New Monash study finds COVID-19 exacerbates issues for women on temporary visas

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Read about the 'Gender-based violence and help-seeking behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic' project (Monash / inTouch project)

Women holding temporary visas in Victoria have been subjected to violence, controlling behaviours, emotional abuse and even denied food and medication during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report has revealed.

The first Victorian study documenting violence against women on temporary visas during COVID-19 was released today by Monash University.

Family Violence and Temporary Visa Holders during COVID-19 found 92 per cent of perpetrators had recently threatened to harm victim-survivors and / or their children, 87 per cent emotionally abused women and more than 60 per cent threatened to have women deported.

The report draws on the analysis of 100 case files of women who experienced domestic and family violence during the first lockdown phase, from the declaration of a State of Emergency across Victoria on March 16 to May 31, 2020.

All women sought assistance from inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence (inTouch), who partnered with Monash for the research.

The report found the majority of perpetrators were Australian citizens or permanent residents, with the women’s uncertain migration status used as leverage for control.

“Temporariness is a significant form of leverage for perpetrators,” said report lead author Associate Professor Marie Segrave.

“This fear and uncertainty regarding the threat of being deported impacts across a whole range of areas - financial, familial, and beyond. While it is not accurate that visa sponsors can have someone deported, these perpetrators often assert themselves as having more power and impact.”

More than three-quarters of women in the report feared harm or death at the hands of their perpetrator, 31 per cent specifically feared deportation and / or being forced to leave the country without their Australia-born children.

Perpetrators used their power and control for sexual violence, to extort money from victim-survivors and even starve pregnant partners.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent policy response has significantly heightened the precariousness of women’s safety and livelihoods.

Women reported multiple pandemic-related impacts, including unemployment and increased economic dependence on perpetrators, housing insecurity, fear of infection, close contacts testing positive, together with delays in IVO hearings, closures of legal services and restrictions limiting the ability for interpreter assistance.

Of those who were employed, 70 per cent lost their jobs due to the impact of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdown.

“It is now well-documented that temporary visa holders who experience family violence in Australia have limited access to support because of their migration status, and that the visa system can contribute to and compound women’s insecurity,” report co-author Dr Naomi Pfitzner said.

“The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, with temporary visa holders excluded from financial support packages including JobSeeker and JobKeeper, and many experiencing financial vulnerability due to their likelihood of employment in low paid or casual work in sectors shaped by discretionary spending.”

CEO of inTouch, Michal Morris, said while the impact of COVID-19 was clear, the issues recorded in their clients’ case files were not new.

“Rather, COVID-19 has largely intensified the impact on temporary visa holders, and their exclusion from accessing the safety and support mechanisms all individuals, regardless of visa status, deserve when they experience family violence,” she said.

“In the context of COVID-19, limited job opportunities, community organisations that are under even more pressure, more time being stuck at home with perpetrators, and a lack of ongoing financial support, are all significant impacts creating stressors to these women.”

Women who don't hold a temporary partner visa and / or relevant working visas are ineligible to access family violence provisions in order to apply for permanent residency.

They are also generally ineligible for housing and community services support and the group has been hit hard by their exclusion from financial support during the lockdown and restrictions, and the loss of employment.

Researchers suggested a number of recommendations to better support women on temporary visas experiencing domestic and family violence in Australia, largely focused on Commonwealth support.

Recommendations include a review and expansion of family violence provisions, a broadening of the definition of family violence and the establishment of a single subclass bridging visa for all temporary visa holders to access in the event that they experience domestic and family violence.

Targeted messaging shared on diverse media and communication channels and platforms for temporary visa holders on their rights, as well as the creation of pathways to permanent residency were also recommended, as well as more adequate emergency accommodation, and better financial support.

The report is part of a wider project led by Dr Naomi Pfitzner, Associate Professor Kate Ftiz-Gibbon and Professor Jacqui True and is funded by Monash University as part of the Melbourne Experiment.