Thursday, 10 December 2020
Department of Home Affairs
I want to share the story of Stephanie, an epidemiologist from Newcastle, and her partner Tommy from the Solomon Islands. They fell in love in the Solomon Islands last year, in May they got engaged, and they were planning a wedding in 2020 and a family in 2021. Then the pandemic hit. Stephanie was with Tommy in the Solomon Islands at the time but was recalled to Newcastle to provide expert assistance to our initial pandemic response. Naturally, they applied for an exemption to travel restrictions for Tommy to join her—not citizenship, they just wanted permission for him to fly. Sadly, Border Force refused, with only the vague explanation that reuniting them did not outweigh the risk to the Australian community. Very strange, given that the Solomon Islands is one of the few countries to remain free of COVID-19 community transmission.
Stephanie has applied for the exemption 12 times, after hearing that success can come after multiple applications. Indeed, I'm aware of cases where exactly this happened. What a waste of public resources, not to mention people's time and energy. Anecdotally, there are also reports exemptions are more likely to be granted to people from largely white, western countries. It would trouble me greatly if this is a factor here. Stephanie has now been separated from Tommy for more than 250 days. Unsurprisingly, her mental health is deteriorating. In her words: 'The absurdity of this is too much to believe, and I'm completely heartbroken. I'm starting to look at options to leave Australia so that Tommy and I can be together.' This would be a great loss to our community and indeed, our nation, given Stephanie's important contribution to our pandemic response. On this, Stephanie wrote: 'It's painfully sad and confusing that constant refusals for me to be reunited with my partner should result in me considering ways of leaving the country when Australia is desperate for people with the skills that I have.'
While I'm not privy to the internal workings of Border Force or how decision are being made, I see a grave lack of transparency, accountability and due process. If you're a formal Liberal minister it seems you can come and go as you please. Indeed, we have learnt that Tony Abbott has been granted multiple automatic exemptions, while tens of thousands of Australians and their loved ones remain stranded. Stephanie's plight deserves the minister's close attention. I urge him to put a stop to the constant refusals which threaten to send a highly skilled Australian epidemiologist from her home and our shores. This would be a terrible loss for Australia. I urge the minister to reconsider Stephanie's application as a matter of urgency and compassion.