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For women living in Australia on temporary visas, the Covid-19 lockdown has placed them at greater risk of domestic violence and coercive control. By Gina Rushton.

Temporary visa holders at risk

InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence chief executive Michal Morris.
Credit: SUPPLIED

“I think of it as a Choose Your Own Adventure book where every door is locked,” says Diana Sayed, chief executive of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights.

She describes the path offered to women in Australia on temporary visas who are seeking to leave a violent relationship.

It’s a stark reality that was brought into focus last week when Kamaljeet Sidhu, a 27-year-old international student living in Sydney’s north-west, was fatally stabbed in her home.

Her husband, Baltej Lailna, has since been charged with her murder. The couple had moved from India to Australia in 2018, with Sidhu living on a student visa.

Kamaljeet Sidhu’s death was shocking, for many reasons, not least its brutality, but also because police had taken out an apprehended violence order (AVO) against her husband four weeks earlier. Yet she was still living with him at the time of her death.

Not all AVOs include “exclusion orders”, which prohibit an abuser from living in the home with the protected person. Police have confirmed Sidhu and Lailna were allowed to live together under the terms of his apprehended violence order.

But front-line workers say there are systemic failures in the way Australia treats women on temporary visas who are experiencing family violence. During the Covid-19 lockdown, these problems have become only more pronounced.

According to a survey conducted last week by Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW), since the pandemic began, 45 per cent of workers looking after women on temporary visas reported their clients had experienced more violence. Sixty per cent had less access to income, food and essentials.

Victoria’s InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence has likewise seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of calls for assistance with family violence since March. The organisation’s chief executive, Michal Morris, says just over half of her clients are on some form of temporary visa, and many of them are international students.

The night before Sidhu’s death, on May 19, dozens of front-line domestic violence workers from across New South Wales dialled in to a webinar to discuss the challenges facing culturally and linguistically diverse women, especially those on temporary visas, who are trying to escape violence during the pandemic.

Listening back to the echoey video call you can hear the weariness in their voices as they describe how their clients have struggled to access adequate support in recent weeks.

A Red Cross worker tells the group that although the government has given the organisation funding to support people on temporary visas with a small one-off emergency relief payment – not specifically for family violence – it is enough to help only 20,000 people. She believes the number of people who will require assistance is closer to one million.

“There was a level of frustration on the call at having brought up these issues for so long and not having many solutions to offer these extremely marginalised women,” says Renata Field of DVNSW. “Then the next day getting the news about Kamaljeet was so crushing.”

In April, DVNSW and 60 other organisations signed an open letter to federal and state ministers urging them to “act immediately” and allow women on temporary visas experiencing violence access to Medicare, social security and housing to keep them safe during the coronavirus outbreak.

Only the NSW and Victorian governments responded, foreshadowing the creation of a group to report to the Council of Australian Governments, a forum that Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week announced would be abolished. He has not indicated whether the replacement cabinet will still have a women’s safety council.

The letter came in the wake of a March report from NSW’s domestic violence death review team, which recommended the federal government address the fact that “vulnerable or impermanent visa status remains one of, if not the most, significant issue” for culturally and linguistically diverse women experiencing domestic violence.

“There is precarity in their visa status that could be revoked at any time,” says Diana Sayed, adding there may also be the threat of “direct reprisals to their family back home”.

“Often women will stay in a home with a perpetrator, even if they have AVOs,” she says, “and especially if they have children.”

To most Australians, an AVO stands as a “warning not to break the law”, says Sarah Dale, principal solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service.

For women on temporary visas, though, taking out an AVO is a huge decision, particularly if their partner doesn’t have permanent residency or citizenship.

“An AVO can mean not getting a future visa, getting a visa cancelled, and it could mean being taken into detention,” says Dale. “I’m not advocating for violent people to remain in our community, but we need to consider why women stay in these situations.”

Kittu Randhawa, who chairs the Indian (Subcontinent) Crisis and Support Agency in Sydney’s west, says financial dependence is a key factor binding women on student visas to their abusive partners.

“She needs him to pay her fees, and if she stops [paying], she will find herself in breach of her visa,” Randhawa says. “We had a young student whose husband was particularly violent, and the police went out of their way to convince her that she shouldn’t stay with him, but he threatened to harm her family back home.”

On the day this client was due to give evidence in court, her husband locked her in a bathroom, says Randhawa.

“She’s now on her own and has to find a way to pay for her own student visa, and those situations are quite common,” she says. “You wonder how these women survive at all when you’re only allowed to work 20 hours a week, you’re only going to be earning around $600 a week and you have to pay your student fees, medical bills and rent.”

If a woman is fleeing a violent partner and has nowhere safe to go, she may first land in a refuge – but Randhawa asks community members to put up women on temporary visas because she is so rarely able to get them into refuges.

Western Sydney’s West Connect Domestic Violence Services chief executive Catherine Gander says refuges have a “high turn-away rate” and women on temporary visas often need to stay for long periods.

“She’s likely to need accommodation for six to 12 months, if not longer, and the average time women stay is six weeks,” Gander says. “We had a woman on a temporary visa at our service who ended up being there close to 18 months with a really young child, and she had no income and so we were paying for her childcare and the sector has seen no increase in funding for services in so long.”

Without access to income support, public housing or many refuges, women on temporary visa are reliant on interpreters, support workers and lawyers to advocate on their behalf for one-off emergency payments or stints in emergency accommodation.

“This is not a system that is built as a genuine safety net, it is a system that is almost built to keep people out,” says Canberra Community Law solicitor Sophie Trevitt.

She describes one loophole through which a woman on a temporary visa might be able to access a “special benefit” cheque, Centrelink’s “payment of last resort”: if she had mothered a child with her abusive former partner, and that child was an Australian citizen.

This was the case with one of Trevitt’s recent clients, whom she refers to as Julie.

“Julie had been making ends meet by working at a cafe, but it was shut down due to Covid-19,” Trevitt says. “If she hadn’t been on a temporary protection visa, she could have accessed JobSeeker, but instead she was told by Centrelink that she wasn’t eligible for anything.”

Julie and her child are currently surviving on the fortnightly “special benefit”, which at most is $380 a week.

There does exist a provision in federal migration law that fast-tracks permanent residency applications for a handful of temporary visa categories, if the holder has experienced violence at the hands of their sponsoring partner. But student visas aren’t among them.

“You actually have to have left the relationship before you can apply,” says Catherine Gander. “A student, like in the case of Kamaljeet, would not have been covered.”

This entire process needs to change, urgently, says Domestic Violence Victoria acting chief executive Alison Macdonald.

“We know that women on temporary visas are extraordinarily vulnerable when they experience domestic and family violence and that the threat of deportation can be used [by perpetrators] as a tool for coercion and control,” she says. “What we’re hearing about Covid-19 is that it is exacerbating those controlling behaviours …

“We need to have blanket access to protections for women on temporary visas irrespective of the visa class. There needs to be eligibility to access Medicare, employment rights and Centrelink, regardless of migration status, when there is domestic and family violence.”

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "No way out".

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Gina Rushton is a Sydney-based journalist and an Our Watch fellow.