For Lucy*, one her most embarrassing moments came when she was forced to ask a neighbour for toilet paper. It wasn’t just the shortage that was behind the request, but a lack of funds.
Lucy is in Australia on a temporary visa and therefore has no access to Centrelink or Medicare. Having left her abusive husband she is now relying on food vouchers from a crisis centre to survive.
Lucy is being supported in one of the few domestic violence crisis accommodations available to women on temporary visas. The vouchers she gets from the crisis centre are restricted for use in big chains like Woolworths and Coles. When they are out of stock, Lucy and her daughter have no cash to buy essentials from independent stores and are forced to go without.
Lucy migrated to Sydney with her daughter, Kim*, after marrying Joe*. When Joe became sexually and physically abusive, Lucy and Kim fled to a crisis house after Lucy disclosed the abuse to someone at her church who got her in touch with women’s services.
COVID-19 has heightened the challenges for women on temporary visas in Australia who suffer domestic abuse.
Under COVID-19, their financial strain is magnified by social isolation. Lucy can no longer access English lessons at her church or access face-to-face interpreters and support workers to help her navigate the Australian legal system. Kim cannot go to the local library to study.
They have no income to fund other activities and have no support network to seek comfort in.
According to a 2017 report, Australia accepts around 36,450 temporary partner visa applications from female applicants. The report estimates that based on current statistics that one in four Australian women experience domestic violence, at least 9112 women across Australia who are on temporary partner visas are experiencing family violence.
COVID-19 has heightened the challenges for women on temporary visas in Australia who suffer domestic abuse. Many of them arrive in Australia for love and the promise of a better life. They are sponsored on spousal visas and rely on their Australian partners for financial support and the right to remain in Australia.
Women on temporary visas are excluded from any form of government support, and their pathway to permanent residency can take years. They cannot access Medicare, including abortion and contraceptive services, or Centrelink, making it difficult for those seeking to leave violent relationships to access a bridge from which to develop an autonomous life in Australia – and the training and skills to support themselves. Now their isolation is magnified by COVID-19.
Community organisations like the Jesuit Refugee Service and other groups who have stepped in to support women with casework support, food deliveries and dignity kits.
Access to basic services and a safety net for all is essential for all women at risk of domestic and family violence.
Sydney’s Jesuit Refugee Service director Carolina Gottardo said women on temporary visas are reporting increased need for emergency relief to support them with everyday living and basic survival under lockdown.
“Women on temporary visas are at increased risk of domestic and family violence as a result of movement restrictions, social distancing and isolation and are often in situations where they are trapped 24/7 with the perpetrator with little access to support or a safety net. This has resulted in escalating violence under conditions of increased stress, and cramped living conditions.
“This is the result of women on temporary visas being excluded from any form of government support. Access to basic services and a safety net for all is essential for all women at risk of domestic and family violence if we are serious about safety during and after the COVID-19 crisis," says Gottardo.
At least 9112 women across Australia who are on temporary partner visas are experiencing family violence.
Most refuges only offer limited beds to women on temporary visas as government funding does not subsidise the costs of their food, lodging and medical care.
Crisis support staff say permanent residents and citizens experiencing domestic violence could access 28 non-consecutive government funded nights at a motel until they could find safe alternative accommodation. Under the government’s $150 million COVID-19 domestic violence funding package the non-consecutive rule was scrapped. This allowed women moving between temporary accommodation an uninterrupted 28-night stay. But funding for emergency temporary accommodation was not extended to women on temporary visas, though some services in practice have been able to find funding for two nights motel accommodation.
Domestic Violence NSW spokeswoman Renata Field says the service has seen a 111 per cent increase in new referrals in March this year compared to the same period last year.
“Many of our services have reported a dramatic increase in women accessing therapeutic services such as counselling and help with safety planning to try and minimise the harm and to shield themselves and their children whilst in enforced isolation,” she said.
For many women on temporary visas, it’s a choice between staying in relationships where they suffer domestic abuse or exposing themselves to precarious refuge housing and the risk of infection, magnified by the fear of losing their visa sponsorship to live in Australia.
1800 RESPECT hotline national manager Melonie Sheehan said the domestic violence service was experiencing a surge in contacts under COVID-19, particularly through their web-chat service. Ms Sheehan said the service helped women safety plan under lockdown, and predicts the service will continue to manage the heightened toll of isolation on survivors, beyond lockdown restrictions being lifted.
“I think anecdotally what’s being shared is that it is difficult for women to access their usual support services because some of the face-to-face services have been shut down because of COVID-19. It’s important that women know that there is support available to them. It just looks different.”
Ms Gottardo said women on temporary visas were often unaware of their rights in Australia, including access to permanent residency pathways even if they are separated from their partners.
“It is essential for women in this situation to have access to information and to be aware of how to get support in a safe way. This could be a matter of life and death.
Sarah Malik is a writer and presenter at SBS Voices and a former Our Watch fellow. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahbmalik.
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au.
See What You Made Me Do premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly, and every episode will be simulcast on NITV. (Episodes will be repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND from 9 May).