As we slowly manoeuvre out from the depths of the pandemic, we asked some of our team members what the last two years has taught them…

A Whole New World

At the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was not working in immigration law and was on a client secondment in Wellington, New Zealand.

Each day, I would monitor the news and media reporting.  The news and media cycle became more chaotic, confusing and panic-inducing.  It was dizzying to observe the news locally (in New Zealand, my temporary home), whilst also following the news in Australia and globally.  Whilst the emergence of the pandemic was being managed in what I regarded to be a systematic manner across New Zealand, I could see a different situation evolving in Australia – my home, and the home of my family and loved ones.

Both countries were mobilising quickly, however, and the first real sign of panic was when borders were due to be closed imminently.  It was then that I found myself in the middle of escalation efforts by my employer and my client, to enable me to board one of the last flights out before flights were designated to ‘essential service’ only.

The irony is that I am a dual citizen of Australia and New Zealand (and a South African citizen – but more on that in another blog post).  In essence, I had the relative flexibility to stay in New Zealand or return home to where my family, friends, and my life was – Australia.  The mere thought of being separated from my home and family was one of the most daunting and confronting realities at the start of the pandemic.  When you have ties to more than one country, the effects of a novel pandemic are magnified.

This was the beginning of the biggest global disruption and transformation that I had witnessed.  The idea of being restricted and ‘locked down’ was novel, scary, unprecedented. In some ways, living within Australia’s non-landlocked borders presupposed a sense of safety and protection.  In other ways, it felt lonely, isolating, restrictive (and this was the perspective of an Australian citizen with limited knowledge of the immigration world).

Stepping into the practice of immigration law completely expanded my insights and opened my eyes to the impacts of the pandemic on Australian citizens and permanent residents with ties overseas, and to foreign nationals living, studying and working in Australia.  Migrants and Australian businesses have had to rapidly adapt and evolve amidst the changing immigration landscape.

The constant modifications to policy, new directives, and mandates have largely driven the direction of the immigration industry and the advice immigration lawyers and migration agents provide to our clients.  The spotlight was firmly on the immigration industry, and as immigration lawyers, we had to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

One week, you are listening to clients who are confronted with the reality of not seeing their family overseas for the foreseeable future.  The next week, you are delivering the news that Australia is open for business and are quickly working to assist sponsors in finally welcoming back foreign national visa holders.

I recall one of the first cases I worked on, where a family from Melbourne were seeking to travel to the USA for an urgent business need and to attend a family funeral that had been postponed due to the travel ban.

The team at Gilton Valeo strategised and assisted this family to find a suitable pathway, involving cross border engagement with our global colleagues.  Our advice changed no less than 3 times as we navigated the capricious changes that riddled the travel and immigration industry. However, the client and their needs were always at the forefront of our efforts.  We developed a framework and established a process to assist numerous clients ever since.

What I’ve learnt is that whilst we are bound by ‘uniform’ law, regulations, policy, each client brings a different background, story, need, and lived experience.  The biggest lesson has been that there is no “one size fits all” approach to immigration and no “default” manner in which to design and implement migration programs.

Immigration has and will always be an essential part of global and local economies.  What a privilege to work in the immigration space.

A Balancing Act

That uncertain times produce uncertain outcomes.  That governments can shut down borders at a moment’s notice, and restrict our freedom of movement.  And that for, better or worse, the health of the majority is of greater importance to the freedoms of a nation and the lives of a minority in Australian visa holders.

Working as an immigration lawyer during the pandemic I’ve assisted with my fair share of getting people into and out of the country through what is termed as a “travel exemption request”.  It was never an easy task and what made it more difficult was the lack of precedent for what we were tasked to do.  The only guide being ever-changing policy published on the DOHA website, with no review process on a decision until late 2021 to boot.

If it were not for the collective experience and expertise of the GVL team and the sheer amount of travel exemption requests we submitted to act as a precedent for what we were doing, it would have been very difficult to provide sound advice to clients a lawyer is expected to provide.

Although it was always difficult to advise clients that had maybe been stuck offshore from the beginning of the pandemic to the recent re-opening of the borders that they were not considered “critically skilled” enough to be allowed in; or that your mother in Australia who is battling cancer and chemotherapy, was likely not in circumstances detrimental enough for you to meet the compelling and compassionate threshold so that you could come in to be with her; or it’s either you take your job or your family because if you leave Australia you will most likely not be able to return.  I could only imagine the anguish and dilemma that these people faced, but it was not an uncommon story.

As the borders open and I look back and ask if this all could have been done better?  Yes, it could have, however, as Australia still maintains a very low death rate from Covid compared to countries that maintained looser border controls, this result must count for much.

From this once in a generation pandemic, I hope that through all the personal sacrifices made, the lessons learnt and the precedents that have been set, we can provide more certain outcomes in any future pandemic through the implementation of better systems and immigration policy to strike a fairer balance between the health of the majority with the freedoms of a nation and the lives of the affected visa holders that contribute so much to this country.