Australia New Tasmanian legal abuse support service for women on temporary visas in high demand

23:50  23 october  2021
23:50  23 october  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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The Women's Legal Service of Tasmania says more than two million people on temporary visas across Australia are particularly vulnerable to abuse. (ABC News: Maren Preuss) © Provided by ABC NEWS The Women's Legal Service of Tasmania says more than two million people on temporary visas across Australia are particularly vulnerable to abuse. (ABC News: Maren Preuss)

When Laura* arrived in Tasmania from her country of origin in 2012, she was heavily pregnant, knew no one except her husband, and was in an abusive marriage.

"After I came to Australia with him, [the abuse] escalated," she said.

"He's in total control of me now, he used to tell me, 'This is my country now. I'm the one who brought you here, so you have no rights. You just have to do whatever I ask you to do'."

Laura's husband used coercive control to emotionally and psychologically abuse her.

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He controlled the family's finances, and she had to seek permission for everything.

"Even to take the son out of the house, I have to get his permission," she said.

Laura said she lived in constant fear of what he was going to do, or make her do.

Leaving the abusive relationship was complicated by the fact Laura was in Australia on a partner visa.

She said while support services were able to ensure her immediate safety, they were not able to help her with her visa status and she lived in fear of being sent back to her country of origin.

"When my son was born then [my husband] used that as a weapon, he was like 'I can send you any time back to [your country of origin] and you wouldn't be able to see the son, never, ever'," she said.

"It was like a hostage situation … I could not see any help that I can get in that situation."

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Women's Legal Service of Tasmania's chief executive, Yvette Cehtel, said there were more than two million people like Laura on temporary visas in Australia and who are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

"Really, the visa status can be a cornerstone of the abuse itself and, by that, I mean the status is used against the person to prevent them being able to leave, and it does actually limit their options," Ms Cehtel said.

Caught in a 'double bind'

Social and health supports like Medicare and Centrelink are limited for people on temporary visas, which is an additional stress for those seeking to leave an abusive relationship.

"It can put added pressure on a temporary visa holder, particularly if part of their visa condition is that they're not able to work," Ms Cehtel said.

"As a temporary visa holder, if you're sending your child [to school] then you have to pay the public school costs … and that can run into the thousands each year."

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Ms Cehtel described this as a "double bind", being unable to work and unable to access social security payments.

"If you don't send your child to school because you can't afford it, then the other problem is then you might come to the attention of child protection."

Advocates have long been calling for additional support for temporary visa holders experiencing abuse, with reports of increased violence during COVID-19.

In Tasmania, the Family Violence Migration Service (FVMS) launched in March to address the gap in migration support for the cohort.

FVMS lawyer Taya Ketelaar-Jones said the service was unique on the island state.

"It was essentially responding to concerns that women on temporary visas who were experiencing family violence had no access to legal support in Tasmania … and were being referred to the mainland for that sort of representation," she said.

"What we were finding was that, a lot of the time, people were essentially being trapped in violent relationships because there was no pathway out, or they didn't see that they had a pathway out."

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Since the service launched, it has seen constant demand.

"We've probably been averaging, I'd say, between two to six referrals a week," Ms Ketelaar-Jones said.

Funding uncertainty for support service

Laura wishes a service such as the FVMS had been there when she needed it, and said it would be life-changing for others.

"I really wish I had that support when I was going through that situation. That was pretty much all what I wanted," she said.

"If I had that option, I would have been able to get away and start my life a bit earlier and not have had that much trauma in my life."

FVMS was started with a one-off grant from the Tasmanian Community Fund, however, its future is uncertain without ongoing funding.

"The funding situation is of particular concern for us … we are six months into that 12-month funding and, at this stage, we have no guarantee of any ongoing funding source, which is obviously really concerning," Ms Ketelaar-Jones said.

"That service gap doesn't go away after 12 months."

Added complexity for those seeking safety

In April, the federal government announced $10 million nationally to support temporary visa holders experiencing domestic violence.

The majority of the funding will be used for food, accommodation and medical care, with the remaining to assist women to access legal advice.

That relief funding will be administered by the Red Cross and women's legal centres.

Alison Dugan — who is the stakeholder engagement lead for the Red Cross family violence assistance program — said there had been significant demand for the new program.

"The demand has been very high across the country and, in recent weeks, we've seen an increased demand here in Tasmania as well," she said.

Ms Dugan said having additional support was critical to enabling temporary visa holders to leave abusive relationships.

"We know some women take, maybe, seven times to leave before they actually leave for good," she said.

"With the added complexities of people on temporary visas not having real access to mainstream services, not being able to get Medicare, in many case not being able to get Centrelink, it does add those extra layers of complexity."

* Name changed to protect identity.

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