When Perth resident Visha Sunyasi and her family rushed to Mauritius in March 2020 for a family emergency, she never imagined they would be stranded there two years later.
Ms Sunyasi, 36, held a Bridging Visa B (BVB) that was valid until July 2020. It expired while she was stuck overseas after COVID-19 saw Australia's borders slam shut.
Now, she has no way of returning home to Australia, painfully putting her dog for adoption and paying rent for an uninhabited residence.
"We love Australia, we did everything we could to help Australia's economy. So why leave us like this now? Why just leave us with nothing?" Ms Sunyasi told SBS News.
"We just want our life back."
Visha Sunyasi, who hasn't seen her dog in two years, has been forced to put him up for adoption. Source: SBS
The bridging divide
Since November 2021, the government has made a series of announcements on visa changes with the aim of bolstering Australia's economy by allowing skilled migrants into the country.
It comes as Australia faces a critical skills shortage after a cumulative migration shortfall of more than 375,000 migrants in one year, according to an EY 2021 skill shortages report.
are afforded to international students, holiday workers, and include extensions for some temporary visa holders and pathways for permanent residency for others. From 15 December 2021, without needing a travel exemption in line with their COVID-19 recovery plan.
"The positive news is that the list of 'eligible visa holders' is quite thorough and permits the majority of temporary visa holders to access exemption-free travel," partner at Hannan Tew Lawyers and migration lawyer Mihan Hannan said.
But bridging visa holders aren't included on the list.
"Without this exemption, bridging visa holders can still leave the country, but might not be able to return until travel restrictions are eased (or they otherwise secure an exemption)," Mr Hannan said.
"Remaining travel restrictions balance the need to safely reopen with the continuing need to protect the Australian community from COVID-19," a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said.
"The key principles guiding government decisions on visas while responding to COVID-19, are that our visa system must support public health measures and should not displace job opportunities for Australians."
Anish Rai came to Australia in 2013 as an international student. Since then, he has called Australia his home and works as a chef at a cafe in Perth.
Anish Rai and Jigyasha Karki have spent months stuck in Nepal, trying to return to their home in Perth. Source: SBS
While waiting for his employer nomination scheme visa to be processed (Subclass 186), he and his wife, Jigyasha Karki were granted bridging visas.
But in August 2021, he found out his mother's health was deteriorating in Nepal. Mr Rai and Ms Karki travelled there to care for her, hoping they would be able to eventually return to Australia under a skilled worker exemption.
Three exemption application attempts - and three refusals - later, Mr Rai and his wife feel defeated.
"It's really devastating because everyone is getting back to their normal life, but ours is stuck here," he told SBS News.
"The prime minister is pleasing everyone, the students and holidaymakers, waiving visa fees. But what about the skilled workers who are stuck outside? They could do a lot for the economy."
"It feels like we've been discriminated [against] just for our visa. You feel like you're judged on the basis of your visa and nothing else," Ms Karki said.
And they're not alone.
The Department of Home Affairs data has revealed that as at 15 December 2021, there are 23,239 BVB holders and 18 per cent of them are currently outside Australia.
This figure excludes former BVB holders, whose visas have since expired.
Between 1 February 2020 and 30 April 2021, there were 7,315 former BVBs.
An online campaign for BVB holders has garnered 16,000 signatures so far in a bid to encourage the government to add them to the list of exemption-free Australian travellers.
"Expanding the travel restrictions to include bridging visa holders should be done because it is the right thing to do for meaningful contributors to Australia," Mr Hannan said.
What about skilled engineers?
Saif Alnajam, 28, is one of the thousands of people who obtained a skilled engineering graduate visa (Subclass 476) to fill a skills deficit in Australia.
Saif Alnajam is pleading for the government for an explanation as to why skilled recognised graduate visas have not been renewed. Source: SBS
After selling his furniture in his home in Malaysia, packing his bags and securing a job offer in Sydney in 2020, the borders shut and he was unable to enter Australia.
While his visa was extended once until March 2021, the government did not provide a further extension - and his dream of working as a civil engineer in Australia was put on pause.
"It's very disappointing because ... we have full working rights. I was very excited to come and work there," he told SBS News.
His confusion stemmed from the government's decision on 18 January to extend former temporary graduate visas (Subclass 485) to allow them to come to Australia if they carried the visa during the border closure period.
"Why are you allowing certain people have their visas extended and start their lives in Australia and not other people? I still fail to understand," he said.
"Just provide us with clarification."
"These changes support the return to Australia of temporary graduates as soon as possible, ahead of further planned changes on 1 July 2022 that will provide a further visa extension option to former graduates," a statement from Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said.
From 1 February 2020 to 30 November 2021 there have been 2,232 skilled engineering graduate visas expire that have not been extended since borders reopened.
SBS News understands the government is not considering extending the visas for skilled engineering graduate visas at this time.
While Ms Sunyasi and her family hold onto hope their bridging visas will be acknowledged, it's been an expensive and tumultuous time.
They had to buy new clothes and continue to pay for the home they are renting in Perth, as well as food for dog Beau, when he was placed in foster care.
"I can't even apply for a proper job because you have to provide your original documents when you go to an interview," she said.
"We left my son's Australian birth certificate, my diplomas, my certificates, everything is back there."
Ms Sunyasi's Australian-born son, Shaun, was nine years old when he first arrived in Mauritius and has since missed out on two years of his education.
Without Mauritian identification, or the ability to speak Creole or French, Ms Sunyasi was unable to enrol Shaun in the public school system.
Ms Sunyasi and her son, Shaun, eagerly await the opportunity to return back home. Source: SBS
She said she's had to fork out thousands to pay for private school fees to ensure Shaun doesn't lag behind in his studies.
Shaun said the move has been "stressful" and awaits the opportunity to catch up at the shops for lunch with his friends back in Perth who he hasn't seen in two years.
"I can't wait to come back to Australia to hang out with my friends. We were talking about going when I come back."