Aneeta’s violent husband tried to sabotage her Australian visa application. She’s one of hundreds to secure one anyway

<span>Family violence and immigration experts say the data underscores the urgency of expanding provisions to all visa classes and creating a standalone domestic violence visa.</span><span>Photograph: simarik/Getty Images</span>
Family violence and immigration experts say the data underscores the urgency of expanding provisions to all visa classes and creating a standalone domestic violence visa.Photograph: simarik/Getty Images

Aneeta* was already living in fear of her violent and controlling husband when she discovered her abuse was part of a dark pattern.

A call from the Department of Home Affairs alerted her to his past.

Her husband, who had sponsored her to migrate to Australia from South Asia, had previously been charged with domestic violence offences from his prior marriages, which he had also kept secret.

“I was shocked and thought, ‘why didn’t he tell me anything?’,” Aneeta recalls.

Related:Tricked or forced out of Australia: the vulnerable women at the centre of a hidden domestic violence crisis

Within months of migrating to Australia in 2022 with her daughter, the abuse began. Aneeta was isolated, with no friends or family in Australia and was forbidden from leaving the house and talking to people.

“As the days and months passed, I just ignored it and hoped that one day it would be better,” she says.

“But I had to call the police because he was assaulting my daughter. He bit her cheek and even pushed me to the ground.”

Aneeta is among those who have used a safety net for visa applicants, which can provide a pathway to permanent residency without staying with their abuser.

Data provided to Guardian Australia from the Department of Home Affairs reveals the frequency in which the safety net is used, with more than two applicants affected by family violence being granted permanent visas every day.

Over the past five years, an average of 760 primary partner visa applicants annually sought access to the family violence provisions.

Family violence and immigration experts say the data underscores the urgency of expanding the provisions to all visa classes, and creating a standalone domestic violence visa. They also warn of significant barriers, including a lack of crisis accommodation for victim-survivors, for the predominantly female cohort accessing the provisions.

Between 1 July 2023 and 30 April 2024, the department granted 677 permanent partner visas under the provisions – up 19.8% compared with the same period of the previous financial year.

Barriers to accessing support

Guardian Australia last month reported on what migration lawyers and anti-trafficking advocates say is hidden crisis where women, typically those on temporary visas and already subject to domestic violence, are tricked, threatened or forced into leaving Australia.

Aneeta travelled to Australia on a tourist visa after lodging an offshore partner visa application after their marriage. Unable to work on the tourist visa, she was financially dependent on her husband.

When she went to police last year and had an apprehended domestic violence order taken out, he withdrew his sponsorship of her partner visa application.

After leaving the family home with her daughter, her overseas-based immigration agent phoned to say a warning had appeared in her online immigration account – she had 14 days to leave the country.

She had little understanding of her visa rights.

“I was shattered. I was mentally weak at that time, I didn’t understand it,” she says.

“I was very worried about my visa. I thought ‘what do I do and what would happen with me and my daughter in the future?’”

She was connected to a women’s refuge, as her visa status meant she had no access to social security like Centrelink or public housing, and later to the Immigration Advice & Rights Centre (IARC) who helped her access the family violence provisions. She and her daughter were granted permanent residency this year.

Ann Emmanuel, principal solicitor at the IARC, said attempting to access the family violence provisions is an “onerous” task.

The department requires evidence that two parties were in a genuine and continuing relationship prior to the separation, and that family violence occurred during the relationship.

This can include judicial evidence, like an intervention order, or non-judicial evidence, such as a statutory declaration from the applicant, and reports and letters from medical practitioners, psychologists and social workers.

Emmanuel says for some, it can be impossible to prove they were in a relationship with their visa sponsor.

“We’ve had clients where the perpetrator has taken their phones, they’ve wiped everything, they’ve changed passwords … they don’t have shared finances,” she says.

“Many victims are socially isolated, meaning friends and family wouldn’t have recognised them as a couple.”

Emmanuel also says many temporary visa holders are reluctant to contact authorities out of fear their visa will be cancelled, or because of language barriers.

Related: What are Australia’s family law reforms, and how will they help women and children fleeing violence? | Zoe Rathus

Since its creation in 2018, the national advocacy group on women on temporary visas experiencing violence – made up of state and territory peak bodies – has called for a temporary visa for people experiencing family and sexual violence. This would allow victim-survivors to have time to seek social security support, like Medicare, and to leave a perpetrator without fear of deportation.

Migration lawyer Stephanie Vejar, from Women’s Legal Service Victoria, which is a member of the advocacy group, says she hopes the federal government will create a such a visa.

“We need to ensure that people aren’t being deterred from reporting family violence because they won’t have access to Centrelink or other social security benefits like housing or childcare subsidy,” she says.

This month, expanded access to the family violence provisions came into effect to allow prospective marriage visa applicants to access the provisions once in Australia.

Despite these changes, partner visas are one of the few that allow applicants to access the family violence provisions, which creates a pathway to permanent residency if a person can demonstrate their sponsor perpetrated violence against them during their relationship.

Prof Marie Segrave, at the University of Melbourne, says with the government aiming to tackle domestic violence, it is crucial to interrogate who was not accessing the provisions and their reasons why.

*Names have been changed