When Mubashir Alam’s mother had a heart attack in Pakistan, he was worried, but decided against flying back from Australia, where he has lived for seven years.
“She went to the hospital and was treated there for two days,” he said. “She was all fine, laughing and everything, everything was looking better and normal.”
But five days later, she suffered a stroke that left one side of her body paralysed.
Doctors told him she might not survive and the next 48 hours would be critical. His younger siblings pressed him to return to Pakistan as soon as possible. With his father dead, and as the oldest son in the family, he felt a responsibility to return.
But making it to Pakistan would not be straightforward.
Alam had become an Australian citizen just two weeks before his mother’s heart attack. Although he didn’t know it when his mother was admitted to hospital, the Australian government had taken the unusual step of banning its citizens and permanent residents from leaving the country because of the coronavirus pandemic – even if, like Alam, they are dual citizens.
The government makes exceptions for compassionate reasons and essential travel, it says, but there are few guidelines about how it makes those decisions.
As soon as he learned of the travel ban, Alam applied for an exemption on compassionate grounds for himself, his wife and infant daughter. He submitted a letter from the Abbottabad hospital treating his mother, explaining that Alam’s presence was necessary to help with decision-making, along with more than 20 pages of doctors’ notes and test results.
“I was very emotional at that time because the doctors told me maybe she will not survive,” he says. “I was crying.”
He called the government to ask for his application to be processed quickly and was told it had been escalated. His wife received her exemption the next day and he thought he would be next. But nothing came through.
The day after that, Alam got a call from his younger brother. His mother had suffered another stroke.
The citizenship, instead of helping me, it was putting me through the hardest time of my lifeMubashir Alam
“It was putting more pressure on me that I have to go now, I want to leave,” he says.
When he called the home affairs department again, the official he spoke to was sympathetic, but read to him advice from a government website that people submit their requests at least a month before their planned travel date.
“I asked her, ‘look, how will I know that my mother is going to have a stroke on Friday or Sunday?’”
Alam was told his request had already been escalated and there was nothing more they could do. “They were helpless and I was helpless as well,” he says.
For seven days, Alam tried the department, his federal and state MPs, the immigration minister and the media.
The exemption finally came through almost a week after he made his request. When he spoke to Guardian Australia, Alam was at the hospital where his mother had just left the ICU. Doctors said her condition was improving. But the stressful period before he left Australia still weighs on him.
“I can’t tell you how it feels when your mother is in the ICU and you can’t travel,” he says, his voice cracking. “If, God forbid, something bad happens, if something goes wrong, and you can’t get back home in time, how do you think you will feel throughout your whole life?”
Opaque and arbitrary
Alam is one of thousands of Australians trying to leave the country to visit sick family members, reunite with partners, or emigrate to another country of citizenship, who have struggled with an exemption system they describe as opaque, arbitrary and dysfunctional.
Figures released under freedom of information show 10,004 exemptions to the exit ban were granted between 25 March and 22 June, just over half on compassionate grounds – 3,3000 applications were denied in a similar period, Border Force told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Many say they are happy to pay for quarantine if they return to Australia, and do not understand why there are restrictions on outbound travel as well as incoming. When the exit ban was introduced in March, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said : “This will help avoid travellers returning to Australia with coronavirus and the risks of spreading coronavirus to other countries.”
Two days before Clare Hamilton-Bate was set to fly to London to see her 95-year-old stepfather for the final time, an email came through from the Australian government.
She had submitted her application with six weeks’ notice, but was rejected because her month-long trip was too “short-term”.
Doctors had given her stepfather just months to live, and her 90-year-old mother has dementia.
Hamilton-Bate, a dual Australian-British citizen, planned to spend a month with her parents, to farewell her stepfather and plan for her mother’s care. She applied for an exemption on 1 June, with a travel date of 17 July.
“I actually did it with the flight a long way out because I thought it was courteous to give them lots of time to process it,” she says. “I heard nothing, I kept ringing, I just heard there’s nothing we can do.”
On 14 July, she submitted a second application with more information about her stepfather’s health.
“The questions I was asked [when I called to escalate my request] were, ‘Is he in hospital? Is he critical?’,” she says. But her stepfather’s end-of-life plan is to be nursed at home. Hamilton-Bate’s sister is a retired GP and her parents are fortunate to be able to afford 24-hour carers, she says.
“I said to the folks at home affairs, ‘Would you put your 95-year-old father in the hospital in the middle of a Covid crisis? Because he’s not going to come home again.’”
She applied again on 20 July, and then again with even more evidence. The department escalated the third application on 21 July, and for the next week, an online portal said it was “under consideration”.
“It was good to know someone was looking at it, but it wasn’t going anywhere,” she says.
Waiting for a response was agony, she says. “The furniture’s never been so shiny because what else do you do? I was going, I need to vacuum everything, I need to keep busy, because otherwise you’re just checking your email the whole time.”
Like Alam, Hamilton-Bate eventually contacted her state and federal MPs, and wrote to Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally. Her federal MP’s office made representations to the department of home affairs, which she believes made the difference.
The approval for her third application finally came through on the morning she was due to fly out on rebooked flights. That moment was “huge”, she says.
She was relieved to make it to London for her mother’s 90th birthday, but baffled by the process.
“It just appears it’s a little bit luck of the draw who you get, and if anything’s not exactly what it’s supposed to be or exactly a criteria that they have on their list, it almost sits in a holding pattern,” she says.
“The biggest frustration was not knowing. To have the answer be no would be very disappointing, but at least you’d know.”
Home affairs did not respond to a request for comment on delays in processing, saying only that applicants should visit the department’s website for information.
Isobel Cameron applied twice for an exemption and received three different responses – twice it was yes, and once no.
Her partner lives in Denmark and she planned to visit him for three months ahead of her final university placement in October. Her application cited her mental health. “My partner was really struggling and me as well,” she says.
When she got no response to her first application for three weeks, she submitted a second one with new information. Within two hours, she got an email from a home affairs officer called Luke saying she was approved to travel. A week later, she received another email, this time from Martin, with another approval. The following week came a third email, from Doug, saying she had been denied.
“It’s bizarre,” she says. “I was just really annoyed at Doug.”
By the time the approvals came through, the rules had changed so that she would now have to pay for her hotel quarantine on the way back into Australia. Capped flight numbers also mean it is harder to find an affordable flight. As a student, the trip is financially out of reach for now.
Cameron considers herself relatively lucky because she knows she will see her partner again one day.
But she says her experience shows the department is “disorganised” and the process “confusing”.
Alam says he hopes the department will change its resourcing to better deal with cases like his. Although he would have also had to apply for an exemption if he were still a permanent resident, he is struck by the fact that being an Australian citizen did nothing to help at a time of family emergency.
“Just two weeks [earlier] I got my citizenship, I was feeling so privileged. I was very happy that now I have a passport which has so much strength and it can help me anywhere in the world … now I can vote and I can go anywhere now,” he says.
“The citizenship, instead of helping me, it was putting me through the hardest time of my life.”