The following story contains descriptions of domestic violence.
Anjali* had to make a terrifyingly quick decision in 2016 when her husband held a broken glass and threatened to kill her. She knew inviting law enforcement into their Sydney home might threaten his visa status — which her own visa was tied to — and in turn the stability of her two daughters’ lives. But after almost two decades of violence she wanted safety for her and her children.
“Within two minutes [the police] came and they witnessed everything and they protected me and they arrested him,” she said. “I am sure he would not spare me next time and if I were to see him now I would collapse from terror.”
Anjali did not know which visa she was on as her husband had controlled the paperwork, nor that it was about to expire. So she unknowingly entered a period of unlawfulness without a valid visa.
She is now on a bridging visa with no worker’s rights and her rent is only just covered by the money her teenage daughters earn at a fast-food restaurant after school.
“My poor girls are really supporting me,” she said.
If not for an additional payment from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) they would face homelessness because temporary visa holders without worker’s rights have no access to housing, Medicare or Centrelink, including JobKeeper or JobSeeker.
In May international student Kamaljeet Sidhu, 27, was allegedly murdered by her husband, Baltej Lailna, against whom she had taken out an apprehended violence order (AVO) four weeks earlier.
The night before she was stabbed to death, dozens of front-line domestic violence workers from across New South Wales took part in a webinar addressing the challenges faced by women on temporary visas who were trying to escape violence during the pandemic.
Services want the federal government to allow these women to access social support no matter their visa status.
Last month the Women’s Safety Council, a forum for state and federal politicians, met to discuss how to reduce violence against women and their children during the pandemic. In the list of outcomes it acknowledged the pandemic had “coincided with the onset or escalation of violence and abuse for women” and that women on temporary visas experiencing violence was a “priority”.
But the only measure it mentioned to address that was a network of “community liaison officers” who spread information about options to access support services for visa holders. But it didn’t acknowledge how slim those options are.
“There is no substance in how they plan to address the problem,” said Isobel McGarity, a lawyer with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) in Sydney.
RACS and JRS made a joint submission to the government’s inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence, calling on the government to allow women experiencing violence to access support regardless of visa status.
Although people on temporary protection visas no longer have to produce police reports to access hospital treatment (at least in NSW), McGarity says many women on certain temporary visas, especially those without work rights, can’t access Medicare.
“Often a GP is the first place where a woman will disclose violence,” she said.
Scenarios like Anjali’s are common: “Women will come to our service and have no idea what their visa status is and what has been submitted on their behalf.”
Australia does have the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) payment for people waiting to hear about their immigration status, but the eligibility has tightened.
“It’s so hard to get anyone on the SRSS payment,” JRS director Carolina Gottardo said. “The policy of this government is to support people to return overseas but when they can’t return overseas you leave them with nothing and people end up in total destitution and then the NGOs have to come in.”
One woman seeking asylum was recently ruled ineligible for the payment, which is about 89% of the JobSeeker payment, as her circumstances were evaluated based on those of her violent ex-husband who was the primary visa applicant and who she was trying to leave.
She turned up at JRS with her suitcases and kids in the car but the service was unable to find her last minute emergency assistance. She chose returning to her abuser over homelessness.
It was a missed opportunity, Gottardo says, as most women are too scared to disclose the violence to anyone.
“When there’s a claim for asylum this woman’s visa depends on her husband’s and that is a big reason why they are very reluctant to report violence as they’re worried about deportation,” she said.
“One woman told us that with the uncertainty of her visa status and the possibility of losing her children her husband’s violence was the least of her problems and so she didn’t report it.”
Gottardo says her service helped Anjali before the coronavirus hit but she had to return for more help after she lost her cash-in-hand job in the pandemic.
“We have referred her for legal advice, counselling, accommodation assistance and DV assistance, but she is unlikely to get that because it is almost impossible to get now,” Gottardo said.
A survey of more than 5000 temporary visa holders found 65% had lost their jobs and 39% struggled to cover living expenses.
Calls to JRS for every kind of support have increased by 224% since March, Gottardo says.
Despite the AVO Anjali still doesn’t feel safe. Her family in India encouraged her to stay with her husband.
“I used to make recordings of him silently so I could send them to my mum and say, ‘Why did you make me marry him?’ But she doesn’t care … She once called me back and said, ‘Don’t spoil your father’s name or your brother’s name. Just try to settle [your husband] down.’ ”
Anjali has been seeing a counsellor courtesy of JRS and says it has enabled her to talk about how much trauma she carries.
She felt like she couldn’t breathe when she was living under her husband’s tyranny, but now she can.
“We are living hand to mouth at the moment but I can never lose hope and we will keep our karma clean as God is always there,” she said. “I have been protected by angels so far.”
If you or someone you know is affected by family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.