Australians living abroad say a federal rule change that could trap them if they return to visit family and friends could force many to give up their travel altogether.

Expats living abroad told Guardian Australia they feared this would mean they would miss out on saying goodbye to elderly relatives.

“The cruelest part about it is that you are asking people to choose between being able to see their family in Australia for the last time and possibly losing their right to live and work with loved ones wherever they live. currently, ”said US-based Australian Erin Gregor.

The federal government quietly extended its ban on Australians from leaving the country this week, which has been in place since March 2020.

Citizens and permanent residents could apply for an exemption for compassionate and labor reasons, but some people did not need it. Citizens who usually lived abroad, as well as foreign nationals who lived in Australia but moved elsewhere, could simply pack their bags and jump on a plane.

But now the government has tightened the rules for visiting Australians who live abroad. On August 1, Health Minister Greg Hunt amended a statement to the biosafety law to remove their ability to leave the country without an exemption.

Exit exemptions have been notoriously difficult to obtain during the pandemic and the government has already pledged to be less lenient in its approval process as quarantine zones have been reduced.

Hunt did not officially announce the change – which is expected to take effect from Aug. 11 – but after it was flagged, Finance Secretary Simon Birmingham championed the stepped-up policy as “one tools… to keep a cover as much as possible on the number of people leaving the country in the first place ”.

“So many of those who leave are looking to come back in a relatively short time,” he said.

Constitutional law experts told the Guardian the new changes could be unconstitutional and make Australia’s strict border policy “even more draconian.”

“If you land here you could be trapped,” said Professor Kim Rubenstein of the University of Canberra.

Australian expats living abroad separated from their families believe the change will force them to make an “impossible choice” in an emergency.

Australian Erin Gregor (third from left) lives with her American partner in Connecticut and has been unable to return home to see her family throughout the pandemic.

After waking up to the news of the government’s decision, Gregor “had a good cry on the phone” from the United States to his parents and sister in Jervis Bay.

Gregor, who works at a nonprofit health care organization, has lived in Connecticut since 2016 with his American partner. The couple had originally planned to visit Gregor’s family in March 2020 before the Australian border closed. But aware of the spread of the virus, they canceled their vacation to minimize the risk to her family.

“We thought things were going to get better,” Gregor told Guardian Australia.

Since then, other return flights have been canceled due to the gradual decrease in arrivals ceilings in Australia, forcing airlines to adjust availability and prices. They also postponed their wedding which was scheduled for May 2020.

Gregor had hoped to see his family later that year after managing to book an $ 8,000 return flight for September. But the rule changes mean she will likely cancel the trip.

“I can’t risk getting stuck in Australia because of the green card process. I have seen people being denied an exemption to leave Australia to visit their families on death beds, so I don’t trust them to be sympathetic to me. If I come back to Australia, I might lose the right to see my husband because he cannot enter Australia under any circumstances.

“There might have been a handful of wealthy people who went back and forth and abused the system, but I haven’t been back for two and a half years, and this government reaction is going after everyone. world, they’ve taken it’s way too far and it’s essentially keeping us from coming back to say goodbye to a loved one.

Gregor worries about what she would do if there was a family emergency involving her parents and “aging grandmother”.

Gregor, who was fully vaccinated in May, is angry celebrities have been allowed in and out of Australia and furious that the government is ignoring the needs of multicultural families.

“It’s not Australian in the way it completely ignores Australia’s multiculturalism, the way we travel and fall in love abroad but always call Australia home,” she said. “It creates an impossible choice for us. “

Daniel Stokes-McKeon moved to Hong Kong 13 years ago and established a life in the city where he works as a Financial Services Project Manager.

Australian border measures throughout the pandemic have been particularly difficult for Stokes-McKeon. Not only was he estranged from his family in Sydney, his partner also moved to the Australian city for work in February 2020 with an understanding that he could visit relatively easily.

He managed to travel to see his partner once during the pandemic – in December – after paying for a business class flight. The cost of travel and quarantine was significant and he is frustrated with the assumption that most expats have high paying jobs which meant they could “play with the system” and come back regularly.

“It’s not a light or cheap decision to just come back for a visit. It annoys me that the government presents this as a loophole that has been abused – as if people like me are returning every month for a visit. “

After hearing about the stricter rules for Australians living abroad, McKeon also worried about what would happen in a family emergency.

“My grandmother is 92, I’m afraid something will happen to her. I’m also worried about something happening to my parents how could I come back if I can’t just leave everything here and risk not being able to come back.

Australia tightened its international border in July 2020 by introducing caps on the number of international arrivals that can be quarantined at hotels – in a bid to reduce pressure on quarantine systems to prevent the virus from spreading. infiltrate the community.

In response to the current Delta epidemics that have stranded more than half of Australia, arrivals were cut in half in July to allow just 3,035 people to enter the country each week.

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