Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram has said he does not have a “factor-weighting scoring model” for making decisions on exemption requests from people seeking to enter Australia amidst a travel ban.
Mr Outram told a Senate Committee on COVID-19 that the Border Force has been approving a volume of applications from “people in family groups” who have been separated due to the border closures.
“Our general policy is to approve those seeking to attend the funeral of a close family member or visit close family members in critical care at the end of their life.
“We're tending to approve those seeking to visit a close family member who's seriously or critically ill and who can't get appropriate support and those who are the partner of a person who is in Australia, including temporary visa holders, and who is in the final trimester of pregnancy or is otherwise due to give birth. So we have been focusing on the issue of people who are in family groups. In fact, in some cases, those people in family groups don't actually need an exemption; there are standing policy exemptions,” Mr Outram told the committee on Tuesday.
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‘We don’t want families to be split up’
During the hearing, when Greens Senator Nick McKim raised the plight of families who have been forced to live in different countries due to the travel ban, Mr Outram said he was “surprised to hear” that there were still people in the family groups who remained separated from their loved ones and were denied exemptions to travel.
“I'm surprised to hear there are still people in family groups, children and so on and so forth who are separated by this measure and that we've refused those,” he said.
In the hearing and later on during a media interview, Mr Outram reiterated that he would revisit some of those cases on compassionate grounds.
“We don’t want families to be split up. And so, what we’re going to do is have a look at those cases where we’ve declined some of those applications,” he told the Today Show.
SBS Punjabi has reached out to the ABF for an insight into the review process and has also sought clarification on the matter if applications of family members of temporary visa holders would also be revisited. We are awaiting a response.
What about the temporary visa holders?
While the Commissioner's response in the Senate hearing has brought a glimmer of hope for people in the family groups, things aren’t looking up for hundreds of visa holders blocked out of the country.
Ajay Pal Gill and Akruti Patel who met in Sydney and fell in love had travelled to India to get married in February this year. They have since been stuck in Punjab with no hope to return until the borders open.
The young couple has applied for multiple exemptions under critical skills but has been refused each time. They have demanded that the decision-making process should be more "forthcoming and transparent."
“I work as a warehouse supervisor with Australia Post while Akruti works as a pharmacy assistant. While we both believe we have critical skills and strong credentials, we have been denied exemption to travel,” said the 25-year-old.
Mr Gill's wife, Akruti also wrote to the Prime Minister’s office outlining their predicament, but that too failed to create an impact.
What are the criteria?
As per the latest data, the ABF received over 87,600 travel exemption requests as at 31 July 2020 and at least 10,440 foreign nationals were approved to enter Australia till June 30. Out of the approved requests, only 1,740 individuals were allowed to enter on compassionate grounds.
Mr Outram told the committee that each request he receives is different, and they try hard to ensure some “consistency and fairness” in deciding the cases.
“No two cases are exactly the same. I haven't got a factor-weighted scoring model that gives an outcome here. We're seeking for decision-makers to be consistent, but there is of course, at the end of the day, in every decision-making process, an element of subjectivity.”
He added that since the process was first implemented in March, it has “evolved quite significantly over the past few months.
“We've changed IT platforms. The delegations have been pushed down to more junior officers. I now get support from the Department of Home Affairs, because they obviously have people who are accustomed to making visa decisions and there are some similarities in this case,” said the commissioner.
Explaining the criteria further, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told SBS Punjabi that cases are decided on their merits and on the basis of the information supplied by the applicants.
“Decisions by the ABF Commissioner to grant exemptions for travel for compassionate and compelling circumstances must be balanced against the Government’s intent for imposing the travel ban and the health risks posed to the Australian community by international travellers,” said the spokesperson.
How long does it take to process a request for exemption?
Mr Outram said as per the mechanism they have been able to build, they seek to turn around inbound applications within seven days, and, if it's an urgent case, they aim to provide a decision in 48 hours.
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