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 Lesson in Empathy (or lack of)

As we slowly move out of Covid restrictions and border lockdowns, it’s a good time to look back on the effects of tough border restrictions we had for the past 2 years.  As Troy mentioned in his anecdote, the Federal Government took swift action to close the borders and utilized public health orders and mandates to create a regime or system that is distinct from the Department of Home Affairs.  Immigration is governed by legislation and policies that require the parliament to enact any major changes, which is essentially a slow process.  However, it’s worthwhile to mention that the border restrictions were based on administrative powers of the Australian Border Force and governed by their internal guidelines, rather than legislation and case precedents.  Changes can be very fast and could be largely unchecked.  So it is no wonder that travellers have received inconsistent decisions throughout the travel exemption process.

One of the things I’ve learnt from the pandemic is the lack of empathy and humanity offered by the travel exemption processes.  Understandably, it is very difficult to maintain the balance of protecting Australia from the effects of the pandemic and reducing health risks.  However, often have we seen the Border Force take a hardline stance that lacks any empathy for the applicants and their situation.  The lack of flexibility and empathy, especially during a time that is very difficult for everyone already, adds another layer of perhaps avoidable stress and frustration.

I remember quite distinctively where a high-profile executive for a global organization had to leave Australia on short notice after receiving news that her parents were sick with Covid.  As her parents were in India during the height of the Delta outbreak, it was understandable that she had to drop everything to make sure they were ok.  She departed Australia without applying for an inbound travel exemption prior to departure.  After her parents recovered and when she needed to return to Australia to continue her role, the Border Force essentially punished her for departing without seeking an exemption and refused her travel exemption.  She would otherwise have received approval as she met the critical skills requirements, and she was previously approved to enter Australia on the same grounds.

When we sought further clarifications from the Border Force, they noted that her parents were unwell but now stable and suggested that if she can provide relevant documentary evidence that she had a strong compassionate or compelling reason to leave Australia, then she could resubmit the travel exemption.  Our client was upset and incredibly frustrated by the outcome as it lacked any empathy or understanding of her circumstances.  As she rightly criticised, it feels insensitive and punitive to retroactively try and decide if her parents were sick enough to meet the “compelling and compassionate” grounds for departing Australia.  Eventually, she decided against continuing her role in Australia and the business lost a critical and highly experienced executive due to this experience.

This isn’t an outlier case.  We have seen several decisions from the Australian Border Force for both inbound and outbound travel exemptions where requests to visit sick relatives, or even attend funerals, were deemed insufficient and did not “outweigh the risk to the Australian community”.  We have seen incredibly insensitive remarks or suggestions from the Border Force, such as one person attending a funeral is enough, it could be live-streamed to the others, etc.  It is incredibly heartbreaking to convey these outcomes to clients.

Many applicants tried reapplying multiple times in hopes of obtaining a positive outcome. Some did, some didn’t.  The lasting impacts of those refusals and the chances and times robbed from being with their loved ones would unlikely be recorded in official statistics or records.  But these unseen impacts should be a reminder that compassion and empathy were sorely lacking during an extremely difficult time for everyone.

Strictly and inflexibly following these travel exemption policy guidelines may have resulted in strong protection from the spread of Covid, but perhaps at the costs of our empathy and Australia’s reputation.  Especially when we have seen, through our own experiences and media reports, that exemptions were granted for certain high-profile travellers, who may have had the resources, standing and connections to obtain those positive outcomes.

The meaning of Freedom

By Mei Guo

Growing up in Australia, freedom has been the root of many heated discussions between my parents and their friends.

The right to freedom of movement (within a country and choosing where to live, leave a country without the need to establish a purpose or reason and enter a country of which you are a citizen) as distinguished from the strict household registration system in China has always been something that was brought up to end all arguments.

People from smaller cities in China would struggle all their lives to be able to legitimately “move” to bigger cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.  People needed to earn their spots in the bigger cities, and this is usually done through marriage or demonstrating distinguished talent.  It always seems absurd to me to be forced to live and work in a city merely on the basis of your birthplace.  Here in Australia, we have the freedom of choosing where to live and work; when and where to travel without the need to obtain government approval.

Everything changed during the pandemic.  The travel restrictions put in place at the beginning of the pandemic meant that Australian citizens and permanent residents were unable to leave the country unless they obtain an exemption from the Australian Border Force. The rationale for granting some exemptions and denying others is often deeply opaque, adding to the frustrations of would-be travellers.

The grounds for the outbound exemption are very limited.  People need to commit to being out of Australia for at least three months and be travelling for compelling reasons.  Applications need to contain a considerable amount of evidence including flight itineraries, medical certificates, leave approval from employers and sometimes evidence of asset disposal.  The level of uncertainly and inconsistent application of discretion has led to many unnecessary heartaches where parents are separated from their children; family and friends not being able to support each other in sickness and sometimes death.  Further, limited reasons are given when an application gets rejected, so applicants can find themselves applying again and again and getting knocked back multiple times before they are finally permitted to leave.

I have realised I will never be the same person I was pre-2020 and Australia is not as free as I had once thought.