A $20 million trial program has helped more than 1000 women and men on temporary visas in Australia escape violent homes in its first 10 months of operation.

The federal government pilot, run by the Red Cross, offers up to $3000 to people on temporary visas for accommodation, medical or other support they need to leave an abusive relationship.

A program run through the Red Cross to help temporary visa holders experiencing domestic violence escape the relationship has supported more than 1000 people.Credit:Alamy

Since March, 945 women, 59 men and four others have used the program. More than half of those helped were on bridging visas and another 12 per cent were on family or partner visas.

Encouraged by its early success, the government extended the trial by a year in the May budget and set up a similar scheme for all domestic violence victims in October. The broader program, via UnitingCare, offers escaping-violence payments of up to $1500 in cash and a further $3500 to cover things like rental bonds or school fees to help anyone leaving a violent relationship.

Seema Verma, the acting head of the Red Cross’s migration support program in NSW, said people on temporary visas often faced specific challenges in reporting domestic and family violence or accessing support services, including mistrust of, or bad experiences with, organisations.

But she said many of those who had accessed the program already trusted the Red Cross because of its emergency relief for temporary visa holders during the coronavirus pandemic, which helped tens of thousands of people.

“Women are talking about what they have experienced [family and domestic violence] now to us, and they were reluctant to speak to somebody else, any other organisation, because of their previous experiences with different agencies,” Ms Verma said.

One woman the Red Cross helped had a young child and a partner who was closely monitoring her movements and controlling the household’s finances.

However, she had been allowed to go to a counselling service, and the counsellors, Red Cross and a legal service worked together to provide a safe way to communicate with her.

“Then we provided a safe exit pathway for her, basically, and allowed her to get into a refuge and to access secure housing,” Ms Verma said. “We helped her set up her own bank account where now she’s receiving financial assistance from Red Cross.”

‘Women are talking about what they have experienced now to us, and they were reluctant to speak to somebody else.’

In another case, a man in regional Australia turned to the Red Cross because there were no support services or housing available to him to escape a violent relationship. The assistance given under the pilot scheme allowed him to buy food, find crisis accommodation and look at long-term housing options.

Another woman used the money for food and other necessities and school-related expenses for her two children, and the Red Cross helped her negotiate a longer stay in a refuge that had been telling her she had to find other accommodation or return to her home country.

Some of the program’s funding also goes to women’s legal services, which Ms Verma and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said was a crucial link because the uncertainty surrounding temporary visa situations was often used as leverage against people by controlling or violent partners.

“It’s not about duplicating services, but how can we work together and co-ordinate with other services and work around difficult, trying circumstances,” Ms Verma said. “But certainly more needs to be done.

“What we have seen is that $3000 is not enough. We have seen a lot of clients who, even after we provide them financial assistance, they still have unmet needs.”

The program guidelines prevent the Red Cross from giving people more than one payment, but they do link them with other specialist domestic violence and legal services.

Senator Ruston said the pilot program was important for governments to understand the size and scope of specific challenges women and children on temporary visas faced when they were trying to access services.

“We want to ensure that no matter what a woman’s visa status may be, she is able to access help and support when needed, to stay safe from violence and abuse,” she said. “Sadly, many of these women may be suffering in silence but through this program, we hope they are empowered to reach out for support.”

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