Migrants in Australia face months of separation from family after being denied exemptions to travel bans

Migration agents have expressed concerns over the government’s “inconsistent” approach to granting exemptions to the travel ban.

Christi-Ann Emous with her husband, Christopher Bilsborrow, and their four-year-old son Willem before their separation.

Christi-Ann Emous with her husband, Christopher Bilsborrow, and their four-year-old son Willem before their separation. Source: Supplied

Christi-Ann Emous celebrated her baby daughter’s first birthday last month without her husband. 

As she blew out the candles in Sydney’s Neutral Bay, her children’s father, Christopher Bilsborrow, was staying with friends on the other side of the world.

The family-of-four from Oregon in the United States recently decided to pack up, sell their house and move to Australia after Ms Emous, 41, landed her “dream job” in Sydney and was eligible for a temporary skills shortage visa. 

Due to delays in processing Mr Bilsborrow’s visa, Ms Emous and her two children - Azalea, one, and Willem, four - arrived in Sydney alone on 15 March with plans for him to follow shortly after.

The family-of-four's last meal together before Ms Emous and her two children moved to Australia.
Source: Supplied

But five days after they arrived, Australia’s borders were closed to everyone but Australian residents, permanent residents and their immediate family members. The visa application process has also been paused. 

“It’s been the hardest time of my life so far,” Ms Emous said.

“He told me the other day that he woke up crying in the middle of the night. This isn’t easy for any of us, I took this job to be with my family not to be separated.”

Ms Emous said it would be difficult to return home at this point as their belongings have already been shipped to Australia and they’ve given up their home. 

But with no end to the travel ban in sight, she fears her husband will soon miss other milestones in his young daughter’s life.

Australian resident explains heartbreak over COVID-19 sepration from husband

“She’ll probably take her first steps without him here, she’s pulled herself up on her own without him here, she’s got two more teeth without him here and who knows how many other milestones that will be without him,” she said. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday that it is extremely unlikely international travel will resume “in the foreseeable future”.

“There are already some very, very minor exceptions, where the Border Force can provide an exemption for outbound travel,” he said. “It’s a very limited set of circumstances”. 

People hoping to travel to Australia “on compassionate grounds” are able to apply for an exemption via a form on the Department of Home Affairs website, but migration agents have expressed concerns over “inconsistencies” in which applications have been granted.

“From what we’re seeing there is inconsistency being applied,” national president of the Migration Institute of Australia, John Hourigan, told SBS News.

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“Some people are getting permission to travel, others aren’t … [but] the MIA has heard of very few non-exempt visa holders being approved.”

Responding to a request from SBS News, the Department of Home Affairs refused to release data on the number of applications for a travel exemption submitted, but said “each exemption application is assessed on its own merits”.

They also did not answer a question on the criteria being used to determine the outcome of applications. 

Last month, the issue hit headlines when a retired nurse in New Zealand had her bid for a travel exemption rejected four times after applying on compassionate grounds to be with her Australian sister who is dying of cancer. After the story was published on ABC News, the decision was overturned last week. 

Mr Bilsborrow applied for an exemption to travel on 1 May, explaining that his wife was now caring for two young children alone in a new country where she knows no one. On Thursday, he was notified his application had been rejected.

“My son, they’re best friends, he misses his daddy. It’s not an ideal situation,” Ms Emous said.

Ashton Kobler's parents, pictured on her wedding day, are no longer able to be with her for the birth of her daughter due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
Source: Supplied

Ashton Kobler, an Australian permanent resident, is also facing an uncertain wait to see her Canadian parents as she prepares to give birth to her first child in five weeks.

The close-knit family was planning to travel to Sydney, where the 29-year-old lives with her husband, for the birth and to spend time with their newborn granddaughter.

“I just never dreamt that they wouldn’t be able to meet my baby for who knows how long,” Ms Kobler said. 

“It’s just the greatest disappointment. Having a newborn sounds difficult enough, and having that support, my parents actually here to help would just be amazing.”

When she found out her parents would not be able to come to Australia, Ms Kobler said she planned to travel to Canada, where she is a citizen, for the birth, even if it meant staying there until the pandemic was over.

Ms Kobler, and her Australian husband Simon, are expecting their first child in five weeks.
Source: Supplied

But as a permanent resident, she discovered she was also banned from leaving the country. 

“That’s probably the hardest part to swallow. I understand being really careful with who comes into the country but not being able to go where I’m from is really hard,” she said.

Mr Hourigan said his members were frequently seeing requests from migrant women who wish to have their mothers with them for support during and immediately following birth.

Meanwhile, Ms Kobler said her mother is considering applying for a travel exemption on compassionate grounds, but she believes their chances are “pretty slim”. 

Carla Wilshire, chief executive of the Migration Council of Australia, said the separation of families across borders, and not knowing when that would resolve, is “one of the real tensions” as Australia seeks to create a pathway out of coronavirus restrictions.

“There is a policy rationale for why exemptions will be reasonably limited. And that's because to some extent, bringing additional people in, particularly elderly relatives, has a significant strain impact on our healthcare system at a time when we need our healthcare system to function as well as possible,” she said.

“That said, the anxiety that people have in being separated from families is certainly significant, and we need to find ways to manage that.”

One way to mitigate this anxiety would be to increase the transparency about how exemptions for compassionate reasons are assessed, she added.

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.

Published 11 May 2020 at 5:49am, updated 11 May 2020 at 5:56am
By Maani Truu