‘Stuck in limbo-land’: restrictions keep bridging visa holders trapped in, and out, of Australia

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: James Gourley/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Gourley/AAP

Unable to see their families for years, and with no end in sight, many are considering leaving Australia for good

Skilled migrants and graduates still trapped by border restrictions for bridging visa holders have condemned their “brutally unfair” treatment by the Australian government, saying it will drive away workers at a time of dire labour shortages.

The federal government has announced eased travel restrictions for the vast majority of temporary visa holders, allowing them to leave and enter Australia after being trapped amid the pandemic.

But travel restrictions remain for those who hold bridging visa B (BVB), which usually allows holders to live in Australia and travel abroad while they await government decisions on more permanent visas.

BVB holders have found themselves stuck in Australia due to a combination of blowouts in visa processing times and the border restrictions, which make it near impossible for them to enter the country or to re-enter after leaving.

That has left many, including skilled migrants waiting for permanent residency, in despair. Unable to see their families for years, and with no end in sight, many are considering leaving Australia permanently.

Muhammad, who was raised in the United Arab Emirates, was invited to Australia on the promise of a regional work visa as an engineer in the construction sector.

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But he has been unable to leave Australia since the pandemic began, initially because he was on a temporary visa, and now because he is on a bridging visa, still awaiting the government’s final decision on his status.

Muhammad has not seen his family for three-and-a-half years, and was meant to get married abroad this year, but has been separated from his fiancee by the border restrictions.

His skills are crucial to a booming sector already short of skilled workers. But Muhammad said his mental health was seriously suffering and he was considering leaving the country for good.

“The very first reason why my parents moved to Australia … is they were moving to a better place for their family,” he said. “But it’s not a better place if you are not even getting your basic rights to see your family.”

Morrison announced this week the government was making it easier for working holidaymakers and students to come to Australia, in an effort to relieve workforce shortages caused by the pandemic.

No change was announced for bridging visa holders.

Morrison’s comments infuriated Emma Cochrane, who has been trapped in Australia since the start of the pandemic.

“It made me cry, because I’ve tried every resource to make them aware of our plight,” she said.

Cochrane moved with her family from the UK to Perth in August 2018 on a skilled regional visa, which allowed her to apply for permanent residency after living and working in a regional area for two years.

But the skilled regional visa expired as the family waited for a decision on their permanent residency – a process that has taken 17 months so far – meaning they had to be placed on a bridging visa.

The bridging visa means Cochrane, an education assistant, is still stuck and unable to see her family in the UK. If she were to leave, she would need an exemption to get back in to Australia.

Cochrane has applied 14 times for an exemption. Each application was denied.

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“We’re literally stuck in this limbo-land,” she said. “We can’t risk taking my girls out.”

BVB holders have started a petition, which now has 15,000 signatures, calling for the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, to ease restrictions.

“We pay our taxes, we provide essential skills, received double vaccinations and contribute to the economy,” the petition says. “It’s discriminatory to stop us from visiting our friends and families while others can.”

The independent MP Zali Steggall and Greens senator Nick McKim have both lobbied Hawke to address the issue, but to no avail.

McKim told Hawke in a letter that the restrictions for bridging visa holders were causing “immeasurable pain to thousands of people”.

“With global visa processing times blowing out significantly across a number of visa classes due to Covid-19, people that are offshore on both expired and valid BVBs are still not able to return to Australia while their substantive visas are being processed,” he said.

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“This group of visa holders have been waiting for more than 20 months for clarity around their future in Australia.”

Another bridging visa holder, who asked not to be named, is stuck in Nepal, desperate to come back to Australia to work. She graduated and had applied for a recent graduate visa, before being put on a bridging visa.

She described the restrictions as “brutally unfair”.

“I have lived in Adelaide for four years, completed my degree and got a professional job for myself,” she said. “This is hindering my professional growth and the career plans I have set for myself.

“Amid all this, it is funny to see government luring student and working holiday visa holders to come and fill the gap of workforce.”

Hawke’s office was approached for comment.

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