A visa introduced two years ago to allow foreign spouses to stay longer and even work here has quietly become a lifeline for foreign brides abused by their husbands.
The Straits Times has learnt of at least five abused wives who have the visa, which enables such women to gain financial independence and escape their husbands' control, said social workers.
Called the Long-Term Visit Pass-Plus (LTVP+), the visa was introduced two years ago to allow foreign spouses longer stays here of three to five years.
Some 7,500 foreign spouses have since gone under it, said Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Teo Chee Hean in Parliament last month.
The authorities weigh up factors such as whether there are citizen children in the family and the length of the marriage to decide who qualifies for the pass, which also allows spouses to enjoy hospitalisation subsidies.
Court figures show that about 10 per cent of all requests for personal protection orders over the past three years were made by foreign wives against their husbands. This means about 300 requests a year from foreign wives.
It is an increase from about 2 to 3 per cent of protection orders in the preceding five years.
Many wives who suffer abuse hold visas that are usually valid for between three months and a year.
Some are given only a social visit pass, valid for even shorter periods, and they have to shuttle in and out of Singapore - often with their young children in tow - when their passes expire, said Ms Lorraine Lim, administrator and counsellor at Star Shelter.
"Now, they don't need to go through the hassle and expense of travelling up and down, and the new pass enables them to be financially independent as they can now get a job," she added.
"This, in turn, gives them the financial means to leave abusive marriages and better support themselves and their children."
Star Shelter has housed about 10 foreign women over the past year. Two of them have managed to get the LTVP+ so far and are working as a waitress and cashier respectively.
The Archdiocesan Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People (ACMI), a Catholic group helping abused foreign wives, has seen two LTVP+ cases in the past two years.
The Covenant Family Service Centre has seen one case so far. "The numbers are small because not many know about this, but I can see its potential," said assistant director Cindy Ng.
When contacted, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority could not confirm the number of abused foreign brides on the long-term pass. "Each application for immigration facilities is carefully assessed on its own merits," said a spokesman.
While the visa scheme is not designed to help abused foreign brides, social workers urged the Government not to take away this unexpected source of aid.
"It provides a lifeline to the women, who have a way out of the grip of their abusive husbands," said Ms Tan Ching Yee, a committee member of Trans Safe Centre, which helps victims of family violence.
For Ms Elizabeth Tan, an ACMI case worker, the scheme is a practical way of helping abused foreign brides. "Once we accept them into our country, there is the duty and responsibility to help them, especially when they are vulnerable and mothers to (our) children."
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.