Sydney FC academy coach Mizuki Ito has not seen his wife for almost two years since the morning after their wedding.
On the first day of the new decade, the couple tied the knot in Japan, where they are both citizens. At the time, Mizuki had lived in Australia for more than four years and coached new football stars.
The day after the wedding, the 33-year-old jumped on a plane back to Australia with the expectation that his wife would soon join him. Until this time, the couple had traveled between the two countries every few months to see each other.
Little did they know, one day before their wedding, the World Health Organization had become aware of a new virus circulating in China. Within months, the new coronavirus had found its way to Australia, and international borders were closed to ward off the threat.
They would remain this way for more than a year and a half, leaving Mizuki and his new wife separated across continents.
“We expected it might take a maximum of a year … until we could come and go between Australia and Japan,” he says. “Even though I cheered on Aussie athletes from the bottom of my heart during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, I thought, why can’t I see my wife and family with full vaccination?”
Last week, the federal government announced plans to start reopening Australia’s international borders from next month, a much-anticipated announcement that will allow Australian citizens to travel freely abroad again.
Within the framework, and subject to co-operation from the states, recurrent travel caps will also be removed and home quarantine established for fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents instead of the current supervised hotel quarantine system.
But for temporary residents like Mizuki, many of whom have established themselves in Australia and have waited months to be reunited with their loved ones abroad, little will change when the travel ban is lifted.
Although the current restrictions do not prevent temporary residents from leaving, they do prevent them from returning to Australia without exception.
In the run-up to the announcement, Mizuki eagerly watched as the national vaccination rate rose to 80 percent – the threshold in the federal roadmap for reopening borders – as far as booking a flight home by December in the hope that he would finally be able to see his wife.
When the government announced the changes, he immediately called her. “I said ‘Yes, yes, I can come back to Japan, I have the ticket’. But after a few days, I saw that it was only for Australians and residents,” he says.
“My question is, why? I’m not just going on vacation, I’m not going to Europe or the US, I just want to see my family. It was up and down in a few days.”
Sydney resident Jessica Gorz is in a similar predicament: She was supposed to get married last month, but instead was more than 14,000 kilometers away from her future husband in Canada, with no idea when she will be able to see him again.
The couple came to Australia together in 2017 on a working holiday visa and decided they “would call Australia home”. But when the pandemic hit, Jessica’s partner lost her job and was forced to return to Canada while she was sponsored by her company to stay in Australia.
While awaiting renewal of her sponsorship, which has yet to be processed, the 29-year-old has been put on a bridge visa preventing her from traveling internationally without permission.
“I have constantly applied for exemptions just to leave the country and it is being rejected time and time again,” she says. “It’s been really, really stressful, because I’m here alone, I’m alone.”
After last week’s announcement, she says her inbox was flooded with news articles and messages from friends and family celebrating that she would soon be able to come home.
“Everyone is like,‘ Oh, don’t worry, we’re almost out of the woods, ’and it just feels like there’s another obstacle for me,” she says. “I feel extremely trapped. I am fully vaccinated, my partner is fully vaccinated, my family is fully vaccinated. We are doing everything we can to comply with the rules and we still cannot see each other.”
‘My son does not know who I am’
It is not just couples who have had to endure several months. Hafiz Shandid Hussain has spent the vast majority of his young son’s life on the other side of the world.
“My son does not know who I am,” the 34-year-old says. “He’s almost two years old now, and he does not know who this guy on screen is.”
Hafiz arrived in Australia in November 2019 with a student visa and scholarship to complete his PhD. on geology and climate change in Sydney. Although he saw the opportunity as “his future”, it meant he had to make the difficult choice of moving away from his wife and then monthly son in Pakistan.
The plan was to travel back to visit them regularly during his studies, but it became impossible once the borders were closed. A difficult situation became unbearable when his mother, father and two cousins died unexpectedly after leaving Pakistan.
“My parents are not there, so there is no one to take care of [my family], “he says.” And when your parents suddenly pass away, it greatly affects your mental health, so you need someone to give you strength. “
Hafiz has desperately tried to get a travel exemption for his wife and son to join him in Australia, saying his mental and physical health has plummeted as a result of losing his parents. Returning to Pakistan is not an option, he says, to leave without having completed his education means he will have to pay back the cost of his scholarship.
So far, he says, he has applied for exemption for his family three times, but has been beaten back each time.
“From the day the government gave their opening plan, I follow the COVID vaccination rates every day across Australia every day, it’s my regular job,” he says.
“When I heard the news [the borders] opened, I have no words to explain how happy I was. But after some time, as I explored the stories and found that I was not on the list at this point, all my happiness passed. “
Waiting is the only option
New Zealand-based migration agent Miki Lim says she has been inundated with calls from temporary residents of Australia, such as Hafiz, who feel they have exhausted their options.
“I can’t take money from people who won’t be approved,” she says. “I do an hour-long consultation and say, ‘Here are all your options,’ but many of the options are ‘Wait until the borders are open.'”
Last week’s announcement has also spread confusion, according to John Hourigan, national president of the Migration Institute of Australia, who led many to believe they could jump on a plane right away.
“They have heard that the borders are reopening, but they have not heard anything else,” he says. “There will obviously be a lot of disappointment.”
A Home Office spokesman confirmed that temporary visa holders still require a travel exemption to enter Australia unless they fall into one of the excluded categories, which include immediate family members of an Australian citizen or permanent resident, authorized workers or New Zealand citizens , who usually live in Australia.
The spokesman said further information on the entry requirements for temporary residents and other foreign nationals will be available as Australia works through the stages of its national reopening plan.
Meanwhile, Mizuki says he is stuck in his plane ticket with hope. “There are plenty of temporary visa workers with specific and special abilities in Australia, and we have continued to contribute to Australia during long and uncertain shutdowns,” he says.
“We work for ourselves and for our families, but also for Australia.”
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