Since March, citizens and permanent residents must apply to the Border Force for permission to leave the country, under a policy intended to contain COVID-19. Meanwhile, temporary residents and visitors require exemptions to enter the country, even if they have a valid visa.
At the start of this month, 40,833 Australians had been allowed to travel overseas and nearly half were approved on a “personal business basis including those departing for more than three months”. In August alone, 11,278 people were granted exemptions on this basis, up from 675 in March and April.
Meanwhile, approvals granted on “compassionate grounds” have fallen proportionately, from two-thirds of all approvals in March and April to less than a third in August. The absolute number of consents on the basis of compassion has increased during that time, from 1954 to 5505.
Mr Byrnes, the visa attorney, said applying on compassionate grounds was a “very high standard” and he had seen many rejections where medical evidence described critical illness and limited life expectancy but applications were still rejected.
The ABF has refused permission for 13,311 Australians applying for overseas travel. There were a total of 116,522 requests, with a large number of requests not approved or rejected because the same person had made multiple requests or were already in the exclusion category and didn’t need permission.
Last week the department also published operational guidelines and directives it uses to determine whether an application to leave the country is approved, indicating people with “compelling reasons and will remain abroad for at least three months” are likely to be approved.
Previously, public guidelines had said nothing about longer travel being seen as preferable, but it is widely believed to be the case among the thousands of people sharing advice and information on Facebook groups dedicated to navigating travel bans.
Some people have received exemptions from travel for official reasons cited in the document as “moving abroad for more than three months” and shared them with the group.
Australians traveling overseas are also preparing for longer journeys due to a shortage of flights due to government-imposed restrictions on international arrivals. The airlines are limited to 30 passengers on a single flight and routinely bump into economy passengers for those willing to pay more. About 27,000 citizens and permanent residents are stranded overseas and have registered their wish to return home with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Sydneysider Melanie Krauss, a German citizen and permanent resident of Australia, has received permission to travel to Stuttgart in October to care for her elderly father after undergoing knee surgery. She lives alone and is a physiotherapist.
Ms Krauss, 44, said she would rather be away for two or three months but apply for four to five months, knowing it would increase her chances of getting approved. She hopes to return to Sydney after four months, but prepares to stay for up to a year if she can’t get a flight home.
“It really messes up your mind when you can’t make plans,” says Ms Krauss. “I’ve always been a planner and I can’t plan anymore because so many people make decisions that affect my life.”
Ms Krauss said the situation was unusual and she didn’t want to be pitied but the travel ban worried her because it took away the comfort of knowing she was only a one day flight away from her family.
He understands the reasoning but believes it goes too far, given that a large proportion of Australians have families overseas and no other democratic country has such restrictions.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, which focuses on social affairs.
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