Lockdowns impeded migrant women from fleeing abuse

·3-min read

Domestic violence rates soared during Australia's COVID-19 lockdowns but for temporary migrant women it was even more precarious because they could be deported and separated from their children by their abusive partners.

A Monash University-led study analysed 100 victim-survivor case files of migrant women on temporary visas during the first national lockdown in March 2020 and found the threat of deportation was weaponised against them.

More than 90 per cent of the women surveyed had experienced controlling behaviours by their perpetrators with about 40 per cent denied food, a secure place to live and medication.

"The lockdown heightened the precarity of temporary visa holders because they don't have the same entitlements as other women and children who are fleeing domestic violence," lead author and criminologist Naomi Pfitzner told AAP.

Some of the women reported being kicked out of their homes, denied money for food and being prevented from buying medicine for their babies.

"Their experiences of violence were not different to what other women were experiencing in their homes, but the financial impacts and their ability to flee abusive relationships were more restricted."

More than 40 per cent of the women were on bridging visas meaning they could not work at all or only a certain number of hours and had no access to social welfare payments.

The diverse group came from countries including China, India, Malaysia, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Of the 100 cases, more than 70 needed urgent financial support which prompted them to seek a specialist multicultural family service in Melbourne.

They sought help to cover costs from paying rental bonds to booking emergency accommodation so they could escape violent households.

The amount of financial support required ranged from $250 to $5720 with the average temporary visa holder requiring about $2000.

Dr Pfitzner said the biggest costs were linked to hotel room bookings because safe houses and shelters were at full capacity.

"Prior to the pandemic there was already a shortage of both safe temporary and long-term accommodation and we just saw those gaps being exacerbated during the lockdowns," she explained.

Dr Pfitzner, a research fellow with the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, also noted the women's temporary visa status was weaponised by perpetrators.

"Perpetrators were able to leverage the migration processes to exert power and control over temporary visa holders through the threat of deportation and threats of separation from children."

She noted more than three-quarters of the women feared harm or death at the hands of their perpetrators and one-fifth were afraid of deportation.

A third of the women surveyed were on visas attached to their partners'.

Dr Pfitzner lauded the $10 million in government funding recently announced for services supporting women on temporary visas but argued being a refugee, skilled migrant, permanent resident, international student or citizen should not matter.

"Women's safety is paramount and a person's migration status shouldn't affect their ability to escape abusive relationships."

The paper was published as part of a new book, 'Violence Against Women During Coronavirus: When Staying Home Isn't Safe', which looked at several vulnerable groups including children.

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