'Time for action': three international students allegedly murdered amid coronavirus

Else Kennedy
·5-min read

Brazilian nursing student Daiane Pelegrini was allegedly stabbed to death at her western Sydney home in August. David Tran, a man she had reportedly dated, has been charged with her murder and the case is currently ongoing.

Just a few months earlier, in a Facebook post, she had responded to Scott Morrison’s announcement that international students unable to support themselves should “make your way home.” She wrote: “Is this the Aussie spirit? Is this how you treat people who are in your country and vulnerable?”

The 33-year-old is one of three international students killed in suspected domestic violence incidents in a four-month period during the coronavirus pandemic.

Such tragedies advocates say may stem from systemic injustice against women on temporary visas which they have been warning governments about for years. And it has only been made worse by the fallout from Covid-19.

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“It’s heartbreaking,” says Monique Dam, the advocacy and prevention manager at Domestic Violence New South Wales.

In April, Domestic Violence NSW and 66 other domestic violence organisations signed an open letter to federal and state ministers urging them to “act immediately” to provide women on temporary visas experiencing violence access to Medicare, social security and housing.

“It’s really time for action to be taken because women and children’s lives are at risk,” Dam says.

The letter calls for access to Medicare, social security, housing, free legal support, free interpreting services and national support packages modelled on Victoria’s flexible support initiative for temporary visa holders experiencing violence.

In May, a month after the open letter was signed, 27-year-old nursing student Kamaljeet Sidhu from India died from a stab wound to the neck at her home in Quakers Hill in western Sydney. Her husband, Baltej Singh Lailna, has been charged with her murder and that case is also ongoing.

She was “very gentle and very loyal”, says Harinder Singh, founder of the Harman foundation, who said that she supported her in the weeks before she died. The foundation runs a women’s refuge in western Sydney and a crisis helpline for the Indian diaspora community, both staffed by volunteers and funded through community donations.

It has been previously reported that Sidhu took out an apprehended violence order against Lailna a month before she died but the pair continued to live at the same address.

On 28 June, Chinese international student Liqun Pan was found dead in her unit in Sydney’s Wolli Creek. Her boyfriend was found severely injured on the pavement below the block of flats. Police are investigating the possibility of an attempted murder-suicide but have been unable to speak to her boyfriend due to his injuries.

Pan’s parents, who were unable to travel to Australia for her funeral due to coronavirus restrictions, said in a statement her death had plunged the family into “an abyss of sorrow” and they waited for the “day of revelation” when they would have some answers.

Related: NSW government urges federal Coalition to double paid domestic violence leave

On 4 August, the day after Pelegrini’s death, the National Advocacy Group for Women on Temporary Visas sent a follow-up letter to state and federal governments, repeating its list of recommendations from April.

The Women’s Safety Ministers group responded in a statement on 7 August. Supporting women on temporary visas was a priority, it said, and “governments will work together to explore data on the extent of and responses to the issue”.

For Dam, that’s not enough. “It’s really not enough to say that they’re not going to take action unless that data is available – because it is available,” she says.

A survey released by Domestic Violence NSW in July found 82% of NSW service providers were unable to provide temporary visa holders with long-term accommodation when requested, 45% had been unable to offer counselling, 39% had been unable to offer financial assistance and 36% had been forced to turn people away from crisis accommodation.

Some services reported they were unable to refer the clients to another service because none would take them.

Many of these vulnerable women have lost work because of the pandemic. A report released by the University of NSW and the University of Technology Sydney in September revealed 70% of temporary visa holders either lost their job or most of their hours or shifts after 1 March.

Services can struggle “if a woman has no income and is not eligible for any income”, says Catherine Gander, chief executive of Domestic Violence West in western Sydney. The service will need to cover costs including “medical, health, food, transport and childcare”.

Although there is a patchwork of emergency payments that temporary visa holders in different states may be able to access, “it’s one-off funding”, says Michal Morris, chief executive of InTouch multicultural domestic violence support.

“For many people [on temporary visas], there are very few options available to them,” Dam says. “And that’s why people decide to stay with the violent perpetrator.”

Related: Criminalising coercive control may not make women and children safer, family violence advocates warn

Harinder Singh fears what could happen to other women.

After one of her clients went to Centrelink to apply for child support from her abusive ex-husband, the man arrived at the woman’s house and smashed in the back door.

“You will be the next” he warned.

Singh says specific services are needed to support people from different cultural backgrounds, but services like hers are in desperate need of government funding. The Harman foundation has applied for both state and federal grants but is still awaiting outcomes.

The co-chairs of the Women’s Safety Ministers group, senator Anne Ruston, the minister for families and social services, and senator Marise Payne, the minister for women, were approached for comment.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.