Australia travel restrictions: The brutal cost of the international travel ban

If you want to have a harrowing week at work, try appealing for and then reading through more than 500 emails and messages from people whose families and lives have been torn apart.

That's more than 500 tales of pain and heartbreak, more than 500 stories of separation and anxiety brought about by Australia's current travel bans, rules that no doubt had good intentions but seem so subjective and ridiculous now that they're properly examined.

These people wrote in response to a column published last week that questioned the strictness of Australia's current travel bans: right now Australian citizens are not allowed out of the country without an exemption approved by Border Force; no one is allowed in, either, without prior approval, and then only if they fit under a daily cap on numbers and can find an airfare that's reasonably priced. And these stories are the consequences.

Australians, unfortunately, need to get comfortable with this stuff. You as a citizen need to read these stories and accept that these are the necessary consequences of an incredibly tough regime enforced by your government. And if you can't get comfortable with it then you need to ask why this is being done in your name.

Because that's what is happening. This is being done for you, for your health, for your safety. Are you happy with that?

These are just a few of the stories I've been sent in the last seven days. I've left out literally hundreds that have just dealt in garden-variety pain, the people who can't see their children, their parents, their boyfriends or girlfriends, their fiancés, their spouses, and have no idea why, or when they will again. Here, instead, are some of the most troubling:

  • An Australian woman was living in Tanzania with her Tanzanian husband. She fell pregnant just before the COVID-19 pandemic and on government advice returned to Australia when it struck, while her husband stayed in Tanzania to work. As the seriousness of the pandemic increased, she applied for a visa for her husband to join her. After several months and plenty of hard work he was eventually granted that visa and he booked a flight to Australia. However, thanks to the cap on international arrivals he has now been bumped off his flights five times over several months. He missed the birth of his baby girl. He still hasn't seen her.
  • An Australian man's father died suddenly in India, leaving his elderly mother with no carer. The man can't leave his job in Australia as he is his household's sole earner. He has applied to have his mother come to join him in Australia so he can look after her – that application has been rejected.
  • An Australian man's wife returned to her family in Vietnam to have their first baby. She now can't get back to Australia, and he can't leave to get to Vietnam. He's never met his child. "There is no plan and no hope," he wrote. "I am utterly destroyed and my marriage is on a knife edge."
  • A flight attendant and Australian permanent resident who works between San Francisco and Sydney, and who has two children with disabilities, is allowed to quarantine at home in Sydney when she's on flight layovers, as she is considered an "essential worker". However, on her longer monthly breaks, NSW Health does not consider her essential, which means she would have to quarantine for a fortnight in a hotel at her own cost every month. Because of that ruling she now can't fly the Sydney route and is forced to base herself in San Francisco. She's not sure when she will be able to see her children for any reasonable length of time again.
  • An Australian permanent resident's wife went home to India to give birth to their first child, and can't get back into Australia because of visa issues and now flight availability, plus the couple can't afford the cost of hotel quarantine. The man hasn't even met his six-month-old child.
  • An Australian woman wanted to visit her 87-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia, in the UK. Her application was denied, in same week the Australian cricket team flew to England.
  • An Australian woman is married to a South African man. She returned to Australia at the beginning of the pandemic, and is now applying to have her husband join her here; however, the Department of Home Affairs won't process his visa application until he submits his biometrics in person at an Australian Visa Application Centre. The AVAC in South Africa has been closed since March 27. So, no biometrics, no application, no travel.
  • An Australian man has travelled to the UAE to restart his job there, but his wife and two children have been denied permission to leave Australia and join him. He's not sure when he'll see them again.

To reiterate, I'm not calling for open international borders. None of the people who have emailed me are, either. It's possible to recognise the seriousness of COVID-19 and the need for restrictions while also appealing for more compassion and common sense in the way those restrictions are enforced.

It's also possible to recognise that there are grey areas here, there are nuances that aren't taken into account by current rules. There are so many families and others whose circumstances fall outside of the "you should'a come home earlier" narrative, people with lives overseas, with jobs and families that prevented an immediate dash back to Australia, or an immediate departure home.

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We're a nation of migrants living in a globalised world, where almost everyone has family or friends or partners living in another country. And what about those caught in similar situations because they can't even move from state to state? These people deserve sympathy. They deserve a smarter, fairer, better system.

This is the brutal cost of Australia's travel bans. I'm not comfortable with it. Are you?

Has reading these stories changed your view on Australia's travel bans? Do you think changes need to be made? How long do you think we should continue like this?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

​See also: The ban on international travel seems to have no end game

See also: The countries open to Australian tourists (but we're not allowed to go)

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