By Ryma Tchier
Grace had already left one abusive relationship with the father of her daughter in the Philippines, when she met a man she thought was the one.
The man with the kind words wooed her parents as much as her, and she thought it would be a fresh start … a chance to leave the slums of Manila.
“He’s really nice, he’s like an angel to me … and because I long for a man who protects me, that’s why I say: ‘Wow, I think I found right person,'” said Grace (not her real name).
But her lover’s behaviour changed as soon as she arrived in Australia — he was physically and sexually abusive and controlling.
Sexual abuse is a taboo subject in Australia’s Filipina community.
But Grace, a 50-year-old book-keeper, decided she had to act when her partner began to make sexual advances towards her 10-year-old daughter.
“It came to a point that he was treating me as his sex slave,” she said.
“Then one time I noticed that he was trying to have sexual advances to my daughter. That’s when I decided to plan to leave him.”
Domestic violence has been getting plenty of attention in Victoria following notable cases like the killing of Luke Batty and the Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2015.
Temporary visa holders not eligible
But the foreign-born partners of abusive Australian perpetrators often fall through the cracks, and it’s due to a legal loophole in the Migration Act.
According to a report by Monash University, out of 36,4503 annually approved temporary partner visa applications made by women, 9,112 are assumed to be suffering domestic violence.
But there is hope for migrant women who want to be free of their sponsors altogether.
If eligible, women on partner visa schemes who prove they are suffering from domestic violence from their sponsor will then be granted permanent residency.
But for women on temporary visas, it’s a different story, according to Luba Tanevski of InTouch Multicultural Centre for Family Violence.
‘They are maybe holders of temporary working visas, or business visas or student visas and unfortunately, they have no eligibility,” she said.
“It’s very hard for the services to support those clients, those clients have no access to any payments, they are not eligible for any housing and basically no exit plan for them.”
Grace had arrived on a fiancee visa, but her former husband had not lodged the appropriate paperwork which would have allowed her to stay legally.
She and her daughter were facing deportation after being forcibly removed from a women’s refuge centre once they discovered her temporary status.
From 2015 – 2016, only 403 out of 529 applications for family violence provisions were successful.
Victims need to look for help themselves
Jessica (not her real name) was working as a nurse when met her former husband online in the Philippines.
She was in a 10-month relationship with him when she arrived in Australia on a tourist visa.
That was before he began violently abusing her when he was drunk.
“It became so intense, he started choking me, hitting me and saying ‘it’s all your fault’. So I was thinking it was totally normal in a relationship, so I gave him a chance,” she said.
“He was so physically abusive, that I had to run away … but [he] got hold of my passport, my debit card and hid it from me, he would turn off the landline and close all the doors and windows so I couldn’t get out of the house.”
It was through sheer luck that her neighbours were a Filipino family. They took her in and connected her to their church group and led her to safety.
Fear keeping them in abusive relationships
Community outreach groups are often the last ray of hope for these women and Neselie Gavanzos of Gabriela Australia has helped both Grace and Jessica get back on their feet.
“It really [falls on] on the hand of the victims themselves to look for help,” she said.
“We are the ones equipped to understand the cultural lens to disable that fear from the woman from seeking support because that is being used by the perpetrator.”
Luba Tanevski said perpetrators deliberately prevent their victims from gaining access to permanent residency by renewing their visas as an assertion of power followed through with threats.
“It’s a constant control in the relationship and threats of ‘if you’re going to complain to authorities here in Australia, they’ll deport you immediately’.
“And they keep quiet and they still remain in that violent situation because of fear.”
“The violence happened here,” said Ms Gavanzos.
“Why are they sending this overseas to their home countries? When it is their permanent residents, their citizens, that have perpetrated the violence.”
Advocates are pushing for an amendment to include women on temporary visas within the legal safety net.
Proposed changes are before the Senate that would enforce stricter criteria on sponsors and prevent them from sponsoring women if known to be abusive.