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Nearly 800 people stuck offshore exempted from Australia’s travel ban on ‘compassionate’ grounds

Australian Border Force (Representational image). Source: ABF

In the three months since the Australian government began to impose border restrictions, the Australian Border Force (ABF) has granted 1,905 travel exemptions and refused 253 applications between February 2 and May 6 this year.

Of the total number of travel exemptions, 801 approvals were awarded to people who applied to return to Australia for compassionate reasons, while a total of 195 applications were refused in the same category, according to the data released by ABF.


Highlights:

  • ABF has exempted 801 from Australia's travel ban on compassionate grounds
  • ABF has also approved 121 applications from non-Australian students
  • The figures were revealed as part of ABF's response to the Select committee on COVID-19

Speaking at a Senate hearing on COVID-19 earlier this month, ABF Commissioner Michael Outram said there was “no-factor weighted scoring model” for processing these applications and every one of these cases was “difficult” to assess.

"I have to balance the advice ... that the vast majority of COVID-19 cases have been imported from people coming from overseas and there's a need to protect our country and community from COVID-19," he said.

"On the other hand, in some of the welfare or humanitarian cases - it's kind of heartbreaking in a way because people would ordinarily be able to come and see people who are critically ill, terminally ill or who have passed."

Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram.
Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram.
AAP

He, however, did not disclose the assessment criteria used to make these decisions.

“I try and be as objective as I possibly can, always reminding myself that ultimately this is based on health advice,” he added.

Tushar Sen has been struggling to find his way back to his work and life he left behind in Melbourne ever since the travel ban was announced nearly two months ago.

The 26-year-old temporary visa holder currently stranded in India's capital city New Delhi told SBS Punjabi that he has applied for an exemption to return to Australia on compassionate grounds, at least four times.

Tushar Sen
Temporary visa holder Tushar Sen's application for exemption has been denied four times.
Supplied

But each time, Mr Sen's application was rejected, and he was told that his circumstances did not meet the assessment criteria.

“My application for an exemption has been rejected each time and all I get is a standard response from the Department of Home Affairs that I failed to meet the criteria. But what is this criterion? There is no information available as to what defines compassionate reasons,” said Mr Sen.

Canberra-based migration lawyer Ben Watt said the Department is reluctant to publish the basis of exemptions in this category to dissuade a large number of non-Australian citizens and residents from applying.

“See, all temporary visa holders want to return to the country. So by not publishing what entails compassionate grounds and creating confusion around the criteria, the authorities are trying to discourage people from applying for these travel exemptions,” said Mr Watt during a previous interview with SBS Punjabi.

ABF data
Statistics for 'Inbound Commissioner Discretion' from 2 February 2020 to 6 May 2020, as provided by ABF.
SBS

Besides granting exemptions to people on compassionate grounds, protection visa holders and people with critical skills particularly in fields related to medicine, form the other two categories that received a significant number of approvals.

ABF also approved a total of 121 applications from non-Australian students.

“We also have other grounds, of critical skills for medical staff, critical skills for others, business leaders, diplomatic, medevac patients and transits,” said Mr Outram.

For foreign travellers wanting to transit through Australia, the ABF allowed 4967 travellers between February 2 and May 6, as per the data.

Passengers walk to their flights at Sydney International Airport
Passengers walk to their flights at Sydney International Airport. (Representation image).
AAP

In addition to these numbers, the Border Force told the Senate committee that it has also permitted Australian citizens and permanent residents to travel outside the country, after the government imposed a ban on their outward travel on March 25.

Since then, the ABF has allowed 2,937 Australians to leave the country but refused applications from 1,065 people.

Explaining the reasons behind these rejections, Mr Outram said most often these applications are rejected for providing “insufficient supporting evidence.”

“This is often due to insufficient supporting evidence being provided in their application. Applicants are encouraged to re-apply and submit the necessary information so their travel exemption could be considered,” he said.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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