WOMEN'S refuges are struggling to shelter an increasing number of migrant women who don't have permanent visas.

The number of migrant women claiming family violence when applying for permanent visas has increased by 45 per cent in the past year. The number of women seeking help at the Immigrant Women's Domestic Violence Service has also risen 10 per cent.

These women are entirely dependent on charity as they are ineligible for Centrelink benefits or housing assistance while their claims are processed - and some cases drag on for years.

Women typically stay in a refuge for up to six weeks - migrants waiting for their application to be resolved typically stay for months, sometimes for more than a year, even though crisis services receive no funding to work with them.

''We'll always accommodate women immediately,'' says Deb Bryant, chief executive of the statewide, 24-hour Women's Domestic Violence Crisis Service, where the proportion of women without permanent residency at their emergency shelter has jumped from 27 per cent to 36 per cent in the past two years.

''We have had women in refuge for over two years,'' said Mary Anderson, who runs the Salvation Army's Crossroads Family Violence Service. ''We recently turned away two women without permanent residency as we have had to make a decision to only work with one or maybe at the most two women without residency at any one time.''

Crossroads is still financially supporting a Somalian refugee client with six children whose residency application drags on six years after she reported her husband to the police for sexually assaulting a niece - for which he was subsequently charged.

Olive's Place, a shelter run by St Vincent de Paul, housed 11 temporary migrants in the past 12 months, one of whom stayed for 10 months, living entirely on charity as she gave birth and waited for residency.

The number of women applying for a ''family violence'' exemption that allows them to stay in Australia after a relationship breaks down is still small -rising from 705 in 2009-10 to 1023 in 2010-11 - but they are only part of the story.

Only migrants on spouse visas can apply for the family violence exemption. Women on other temporary visas, such as the wives of international students or temporary skilled migrants, face deportation if they leave a relationship. Nor can battered wives seek asylum in Australia, as domestic violence is not one of the criteria for granting a protection visa to refugees.

Women's and migrants' legal services have called on the Attorney-General to create a new visa that would extend the family violence exemption to almost all temporary visas.

New Attorney-General Nicola Roxon is expected to consider these reforms in the new year when her department responds to a family violence discussion paper that is under preparation by the Australian Law Reform Commission.