Tani* came to Australia with her Bangladeshi husband on a Dependent Student Visa as he had won a scholarship to do a PhD at an Australia nUniversity. They have a daughter together who is below school-age.
Once here Tani’s husband became violent and one incident was captured on a University CCTV camera where he attempted to run her over. An AVO and charges resulted, however, after several breaches and threats to abduct their daughter and take her back with him to Bangladesh, he left the country and filed for and finalised a divorce without her knowledge which he was able to do due to his male status in Bangladesh.
As Tani and her daughter would be ostracised from their community, and a target for sex crimes and acid attacks if they returned home to Bangladesh, a Pro Bono Migration Lawyer assisted her in applying for a Protection Visa. Meanwhile, she lost her job due to her husband cancelling her original visa.
Her husband also cancelled the private health insurance she had for herself and her daughter, reimbursing himself the advance payments totalling $7,000 AUD which Tani had originally funded. Tani is ineligible for Centrelink Benefits, Department of Housing or Medicare and her savings are dwindling with no relief in sight.
Tani’s situation exemplifies how vulnerable women and children on protection visas in Australia are.
Isolating at home during the COVID-19 crisis has seen an escalation in the severity and incidence of women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse in Australia.
As Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW, wrote on Women’s Agenda a few weeks ago, “the conditions being created by this health crisis, with its impacts upon people’s job security, incomes and caring responsibilities, and citizens being told to “stay at home” will create a perfect storm for families already plagued by abuse.”
Survey results from frontline domestic violence workers also show violence has been occurring in relationships for the first time during the pandemic.
And while Federal and State Governments across Australia have acknowledged the increased risk to victims of domestic and family violence at this time, women on temporary visas remain more vulnerable than ever and have not been acknowledged specifically.
According to Women’s Safety NSW, there have been no measures put in place to date which adequately address the safety of women on temporary visas and their children experiencing domestic violence and abuse.
This group of women and children are at heightened risk due to their often limited access to alternative income, accommodation and basic services when they are attempting to leave an abusive relationship.
Often, for women on temporary visas in Australia who experience domestic violence and abuse, there are only two choices: stay and put up with violence and abuse or attempt to leave, often into homelessness and destitution.
While the Federal Government recently announced a $7 million package for the Australian Red Cross to provide material aid and case management services to vulnerable people on temporary visas, an inquiry by Women’s Safety NSW revealed the package only extends to a “one-off” material aid.
It does not include an income or accommodation component, which are often the most essential needs for women fleeing an abusive relationship.
There are four critical areas of support urgently needed for women on temporary visas and their children who are experiencing domestic violence during the COVID-19 crisis.
Whilst the Australian government has implemented some strategies to combat domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing funding towards social services and extending financial support payments to certain classes of temporary visa holders – many people on temporary visas are excluded. Most people are still required to meet the Australian Residence Rules in order to receive financial support payments, leaving many women on temporary visas and their children with no financial support.
Many specialist homelessness services and community housing providers require individuals to prove they have access to government income support payments as part of their eligibility criteria. And other crisis accommodation services have a limit on the number of people they take on temporary visas. Often, this is because they cannot obtain the funding they need from governments to offer these places.
As it stands, only select temporary visa holders are eligible for Medicare, including people who are applying for permanent residency or those who are covered by a ministerial order. Women on temporary visas who come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds often feel safer in disclosing violence and abuse to a healthcare professional rather than to the police. Without access to medical care, this is not an option.
Without access to legal support, like Legal Aid, the ongoing cycle of fear, limited understanding of rights and available services can perpetuate a woman’s experience of domestic violence. For women on temporary visas, abuse can often come in the form of threats of deportation and separation form their children. For those with limited proficiency in English, navigating the legal system can be impossible without appropriate support.
Providing a safety net for women on temporary visas and their children experiencing violence and abuse is urgent.