Couples are calling for Australia’s offshore partner visa rules to be overhauled over concerns they are being forced to take return trips out of Australia amid the COVID-19 pandemic simply to have their visas granted.
Their push for change is being backed by Labor MP Julian Hill, who is set to introduce a bill to federal parliament next week that would see migration laws be amended to address their grievances.
There are two streams of partner visa applications; onshore and offshore. Under Australia’s migration law, the partner of an Australian citizen who lodges an offshore visa application must also be outside Australia when their visa is granted for it to be approved.
But the measure is raising concerns over the health risks and added flight and quarantine costs being imposed on applicants during the coronavirus pandemic.
For Sydney-based couple Johan and Kentley Erlandsson – who lodged their initial application in April last year – the prospect of having to meet the requirement presents a difficult challenge.
Kentley, who is a citizen of the Philippines, is currently in Australia on a tourist visa, along with her daughter Johana, six. The couple also has a child Annie, two, who is an Australian citizen.
Amid the demands of a young family, Johan, who is Australian, also has leukemia and is concerned he would not be able to travel with the rest of his family offshore to have the partner visa granted.
“I can’t go with them because of my condition, it is too dangerous for me to fly at the moment with such a low immune system,” he told SBS News.
“So you’ve got a mum and two kids trying to do that by themselves … fly out of the country – they have to do quarantine wherever they go – quarantine when they come back.”
But the family is also all too aware of what the granting of the partner visa would mean for them.
Despite paying the same $7,715 fees as those partner visa applicants who lodged onshore, offshore applicants have no work rights, no bridging visa and must wait out their processing time in their home countries, or visit Australia as tourists for short stints.
Kentley said this means she is currently not able to help work to support the family or have their daughter Johana attend primary school in Australia. She said she hopes consideration could be given to their situation, but the chance to have their visa granted, even offshore, would be hard to turn down.
“It would mean a lot to me [to be granted the visa], especially with my husband’s case – I want to help him,” Kentley said.
“I want to help my family, I want to be part of it, I want to build a family.”
‘Common sense in the middle of a pandemic’
Such concerns have prompted Labor MP Julian Hill to call for changes through a bill that would allow Subclass 309 Partner (Provisional) visas to be temporarily granted while onshore.
The measure, if implemented, would proceed until 31 December 2020, to offset the challenges presented by the pandemic.
Mr Hill said disruptions to international air travel and border restrictions have created considerable difficulties for affected individuals.
“All my bill does is allow the partners of Australians who were already here in Australia to stay here with their loved one, rather than being forced to take an expensive trip overseas to come back and waste a quarantine place simply to have their partner visa granted,” he said.
“It seems like common sense in the middle of a global pandemic.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said it is “aware of this issue and is considering options to further support visa holders impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including Prospective Marriage and Partner visa applicants”.
“The department continues to progress visa applications during the pandemic,” they said.
“Onshore partner visa applicants may be eligible for a bridging visa, allowing them to remain in Australia with their partners while they await finalisation of their partner visa application.”
Alongside the health concerns and pressures of rising flight costs, there are also fears the requirement risks increasing demand for hotel quarantine places, which are highly sought after by some 36,000 Australians wanting to return home.
“It is a ridiculous situation in a global pandemic when you are saying to a couple – who have already been here in Australia – one of you has to leave,” Mr Hill said.
Couples call for overhaul of system
For the financial year 2019-2020, the Department of Home Affairs had more than 96,000 partner visas ‘on hand’, compared with 88,000 the previous year.
The Department of Home Affairs website says 90 per cent of applications for the 309 partner visa are processed in 23 months.
Unlike offshore applicants, those applying for a partner visa onshore are eligible for a bridging visa to remain in the country during the processing time.
Melbourne woman Amelia Elliott is leading calls for changes to make the partner visa system fairer.
Her husband Bowie Domingo, who is from the Philippines, is currently in hotel quarantine in Perth after recently flying from Melbourne to Singapore to have his visa granted.
She said the total price of flights, accommodation and quarantine for the trip totalled more than $6,000 and less than 40 minutes after her husband’s plane took off their visa was approved – all after waiting 25 months for the visa to be processed.
“It’s taken everything from us financially and emotionally,” she said.
“This process lacks transparency, it is exorbitantly in price and the government just doesn’t listen to the needs of the partners or give them answers along the way.”
Bowie said he was relieved to have his visa processed, but “frustrated” at the process the couple had been required to go through.
“During this pandemic isn’t it ridiculous that you’re going to push people to go out of Australia just so they can get their visa granted?” he said.
“It is frustrating. Why do I have to leave if the department can grant my visa just while I’m onshore?”
The Migration Institute of Australia’s George Lombard has backed calls for the rules to be changed.
“It makes no more sense than a government clinging to a series of rules that have existed for years and don’t have basis in social justice,” he said.
“We certainly hope the department will show common sense and respond to the needs of individuals.”
The families are now hoping to be heard.
“To have that granted and not leave the country, I couldn’t express the gratitude and the difference that would make – it would just be such a relief,” Jonah said.
“It is not just me – there are thousands of people in our situation that are waiting for the same visas and it would make such a massive difference to everyone.”