Australia’s strict international border closures have been celebrated for saving the country from countless cases, but separated families are starting to question why some people are allowed to leave and not others.
Between March 25 and July 31, 22,640 Australians were given permission to fly overseas despite Australia’s strict border closure.
Almost half of those, 10,780, were allowed to leave on compassionate grounds.
But the application program is highly secretive, with Border Force refusing to publicly reveal on what grounds compassionate exemptions are granted.
Border Force did not answer questions about what grounds are used to determine exemptions.
Those applying for permission to leave report submitting the same applications multiple times before being granted a visa, responses coming back that don’t match their applications, and rejections within ten minutes. All of this leads them to question if their applications were even read.
For those who aren’t Australian citizens, getting into the country is almost impossible.
Sydney woman Tanvi Singh has applied to have her elderly mother move from India to Australia seven times now. Each requests has been rejected, though she has no idea why.
Mrs Singh travelled to India in February to say goodbye to her dying father. She came home to Sydney and her husband, Sardeep, went to India in her place.
Her father passed away, leaving her mother without support – and back home Mrs Singh suffered a miscarriage.
“I’ve applied seven times for an exemption to travel for her, so my husband can bring my mother back with him,” she said.
“First, no one even bothered to reply, then we started calling Canberra, just to ask them what’s going on. I could see they were giving exemptions to other husbands and wives.
“But I don’t think my reason was compassionate enough for them.”
The strict controls mean parents are not considered as immediate family members under COVID-19 exemptions. But Mrs Singh points to the fact that for any other visa application parents are considered immediate family members.
The couple does not want her husband to leave her grieving mother alone – so they’re stuck. Separated by a pandemic.
The grief of losing her first child and the uncertainty of when she will see her family again has meant Mrs Singh has fallen into depression.
“I’ve been very sick lately, I’ve been taking medicine to sleep. I have anxiety and depression. I want to be with my family,” Mrs Singh said.
“After the miscarriage, my iron levels dropped to five, I can’t drive, I can’t do anything. My doctor recommended getting regular iron infusions. But there’s nobody to take me home, cook food for me. No one is there to help me, mentally.”
I feel helpless, I feel stuck.”
The border program has been running for five months, and undoubtedly helped in keeping the country’s case numbers down, but with one in three Australians now born overseas, those separated from their families are accusing the process of being based on random selection.
The unusual thing about Australia’s rules is that they stop people leaving the country, as well as coming in.
Jess Doherty was just about to move to the US to be with her partner, Johnathan, when Australia shut its borders.
It took her five applications before she was granted permission to leave.
“The first one came back ‘denied’ within 10 minutes which wouldn’t have allowed them to look at my application and make a decision,” Ms Doherty said.
“I think the second one was denied within two hours.
So I asked them, can you please explain to me why my exemption is being denied?
“And they said that attending a family wedding does not meet the requirements. I don’t even know where they got that from.That was no part of my application whatsoever.”
Ms Doherty’s application was finally approved, but the lack of transparency around the process made it stressful.
“It’s definitely difficult. I think just not knowing was the hardest part,” she said.
Is the border closure even legal?
Senior lecturer in human rights law at Australia National University Kate Ogg said Australia’s international border closure could be illegal.
The strongest legal argument that those separated by the border closure have is “that travel bans are in violation of the ‘right to leave’ in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” Dr Ogg said.
“Australia ratified that treaty in 1980, so it’s legally bound by the rights in that treaty. One of the rights in that treaty is freedom of movement, and an aspect of that is to be able to leave any country including your own,” she explained.
A government is allowed to restrict movement to protect public health, but Australia has implemented a severe border closure, which could be in breach of the treaty, Dr Ogg said.
“You would think Australia is in compliance, but the UN human rights committee, which is the body that supervises the implementation, has said that when placing restrictions on freedom of movement those restrictions must be the least intrusive method possible,” she said.
I think the strongest argument people have is that a complete ban on international travel is not the least intrusive method.
“There are other intrusive options. Another method would be to allow people to leave but require them to be tested first.”
But it is keeping us safe?
Monash University Professor of Medicine and physician Paul Komesaroff said border control measures had largely been effective.
“I think the system that has been put in place has worked reasonably well apart from the disaster in Victoria, which I think is rotten luck,” Professor Komesaroff said.
“I would support a continuous process that allowed some degree of travel, both into Australia and out, for compassionate reasons, that is appropriately and rigorously controlled.
“But compassion has never been part of Australia’s immigration policy and the minister responsible is Peter Dutton, who has acted with a cruel approach on many occasions.”