Border Force

Australia’s borders are closed and will stay closed until some time next year as coronavirus cases surge in Australia and around the world.

A cap on international arrivals has been implemented, forcing airlines to cancel flights en masse. Qantas has announced all international flights — excluding to New Zealand — will be cancelled until March 2021.

But even if people can book a coveted flight out of the country it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to board it: Australian citizens and permanent residents — even those with dual citizenship — aren’t allowed to leave Australia without a strict exemption pass.

The restrictions also mean people living here on temporary visas can’t return home without giving up their homes and jobs in Australia. Meanwhile some families are stuck countries apart.

Citizens stuck inside

Maria* has dual nationality with Australia and Spain. Her mother, who lives in Spain, has cancer, and Maria wants to be there while she undergoes chemotherapy.

“I was trying to get a hold of a compassionate exemption,” she tells Crikey. “It took three attempts and two months.”

Australians and permanent residents aren’t allowed to leave the country unless they apply for an exemption, granted under compassionate, business or COVID-19 response grounds.

There’s no checklist as to what documents are needed. The online form simply asks for relevant documents and an explanation to be submitted at least one week before departure. The application approval isn’t tracked. 

At least 6180 people have been given approval to travel since the ban was implemented in March; 1720 have been denied.

“You put in the request and that’s it,” Maria says. Her two rejections came back the day before her flights. She’s spent hundreds of dollars rescheduling flights, removalists, and has gone back and forth with her workplace and estate agent to extend her stay. 

“It’s a pain in the arse and a lot of crying,” she says. “You’re stuck indefinitely; everything is indefinite.” 

An Australian Border Force spokesman said the department was receiving a high volume of applications: “[The department] prioritises travel exemption requests based on the intended date of travel and any compelling or compassionate circumstances for travel.”

Rachael Groves has dual nationality with the UK. She’s been back only twice in 12 years. Now after a divorce, a violent relationship and redundancy, she’s facing homelessness if she can’t leave.

“Honestly, if I am not granted an exemption to go home to my mum and live with her, I will be homeless in Sydney,” she says. “I can’t afford to live in Australia.”

Marta*, another Spaniard with dual nationality, hopes to return to Germany where her husband’s family lives.

Her father-in-law is unwell and she’s set to start a new job with HelloFresh, a food delivery service which has been classified as essential by the German government.

André, Marta, and their two-year-old daughter, Michelle.

“My company wants me to be there, they’re putting pressure on me,” she says. Her exemption requests have been rejected twice.

She’s heard of people leaving Australia with their secondary passport, something you’re not supposed to do. It’s a risk she’s not willing to take.

When leaving is too costly 

Claire O Hara and her husband, Scott, moved to Australia from the UK in March just before the borders closed after her husband was offered a research opportunity.

Her husband started work immediately but O Hara had planned to visit before flying back to the UK to rent out their home, sell their car and ship their belongings before moving to Australia and settling down.

Now if she leaves Australia she won’t be allowed back in.

“We gave up our lives in the UK. The jobs we had are no longer there waiting for us,” she says.

O Hara estimates that paying for their accommodation in Australia, plus their lives in the UK, costs about $10,000 a month. 

Claire and Scott O Hara

It’s a similar story for Alima*, her husband, Zafar* and their 17-month-old daughter. After travelling to Pakistan for a holiday, her husband made it back before the border closed but Alima and her daughter couldn’t get flights. 

Now her family faces a tough decision: stay apart until the borders reopen, or have Zafar return to Pakistan, giving up their home, his job and — depending on how long they stay away — their visas in Australia.

Along with more than $4000 on visa fees, $12,000 on their daughters’ delivery and five years of university fees for Zafar’s education, Alima said it’s the emotional investment they don’t want to lose. 

“Pakistan is not our home. Australia is home for my daughter who was born there and is being brought up there,” she says. “[Our daughter] is growing every day and her dad is missing out on all her milestones.” 

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to Crikey’s questions. 

*Maria and Marta asked for their surnames to be withheld. Some other names have been changed for privacy.