Women’s domestic violence shelters in NSW are being forced to turn away women without residency or citizenship, a problem that will only be exacerbated with the proposed changes to the citizenship test, advocates have warned.
A decrease in the number of free beds in shelters following the NSW government’s ”Going Home, Staying Home” funding reform disproportionately affects migrant women who are unable to receive Centrelink payments.
According to Anna Kerr, co-chair of the Women and Girl’s Rights Subcommittee of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights advocacy group, “women’s refuges are frequently unable or unwilling to accept women who do not have a visa status that qualifies them for Centrelink payments”.
A 2016 survey conducted by the Coalition for Women’s Refuges found about one in five refuges have no ability to take women without residency.
The coalition is a group of refuge owners who oppose the 2014 reform, which saw a number of shelters closed or merged into general homelessness programs run by religious charities. Its survey attracted participation from 62 of the 76 women’s refuges in operation in NSW last year. Of the participating refuges, only four said the reforms had not affected their ability to deliver services.
Kerr says the result is that refuges find themselves forced to take the pragmatic approach of turning away women who do not have residency, as someone receiving Centrelink payments – or otherwise able to pay contributions – could potentially fill their bed.
“While freeing up more beds, this has the result of leaving some of the most vulnerable women and children in our community with nowhere to go if they need to escape domestic violence,” says co-chair Rita Shackel. “These are often women who have the additional disadvantage of limited English language skills.”
Extending the waiting time and tightening the English language test for citizenship will decrease the number of migrant women able to receive Centrelink payments, impeding their access to refuges, Kerr says.
Julie Stewart, a member of the coalition, has been working in the domestic violence sector for more than 30 years. As CEO of Manly-Warringah Women’s Resource Centre, where she has worked since 2011, she says she has observed a clear difference between the services her centre was able to offer before and after the reforms, which saw the shelter’s funding decrease by $500,000.
Although the centre’s two refuges are able to accommodate 11 families, they are now only able to fund one to two spaces for women who cannot make financial contributions. When she spoke to Fairfax Media, the centre was accommodating two women in this position, a move Stewart describes as a “stretch” for the refuge’s budget.
Stewart says that, while it has always been the case that women with access to an income – either through employment or a welfare payment – were required to pay a $120/week contribution to the shelter, the reforms have meant such women must make up the majority of the residents at the refuge, in order for it to survive financially.
Refuge workers try to help migrant women apply for visas or permanent residency that will allow them to access Centrelink payments. But changes from the start of this year require newly arrived residents to wait two years before they are able to receive a financial payment.
“Before the changes we had a woman, a mother, who we unfortunately couldn’t take. She waited and got permanent residency and then left [her partner],” Stewart says. “Now, she would need to wait in a dangerous situation for two years.”
So, what does happen to those women in the two years they wait?
“I think they stay.”
According to the Department of Human Services website, domestic violence sufferers, including those who have “recently moved to Australia and can’t be supported due to [their] situation”, can receive income support payments or crisis payments.
But Department of Human Services general manager Hank Jongen told Fairfax Media non-residents and those completing their residency waiting period are “generally not eligible” for such payments.
While the department may assist domestic violence victims with social work support and third-party referrals, these women would only receive a payment in “very specific circumstances”, he said.
In Stewart’s experience, whether migrant women end up receiving any support varies greatly depending on the type of visa they hold, and whether they have children born in Australia.
It’s a situation that has prompted the coalition to call for greater support for migrant women who have suffered domestic violence, saying their members are witnessing an “increasing number” of women presenting in such circumstances, often being brought into the country only to suffer at the hands of their male Australian partners.
“Commonly [these women] have been discarded – and generally abused – by their partners,” the coalition said in a statement.
“We believe that a woman who has arrived in Australia on a spousal visa, mostly on the promise of a better life, and has subsequently been abused, beaten, deprived, kept as a slave, exploited, discarded should be supported by the Commonwealth government who enabled their entry into Australia in the first instance.”