‘I am on prison island’: Australia’s travel ban tearing families apart

Astrid Magenau promised her dying father that she would be by his side in Stuttgart when he succumbed to the stage-four melanoma ravaging his brain and abdomen.

But it was a promise that she will live the rest of her life knowing she did not honour because of the blanket travel bans the Australian government has imposed on citizens.

Astrid Magenau and her son Hendrix have been granted an exemption from the coronavirus restrictions to fly to Germany to attend her father’s funeral. Credit:Rhett Wyman

"I was with him on the phone via video chat and talked to him while he was dying which was obviously extremely traumatic – I think – for everybody. My sister, my brother were with my Dad in the hospital and held the phone in front of him so he could see me," the 42-year-old says from her Frenchs Forest home.

Magenau's father died on July 18. She says the Australian government robbed her of the opportunity to say a final goodbye and making matters worse, is causing the delay of her father's funeral while she goes through the laborious and increasingly opaque process of applying to the Department of Home Affairs for an exemption on compassionate grounds.

This includes several days' wait for an international death certificate to be issued to provide the required proof that her plea is compelling enough to be granted permission to fly to her own country [She is a dual Australian-German citizen].

"I can understand that the Australian public wants to protect the general public's health but honestly, I do not see the risk I create for the Australian public if I leave the country," Magenau says.

Astrid Magenau with her father Horst Magenau, 76, in a Stuttgart hospital where he later died.

She adds she was more than happy to pay the $3000 for her own quarantine when she returned home, where she has lived for the past 15 years, in the past five years with her son.

"That argument that quarantine is paid for by taxpayers is void now too," she says. Magenau says her Australian friends are "horrified" that she has to go through this process to apply to return to her own country, to bury her own father.

Magenau has this year succeeded in obtaining Australian citizenship, although her ceremony was cancelled because of the pandemic and rescheduled to a virtual gathering online for August. But she says the feeling of being trapped in a country has changed the way she feels about Australia, which she always associated with freedom.

"Australia for me is a welcoming country that loves immigrants, it's multicultural but since this travel ban has started for incoming and [outgoing] traffic I feel very trapped here and to be honest, I'm not really sure I can really identify with being Australian because it feels like it's against my human rights to have my liberty of movement." she says.

Asked if she could deliver a single message to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Magenau says: "It makes me feel like I am living in a prison, that's what I would say, it's a prison island."

Magenau's application has now been approved and she was flying out on Friday, a fortnight since her father's death. But she says she was only successful because she requested help from the German embassy and her local MP Paul Fletcher.

Others have been less successful. Australia's bans which are imposed by the federal government but are the decision of the national cabinet also apply to foreigners entering the country, even if they have valid visas.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has been inundated with pleas for help from citizens around the world, seeking to either leave Australia or enter it, to reunite with their families and loved ones as Australia's travel bans, first imposed in March, have been extended indefinitely.

Many have been reluctant to go on the record, fearing it will damage their chances of receiving an exemption.

In one case, one Melbourne woman says she was battling to try and attend her own wedding in Macedonia but had so far not been approved.

A spokesman for the Australian Border Force said urgent requests were processed within one week although other applications could take up to four weeks to be approved or rejected.

And it said it had overwhelmingly granted more exemptions than it had denied.

Between March 25 and June 30 this year more than 11,500 Australian citizens and permanent residents have been given exemptions to depart Australia, with 3300 denied.

For foreigners trying to enter the country, the spokesman says it had granted permission to 10,350 foreign nationals and denied 440.

    Brian Bathgate and wife Sue from Cheltenham, England fall into the latter category.

    Long wait: Sue Bathgate with her dogs Bertie and Poppy, who are currently in Australia.

    Brian and Sue Bathgate, pictured with Chantelle James and her sons Ethan, 11, and Louis, 5, in Devon last year.

    The couple, aged in their seventies, had been planning their dream of moving to Sydney's northern beaches to live near Sue's three grandsons and daughter Chantelle James.

    The couple was granted sponsored-parent visas in November and had shipped all their belongings, including their border terriers Poppy and Bertie, who flew to Australia on March 18, ahead of their one-way flight scheduled for March 23.

    It was only once they were inside Heathrow's Terminal 5 that their nightmare began.

    "They printed out the luggage labels – took the luggage away, they printed out the boarding pass to Singapore and then the lady said 'it won't print out the Singapore to Sydney boarding card'. It was just dreadful," Brian says.

    "None of us knew about the travel bans until mum and Brian weren't allowed in, because they were on a visa we just assumed they would be able to be let in," Chantelle says.

    "It's devastating, a day before they could have got on the plane and they could have been here."

    The couple has purchased a home in Sydney but have been living off mattresses loaned by friends in a flat that is under renovation in England since March 23.

    They have applied four times for an exemption on compelling and compassionate grounds to come into Australia but have been rejected "straight away" every time.

    "It's just a blanket no," Chantelle says, "you can only apply online and you get an automatic response, there's no human contact."

    Sue says she's fallen into depression for the first time in her life.

    "I got really quite anxious and depressed and in the end I had to go to the doctors and they've given me something because I was just spiralling down and that has never been me, ever, I've always been so positive and very friendly, the whole thing has just been awful — awful," Sue says.

    The couple say they were more than happy to pay for their own quarantine which would protect the Australian public from any coronavirus risk. The family has already paid nearly $40,000 in visa and relocation costs to move to Australia but Chantelle says that was nothing compared to the emotional damage the travel bans were causing.

    "It's not just the financial cost, it's the emotional cost of having your parents overseas with nowhere to live and no future, they can't plan anything.'' she says.

    Chantelle, 43, says having lost her father to coronavirus in May and unable to travel to his funeral in the UK, the need to have her mother and step-dad close by was more acute than ever.

    Hoping to be reunited: Charlotte Bolt is still in England after her partner Michael Hawkey travelled earlier this year to Mt Isa to work.

    "Life is short and they are phenomenal grandparents to our kids, and amazing support to me; ordinarily we see each other two or three times a year, now there's no end and nothing we can do, we're just helpless," she says.

    A couple with even less hope of reuniting is 24-year-old Charlotte Bolt from Exeter and Michael Hawkey, 28, from Cardiff in Wales.

    Hawkey moved to Mt Isa in January to take up a new job in the mining sector. Bolt was planning to follow having been given a verbal job offer in March ahead of her scheduled move in April.

    They both planned to use their working-holiday visa but Bolt has been stuck in England because of the pandemic-imposed travel restrictions.

    "If Mike were Australian – what threat would I be then? Just because he's not Aussie I can't come," Bolt says.

    "I'm willing to pay whatever it takes, whatever the flight costs, I'm willing to come with my savings and spend that money in the Australian economy, I wouldn't be a burden, I'd be bringing something with me.

    "What health risk do I pose if I'm going to go into quarantine for 14 days like any other Australian citizen? Even if I had to quarantine twice I'd do it."

    Hawkey says their case was "insignificant" compared to the hardship other families and couples were experiencing as a result of Australia's travel bans but says the most difficult factor was that there was no sign of when the bans might be lifted.

    "I think the biggest problem is that there is no date for this to end, there's no end goal," Hawkey says.

    The travel ban on Australians leaving Australia was extended in June until September when the outward travel ban would need to be either renewed or scrapped.

    "Decisions regarding reopening the Australian border will be made and announced by the Government in due course," the spokesman said.

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