Since the closure of Australia’s borders, we have been monitoring the trajectory of travel exemptions – both for arrival and departure – closely.  And if you were to ask us how we would describe our experience, one word comes to mind: fickle.

The never-ending loop:

One call to the NSW Health Department.

Another call to the NSW Police.

Another call to the AFP.

Now back to the NSW Health Department.

Rinse.  Repeat.

This is how I spent much of my weekend.


Because I made a promise that I would do everything to help.  Punto.

The Statistics

From 20 March 2020 to 3 June 2020 the Department of Home Affairs (‘the Department’) has received 40,147 travel exemption requests from people seeking to enter Australia and over 33,000 requests from Australians seeking to leave the country.  This figure continues to grow as the days pass by and the world navigates national lockdowns.

But here’s the most unnerving stat: as of mid-May less than 3,000 exemptions have been granted.  That is less than 8% of the aggregate travel exemption requests made in the last 4 months.

Who has received a travel ban exemption?

  • Between 2,937 people applied for an exemption request via humanitarian and compassionate grounds respectively.  Three quarters of the figure were approved for the exemption request;
  • 514 applicants were approved for an exemption request under the grounds of urgent and unavoidable personal business.  Approximately 277 applicants were refused – that is one quarter of the total number of people who applied under these grounds;
  • Business travellers representing critical industries related to COVID-10 made up less than 7% of all approvals with 18 approved and 92 declined;
  • Majority of Applicants who applied on the grounds of urgent overseas medical treatment were approved with only 2 refusals;
  • Those who are deemed an ‘ordinary resident’ of a country other than Australia generally do not need approval to depart Australia.

Currently there is also a focus on enabling a number of international students to return to Australia as a result of intense lobbying by University bodies.  No surprise here as it is a $60 billion industry.

These statistics are somewhat confronting.  Whilst there are a number of approvals, there are double that in refusals.  This brings us to the question, what are these numbers the product of?

It isn’t as simple as stretched resources within Government Departments, it is much more than that.

It is the lack of transparency in the criteria against which all applicants are assessed and the absence of a ‘why’ when one receives a ‘no’ – two very simple and very important factors that in typical day to day bureaucratic business act as pillars for due process.

‘It is really important that the Home Affairs release the criteria against which applications for exemption to the travel ban are being judged.  It is not acceptable for people to just get a blanket ‘no’ without any reason’ Senator Nick McKim

The bare minimum the Department currently provides within some refusal correspondence is advice that more substantive evidence is required in order to substantiate the request claims and the nature of this correspondence typical encourages applicants to try again.

How can a refusal be avoided?

We believe in strategy and foresight to mitigate the chance of a denial, because whilst we do describe this whole process as fickle, it is unsettling to think that bureaucratic processes are guided by luck and chance.

Whilst assisting our clients through travel exemption requests we have learnt that there are ways to maximise your first attempt at an exemption request by:

  • Applying as early as you can;
  • Providing the Department with a clear and to the point submission as to why you require the exemption;
  • Supplying as many documents are you can to evidence the claims made within your request;
  • Ensuring that any professional documents provided are signed, precise and verifiable;
  • Keep your receipt number handy and pressure the Department via all contact channels – a handful of phone calls to their standard contact line can sometimes go a long way.

Last Resort

Whilst not the ideal scenario, we have assisted clients negotiate exit at border control by preparing an application pack that comprises the entire request, supporting documents and departmental identifiers.  This is not recommended however it has worked!

Is it even legal to stop us from leaving?

Whilst the travel restriction is intended to prevent Australians from contracting COVID-19 abroad and then returning home (and potentially spreading the virus), there are some legal issues that have not been broached.

Our inherent right to freedom is seemingly challenged as well as the fact that Australia has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which provides that ‘everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his [or her] own’.

Something to ponder as lockdown, border closures and social distancing become our norm.

If you’re navigating the space of travel ban exemptions and require some assistance or advice you can speak to one our consultants by emailing or calling us on 8234 8400.