QUARANTINING LOVEby Scott Carroll
Hundreds of days have passed since feeling the warm touch of your partner’s hands. Anniversaries, birthdays and life achievements have come and gone, all insignificant without the love of your life by your side. Despite you wanting to sacrifice everything to be in their arms again, the harsh reality of COVID-19 is stopping you.
For thousands of bi-national couples separated by Australia’s border closure…
PHASE ONEThe Exemption
Rejection after rejection without reason, the best way to summarise the opaque process that couples face to reunite in Australia. Following the border closure, the Department of Home Affairs introduced an exemption process allowing citizens and their immediate family members to reunite in Australia. However, with no official policy and little information available about what classifies a partner as immediate family, couples like Jackson Lister and Stella Patricia remain hopelessly stranded without any idea when they can reunite.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why you get accepted or not, and it feels like it’s about being the right person on the right day. Kind of like a lottery pick,” says Jackson.
Currently, Stella remains trapped in Indonesia after leaving Australia at the end of 2019 to complete an international study program in the United Kingdom. Since mid-July, the couple has applied over 40 times for an exemption to allow Stella to re-enter Australia. The couple has provided evidence of joint bank accounts, planned holidays, Stella’s current student Australian visa and thousands of messages as well as call logs. While other applicants have received exemptions with far less evidence, Jackson and Stella feel disheartened as to why their relationship isn’t worthy of an exemption so that they can finally reunite after nine months of separation.
I fairly think that at times luck plays a role into the whole process, sometimes there is no answer why someone is exempt.
Desperate to reunite, couples are now looking for legal help to build their exemption application. Visa and Citizenship Lawyers Australia’s principal lawyer, Adam Byrnes, has been helping over a hundred separated couples with their exemption applications.
“I just don’t understand why an official policy hasn’t been released. It would help a lot with peoples confusion if we knew the rules that we were playing under,” says Adam.
“I fairly think that at times luck plays a role into the whole process, sometimes there is no answer why someone is exempt.”
Meanwhile, Jackson and Stella continue to apply for the exemption, hoping for the day when they receive the email saying they can finally reunite. Their story is just one of thousands, as separated couples are left to face this pandemic alone with no hope and no emotional support.
“Seeing other people that got exempt without even giving much evidence about their relationship is such a blow. I know it sounds bad, but I feel hopeless and less motivated because it seems like they’re not even reading our applications,” says Stella.
Stella met Jackson through mutual friends while studying finance at the University of Sydney in 2019. Within a month, they had developed a thriving relationship, spending endless weeks together that would soon eventuate to love. Just before Australia shut its border, Jackson and Stella were planning a trip to Indonesia to meet her family. And yet, the Australian Border Force fails to recognise the legitimacy of their relationship.
The Australian Border Force website dictates that bi-national partners are classified as an immediate family member if they are a spouse or in a committed de facto relationship. To achieve this, couples must provide evidence of “a marriage certificate, de-facto or civil partnership registration, shared financial commitments, joint residence arrangements or birth certificates”.
“We are willing to pay the quarantine costs and follow all transmission procedures necessary. I have my valid student visa, and we have proven our relationship under the guidelines that are on the Australian Border Force’s website. We have a valid reason to reunite but still nothing,” says Stella.
The couple share frustration and confusion with thousands of other bi-national couples who have been separated by Australia’s border closure. A survey of 100 separated bi-national couples reveals that just 26% of them have received an exemption to enter Australia. Of the other 74 rejected couples, 45% of them have included either a marriage certificate or evidence of a registered relationship.
PHASE TWOBooking a Flight
When Loes Bergs received her exemption to enter Australia on her fifth attempt, she finally felt a calm after months of separation anxiety. However, the dreadful realisation that she would now face inflated flight ticket prices and multiple cancellations overcame her monetary excitement.
Loes left her Australian partner Mitchell Casey on the 22nd of March to return to the Netherlands after her second holiday working visa had expired. Loes planned to stay briefly in the Netherlands while waiting for her third visa to be approved, before returning to Mitch in Australia. They had no idea that this brief stay would extend to an eight month separation.
“I feel even worse because it appears like you’re one step closer, so you start planning everything and counting down the moment when you will be together. Then it’s cancelled, no reason why. Just a cancellation email and nothing else,” says Loes.
The international flight caps currently allow for 6000 passengers a week to enter Australia. These flight caps impact airline companies regular business practice, evidenced through inflated ticket prices, prioritisation of business-class passengers and last minute cancellations. Loes and Mitch have experienced the effect first hand, with two cancellations and one rebooking.
Families and couples have a right to be together, and reuniting them should be a high priority for this government.
“It just makes me feel hopeless, angry and a little bit depressed, I worry about Mitch too,” Loes says.
She met sheep shearer Mitch in April 2018 while working on a farm in Nyngan in rural New South Wales.
Within the year they were living together and considering their future as a bi-national couple. Love had driven Loes to extend her working holiday visa for one more year so she could be with Mitch.
“The waiting and hoping are terrible, when you love someone you just want to be together. This flight cannot get cancelled,” says Mitch.
Loes and Mitch have felt the financial strain to reunite, paying more than AUD$3,000 for her one-way flight ticket. The additional $3,000 cost of mandatory quarantine has jeopardised their plans to buy a home and start a family together in rural New South Wales.
Greens Senator Nick McKim is a key figure in drawing political attention to separated bi-national couples.
“The cost of flights is a problem that is affecting Australian citizens, permanent residents and temporary visa holders alike,” says Senator McKim.
“Families and couples have a right to be together, and reuniting them should be a high priority for this government.”
Despite the disappointment of four exemption rejections and two flight cancellations, Loes remained hopeful that she would eventually board her flight to Sydney and finally be with Mitch.
“I’ve been thinking about how I could do it differently, but there is no way but to keep trying. If you really want something you go get it, no matter how much effort and stress it has, it will be worth it.”
After months of separation, countless hours lost on compiling evidence and thousands of dollars spent on flight tickets, there exists one final hurdle. The mandatory two week hotel quarantine. Alex Manning still feels in disbelief as he eagerly waits to see his French partner Emma Swift after an emotional ten months.
“It feels surreal. I visited Emma last week as much as I could to drop off food and give her a little wave from the street. It’s just the strangest thing not seeing her for eight months and now she is behind a window waving at me,” says Alex.
Alex met Emma in September 2018 while they were both studying in an exchange program in the Netherlands. After spending Christmas together, they realised their relationship had evolved into something unique.
When Alex returned to Australia in March 2019, the couple decided to continue their relationship long-distance, visiting each other regularly throughout the year. Even with the experience of a long-distance relationship, Alex and Emma still struggled with the emotional turmoil from being separated during a global pandemic.
No matter what happens between Alex and I, it’s a story that I’ll have for the rest of my life. It’s a very rare situation and I think it definitely has brought us closer as a result.
“It builds a lot of tension, and we had hard conversations about what would happen if I wasn’t exempt from entering the country. I remember just feeling so isolated, and my life just revolved around trying to get into Australia,” says Emma.
Emma planned to continue her relationship with Alex in Australia after being accepted for a study exchange program at the University of Technology Sydney in April 2020.
However, Australia’s border closures subsequently cancelled Emma’s program, and she was unable to enter the country.
“It was really hard to balance your hope and to think realistically. Each step was a constant stressful experience, and it consumes your whole life,” says Alex.
The couple has faced a rollercoaster of hope and despair; however, after nine exemption rejections and multiple flight cancellations, Alex is finally set to reunite with Emma.
“It is nice to go to bed without feeling so anxious now that I am finally here and know when I will see Alex. I’m excited to get out, but also I have some nerves settling into a new country. There was just so much emotional baggage that was attached to this whole experience,” says Emma.
Emma plans to study full time at the University of Technology Sydney and start an internship with a local advertising firm.
While the experience has been undoubtedly traumatising, Alex and Emma feel that they can face any adversity as a couple.
“No matter what happens between Alex and I, it’s a story that I’ll have for the rest of my life. It’s a very rare situation and I think it definitely has brought us closer as a result,” says Emma.
Alex and Emma’s story is triumphant and extraordinary. They battled against the odds and managed to reunite during a pandemic, a feat that thousands of couples are still yet to achieve.
Produced/story design by Scott Carroll.
Graphics supplied by Louis Royle.
Photos provided by interviewed couples.
“Shapeshifters” by Podington Bear, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.
“Re: Joyce” by Podington Bear, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.