on their commitment to ensure that women on temporary visas that are experiencing violence are able to get the support they need without having fear of being deported, without the fear of being separated from their children,” Ms Dam said.

Sarah fled conflict in Iraq, coming to Australia with her husband and three children. She explained the support services available here gave her the confidence to seek help.

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Domestic violence in Australia: facts and figures
Domestic violence in Australia: facts and figures

"I learnt stuff here that I didn’t know about there. Like, he's not allowed to beat me - for any reason."

But the young mother was also worried about her future.

“I was thinking, I am on the bridging visa,” she said. “What if I get divorced and the government decides to send me back to my country?

“Oh my god, this will be a disaster… they will end my life there.” 

She feared the reaction of conservative family members, as well as a patriarchal culture that would favour her husband. 

“After divorce, if they send me to my country, his family would take the kids,” she said. “And if I get divorced from here, but in my country, in a government way, I’m still his wife.”

Sarah’s story is not rare among migrant women.

The Path to Nowhere report, published yesterday, found at least 387 women on temporary visas accessed support services for family violence in August.

It named access to crisis and ongoing housing as a particular problem, claiming one in ten at-risk women on temporary visas remained with her husband.

SA Legal Aid Director Gabrielle Canny said the true number of women on temporary visas experiencing violence could be higher than the data suggests.

“Unfortunately, there are many women in the community who are suffering domestic violence, but are very frightened to tell the authorities or to seek help, because they’re worried about their visa status, which is really attached to the sponsor,” she said.

"It’s unfortunately a lot more than what perhaps people in the community think. Wherever you’ve got a power imbalance such as these cases usually are, where you’ve got a visa applicant and a visa sponsor there is always room for domestic violence, and other power issues."

Vanessa Burn, a registered migration agent with Playfair Visa and Migration Services in Canberra, said changes to government-funded advice have meant many people she was once able to help now must be turned away.

“The new version of IAAAS, which stands for Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme is now only for people who are seeking asylum,” she said.

“We’re not able to offer them the government-funded advice or application assistance that we once previously did, for many years.”

 *Name has been changed.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au

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