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Coronavirus border restrictions leave dual citizens in limbo, unable to easily leave the country

ABC Health logo ABC Health 8/07/2021

When Joanne Cowan's husband died of cancer in February this year the one thing she wanted was to be closer to her only remaining family.

After acting as the sole carer for her husband through his illness and a short stint in palliative care — a period she describes as the "worst time" in her life — Cowan made the decision to sell her Adelaide home of 40 years, pack her belongings, and move permanently to Manchester where her only child and two-year-old grandson live.

But her plans were thrown into chaos last month when she received notice from the Department of Home Affairs that her application for a travel exemption had been denied.

"I was angry, in tears, I couldn't believe it," the dual Australian-British citizen said.

"I believed it would be a tick, 'yes, here's your exemption' … I am fully vaccinated, I'm not a risk to Australia in leaving, I'm not a risk to the United Kingdom with going and they don't require me to jump through any hoops at all."

Last month, Cowan fell in her garage and fractured her wrist sparking further anxiety about her isolation. "If I hit my head and knocked myself out, nobody would have known," she said. She's also eager to spend more time with her grandson, Alex, who only knows his "Nanna" through a computer screen.

With the deadline of her house sale looming, the 59-year-old quickly lodged a second application. Sitting alone in her empty home nine days later, she received the news she had been desperate to hear: she had been approved for an exemption.

"I started to tear up and spoke out loud to my hubby in heaven, 'we are going'."

'It comes down to who you are'

Cowan is one of thousands of people at the mercy of Australia's opaque travel exemption system, almost 16 months after the Federal Government introduced a ban on people entering or leaving the country. 

In order to travel internationally, Australian citizens and permanent residents are required to apply for an exemption through the Department of Home Affairs listing their reason for travel as one of six government approved categories. These include residents who are leaving Australia for three months or longer for "a compelling reason" or people who are travelling for a shorter time "on compassionate or compelling grounds". 

Between March 25 last year — when the restrictions were introduced — and 30 June, almost 363,800 applications have been lodged by Australian citizens and permanent residents seeking an exemption to leave the country, according to data provided by the Australian Border Force. 

Of these, just over 94,000 — or about 26 per cent — were denied. 

Testimony posted in community-run Facebook groups seeking to help people make their way through the process reveal applicants are often forced to endure multiple rejections before they are approved, with no reason given for the change in response.

One man hoping to relocate overseas for work said he received 15 rejections before he was approved this week.

An ABF spokesperson said they could not provide data on the average number of applications made by a single person before they were approved. 

"The ABF Commissioner may consider requests for travel on a case-by-case basis where there are compelling circumstances," they said in a statement on Thursday.

"Refused requests generally failed to support their claims or did not meet the guidelines for an exemption to be approved."

'I feel like a prisoner'

Rejections do not include the reasons why the application was denied, leaving applicants guessing what they need to change in their application to be accepted. 

"That's was the most upsetting part, you just get this 'no'," said Melbourne resident Anthony, who did not wish to use his full name. "You can't reply to it, you're just left out in the cold."

He and his pregnant partner of seven years are hoping to relocate to Denmark to be with her family before October when she'll no longer be able to travel.

They first applied for an exemption last month on the grounds they were expecting a baby and wanted to "begin a new chapter in their lives" overseas. They included evidence of their relationship, that they've lived in Denmark before, Anthony's dual Danish-Australian citizenship and a statement that they intended to remain in Denmark for the long-term future, but were told they were not exempt days later.

They're now in the process of getting together more documentation to support a second application. 

"I kind of feel like a prisoner in my own country, Anthony said. "I'm not going around joyriding, I couldn't have any more legitimate reason and they knock it back and don't give a proper reason."

'A farce of the system'

Migration agents working with people trying to secure exemptions say the process of putting together numerous applications is time-consuming and has led to some people threatening to give up their permanent residency so they can leave.

"We are putting in multiple applications and we're just putting in more and more documents to prove the same thing," said John Hourigan, national president of the Migration Institute of Australia. 

"There's just no certainty around the applications, people are applying multiple times and with the luck of the draw they might find one Border Force officer who will actually say 'we'll approve this'.

"That makes a farce of the system."

Mary Crock, a professor of public law at the University of Sydney and migration specialist, said it was unclear why people who were initially rejected were having their applications approved later, but agreed that there appeared to be inconsistencies in the assessment process.

"My inquiries suggest that the way people are getting around this is to go to their local Member of Parliament," she said.

"That's not fair of course, because it really comes down to who you are, not what the law is."

As far as the law goes, Professor Crock said the Federal Government has sweeping powers under the Biosecurity Act to limit travel in and out of the country.

"The reason they do that, we're told, is that they do not want to be pressured to readmit people," she said, "and although a citizen can say they want to leave forever, in fact they have a legal right to return."

Other democracies similar to Australia have not banned their residents from travelling overseas. For example, New Zealand only strongly recommends its citizens do not travel overseas, while Canada has urged people to reconsider non-essential travel. 

As a result, Hourigan said some travellers are using the trans-Tasman travel bubble as a loophole, travelling through New Zealand before flying out to their final destination. 

"I don't think the ordinary Australian understands that people everywhere else in the world are now booking holidays and travelling around," Professor Crock said.

"Very often what's happening now are other countries are recognising vaccine passports, to say if you've been vaccinated you'll be allowed in without quarantining or you'll be allowed to come and go.

"We are nowhere near that point, unfortunately."

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