Chithra Ravi Mandalam – PHAA Intern and Deakin University student
This month, the Australian Government accepted submissions on the draft National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-32. The last five years have seen a drastic shift in the tone of discussion around violence faced by women and children, due to the courageous voices of women globally, including through the #MeToo movement, former Australians of the Year Grace Tame and Rosie Batty, and Brittany Higgins. However, absent from the national conversation, is the uniquely precarious position of temporary visa holders.
Due to the safety risks, refuges often require women and their children to discontinue any studies during their stay. For those uninitiated, nearly all temporary visas impose restrictions in addition to the length of stay. Student visa holders are required to maintain course attendance and course progress as one of their visa conditions. Failure to do so risks visa cancellation and deportation. For student visa holders fleeing domestic violence this creates a dilemma: do they seek help, cease their studies, and therefore risk being removed from Australia? Or do they follow their visa conditions, by continuing to study, and therefore remain in harm’s way? Australia’s immigration policy actively places these women’s lives at risk, with many types of visas having conditions applied which may negatively affect women experiencing domestic violence.
Similarly, visa conditions associated with the Temporary Partner visa and Prospective Marriage visa also lead women to think they must stay in an abusive relationship. In both these visa categories, holders are required to remain in a relationship with their partner (the sponsor). If the relationship breaks down, they must notify the government and leave Australia. Both these visa holders pay a substantial sum for the visa: AUD$7,850 (five years of wages in a lower-middle income country) – which also paves the way to a permanent visa, provided they remain in the relationship up until it is granted. Prospective Marriage Visa holders must marry their sponsor before this visa ends to be eligible to apply for permanent residency.
Now, Australia Migration Law does contain provisions for these two visa classes – women can still retain eligibility for permanent residency if they leave the relationship, so long as they give evidence of the relationship being “genuine”, and evidence of violence perpetrated by the sponsor. (Note: Violence inflicted by the sponsor’s family, for example, is not recognised as grounds for this provision). Prospective Marriage Visa holders must have married their sponsor to be eligible for this provision.
Many women do not know their rights due to language barriers or due to their sponsor or family perpetrating immigration-related abuse. Examples include falsely leading women to believe they could be deported by their abuser for reporting the violence, or the partner/their family threatening to revoke sponsorship should the woman refuse any demands. The high cost of the visa is also a deterrent for seeking help. Many women would rather not risk attracting scrutiny to their relationship for fear of squandering the enormous financial investment they’ve made for the right to stay in Australia. Thus, women are often likely to remain in the abusive relationship.
Exercising one’s rights
Even when women might know and exercise their rights, establishing evidence of genuine relationship and of family violence is often onerous and fraught. The Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA) notes that decision makers often seek evidence of genuine relationship through social and financial habits. However, this disadvantages victim-survivors who are often subject to social isolation and financial control by their abuser. AWAVA also found that decision makers often lack the necessary training to recognise signs of domestic violence, with many placing more emphasis on evidence of physical harm than other forms of coercive control.
Another factor affecting temporary visa migrants is restrictions to their access of social services. Most temporary visa holders, including international students, are not eligible for Medicare or Centrelink payments. Contributory Parent Visa holders are barred from accessing Centrelink payments for the first 10 years of their stay. This means the only people who can escape family violence are those with the financial means to do so. Considering financial control is a common component of domestic violence – this restriction forces many women to remain dependent on their abuser, and thus at their mercy.
Restriction to services also extends to social housing. Temporary migrants on partner sponsored visas including prospective marriage visas who successfully establish evidence of relationship and of abuse by their sponsor may be able to access social housing. However, this varies from state to state, with most restricting access to just permanent residents or citizens. Even where temporary visa holders do qualify for access, they must often meet further conditions, such as having applied for a permanent visa or having evidence of family violence. This is concerning as refuges and crisis accommodation services may not have the funding to house women for extended periods, and often require women to have an exit plan before being admitted. So women who can’t access social housing nor have the funds or access to social security payments to enter the private rental market, often end up returning to their abuser.
These are only a fraction of the hurdles faced by temporary visa holders experiencing family violence. In reality, there are many more barriers, which require an understanding of each visa’s unique conditions. As I was researching this article, I was struck by the complexity of migration law, and the difficulty identifying which services and payments, if at all, a temporary visa holder could access. Navigating this information in the absence of a safe home environment, not to mention literacy barriers and/or low English language proficiency levels, is exceedingly difficult for women seeking help. It is no surprise that experts believe that family violence in these groups is vastly underreported. PHAA advocates for parity in access to social services and financial assistance to all temporary migrants including asylum seekers. PHAA has written a submission on the draft National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children, and strongly encourages the Australian Government to address this vulnerable cohort.