Confusion and anger as government scrambles to explain what China travel ban means for spouses

Dozens of newlyweds have been affected by the ban. Source: AAP

Chinese nationals who recently married an Australian citizen or permanent resident have not been allowed to return during the China travel ban.

The Federal Government is scrambling to clarify what the China travel ban means for spouses of Australian citizens and permanent residents as newlywed couples say they are still unable to return home. 

Despite public assurances that the ban would not apply to immediate family of Australian citizens or permanent residents, SBS News has documented a number of cases where newlywed Chinese-Australian couples were barred from returning.

In some instances, the government also cancelled the visas of the spouses without explanation.

On Monday, two weeks after the ban was put in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the Department of Home Affairs issued guidelines for immediate family members of Australians stuck in China.

But some of those affected have slammed latest efforts as "too little, too late".

The guidelines advised these individuals to first "clarify their visa status with the department" and not go to an airport with marriage documents, as many couples had been doing. 

The document made no mention of what happens to spouses who had their visas cancelled during the ban.

'It's so unfair' 

Zixun Wang and her husband Lachlan Maclaine-Cross have been stuck in China since earlier this month and dismissed the government's latest attempt to clarify the process.

Ms Wang was not permitted to leave China for Melbourne as planned on 7 February, despite being married to her Australian husband Mr Maclaine-Cross since December.

The couple said they called the Department of Home Affairs to seek clarification before they went to the airport and were told that if they brought documents which proved they were married, they should be permitted to return to Melbourne.

Days later, Ms Wang discovered her student visa had been cancelled, so the pair is now in limbo in the province of Heilongjiang in northeast China. 

Lachlan Maclaine-Cross and Zixun Wang.
Lachlan Maclaine-Cross and Zixun Wang.

Ms Wang said they contacted the department many times but had been unable to get answers about her visa or what she can do to challenge its cancellation.

"The [travel ban] announcement should have been properly discussed and they should have made everything clear," she said.

"They should have given out this fact sheet from the beginning."

She questioned if the government was incapable of managing the ban or if it was being racist towards Chinese nationals on Australian visas.

The couple during happier times.
The couple during happier times.

"It's so unfair … Australia has forced me to leave all my things behind and leave my life in Australia – my cat is there, my property is there, my life is there," she said.

Ms Wang also said she was disappointed that the impact of the coronavirus on Chinese people's lives had been overlooked in favour of the economic impact. 

"Australian media is only talking about money – how much money the country will lose … We are not just a price tag, we are human beings," she said.

We are not just a price tag, we are human beings

Zixun Wang 

"I really expected the Australian government and the public would show more empathy, to see Chinese people as human beings, not just money-makers."

Dozens of visas cancelled

Migration agent Kirk Yan told SBS News on Tuesday the new guidelines were a "welcome sign" but the government still had a lot of work to do.

Mr Yan said he was aware of around 50 to 60 cases of spouses having their visas cancelled during the ban without explanation, and only one being reinstated.

"These people are very anxious, very upset – they did nothing wrong. They followed all the rules and they are supposed to be back in Australia, but they aren't, they are stuck in China or a third country," he said.

"I hope the government can rectify the error for all those affected in a timely manner and they could reunite with family members in Australia as soon as possible."

He said some of his clients are pregnant or have children and "they need to come back to Australia".

"The prime minister announced very clearly that [spouses] are exempt from the travel ban … but because the travel ban was announced really abruptly, I think they did not have consistent coordination between the different departments."

Passengers from a China Southern Airlines flight touch down in Australia last month.
Passengers from a China Southern Airlines flight touch down in Australia last month.

Most individuals blocked from returning to Australia with their husband or wife during the ban did not hold partner visas, but other classes such as a student or work visa.

Material from the prime minister's office about the ban states "Australian citizens and permanent residents will still be able to enter, as will their immediate family members - spouses, legal guardians and dependents only".

SBS News has contacted the Department of Home Affairs about when cancelled visas will be reinstated and why the guidelines were not released when the travel ban was announced, but has not received a reply.

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