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Temporary visa holders denied exemptions to travel to Australia on ‘compassionate grounds’ seek clarity on assessment criteria

Harpreet Kaur and Kawaldeep Singh with their son Tegh. Source: Supplied

Hundreds of work visa holders stranded outside Australia have reportedly applied for an exemption to travel back into the country on "humanitarian and compassionate" grounds, but only a handful of those requests have resulted in approvals.

With no end to the travel ban in sight, Tushar Sen, a temporary visa holder who had travelled to India to attend his father’s death anniversary, applied for an exemption to return to Australia.

Mr Sen says he filed for a request to travel on compassionate grounds not one but four times, but his application was rejected every single time.


  • Temporary visa holders stuck offshore denied exemptions to travel on "compassionate" grounds
  • The Department of Home Affairs has a provision to allow travel exemptions
  • Visa holders demand clarity on factors assessed while granting exemptions

The 26-year-old who works as a quantity surveyor with a multinational construction company in Melbourne, says he has every right to travel back into the country as he continues to pay taxes to the Australian government.

How is my suffering not compassionate or compelling? Isn’t the value of my life which I built in Australia hold any value in the eyes of the government?

temo visa holder
Tushar Sen

“I have been rejected four times for an exemption, but I will continue to apply and email the ministers. Can’t believe, I have to fight for something that I have rightfully paid for and should be entitled to,” says Mr Sen,

The Department of Home Affairs has a provision to allow travel exemptions where it is essential, in the national interest or on humanitarian or compassionate grounds.

According to this provision, travellers who believe they have a “compassionate or compelling” reason to travel “urgently” will need to have an exemption from the ABF Commissioner, who will then determine if an applicant is eligible to travel. 

Here are some scenarios where exemptions from the travel ban may apply:

  • foreign nationals travelling at the invitation of the Australian Commonwealth Government for the purpose of assisting in the COVID-19 response or whose entry would be in the national interest
  • critical medical services, including air ambulance and delivery of supplies, that regularly arrive into Australia from international ports
  • people with critical skills (for example, medical specialists, engineers, marine pilots and crews) by exception
  • diplomats accredited to Australia and currently resident in Australia and their immediate family
  • ​case-by-case exceptions for humanitarian or compassionate reasons

Responding to a query on exemptions to travel bans during a hearing of the Senate Committee on COVID-19 on May 5th, Commissioner Michael Outram said he has so far approved 1,170 people to come to Australia on compassionate or humanitarian grounds and has rejected a total of 220 requests.

I have granted around 73 per cent of those requests and denied, therefore, about one-quarter in that particular category, under humanitarian grounds

travel exemption
A snapshot of refusal of application for travel exemption.

When asked how these decisions are made, Mr Outram said every case is weighed individually. He, however, refrained from divulging details about the exact criteria taken into account while assessing these applications.

“I try and be as objective as I possibly can, always reminding myself that ultimately this is based on health advice. We also have other grounds, of critical skills for medical staff, critical skills for others, business leaders, diplomatic, medevac patients and transits,” he added.

Kawaldeep Singh who drives a taxi in Geelong is also looking for a pathway to return to his work and life in Australia, after being stuck in India along with his young family ever since the borders were closed.

The provisional regional visa holder said his family’s application for an exemption was also rejected.

“We were hopeful that our application would be accepted as my wife works at an aged care facility. But then I came across other registered nurses on temporary visas who have also received a rejection despite working in the health care sector,” said Mr Singh.

He said the government must provide clarity on how these decisions are made.

“There is a lot of confusion around which factors are taken into account when applications for exemptions on compassionate grounds are assessed. I think we all deserve some clarification on that matter,” he added.

Sumeet Pal Singh with his family.

There are 2.17 million people presently in Australia on a temporary visa. And some of them like Sumeet Pal Singh are battling on more than one front.

Besides struggling financially, the newly-arrived migrant based in Adelaide is also suffering the agony of separation from his wife and daughters who are unable to travel to Australia due to the current travel ban.

“I am emotionally distraught and heartbroken,” said Mr Singh who has now joined the cohort of hundreds of temporary visa holders pleading with the Australian government to lift the restrictions.

“Please allow my family to travel to Australia. I am finding it difficult to cope-up. Just please tell us when and how they can travel so we can once again start living our lives,” he said.

SBS Punjabi is aware of at least one case of an Indian-origin woman who was allowed to travel to Australia to visit her dying son. 

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