Aged care workers are among thousands of people locked out of Australia due to the government’s continued hard border for bridging visa holders.
Australia is currently grappling with dire workforce shortages in the aged care sector, a problem compounded by the Omicron crisis.
At the same time, the government has continued its tough border restrictions for one visa category – bridging visas – despite opening the border for all other fully vaccinated temporary visa holders.
Freedom of information documents show the continued hard border was affecting 18,993 active bridging visa holders in Australia who are hoping to leave the country, and 4,246 people who are stranded overseas, as at 15 December 2021.
Those stuck abroad made 6,008 exemption requests to travel to Australia between August 2020 and mid-December last year.
Only 1,595 were approved.
Among those who were stranded abroad was aged care worker Kaur Simar, a registered nurse, whose employer in regional New South Wales had written letters of support, urging the government to let her in.
Simar was stuck in Dubai and India since June, and made 28 applications for an inbound travel exemption on the basis of her work.
All 28 were rejected.
“My employer sent me several emails, which showed that they needed [registered nurses] in regional areas and they couldn’t replace me,” she said. “Even more RNs left regional areas for a better future in different states or cities.”
“They were frustrated as I was.”
Eventually, after more than six months, the government approved an exemption and gave her a skilled work visa, allowing her to return to Australia last month and work in Coonabarabran.
For many others on bridging visas, the continued hard border has trapped them inside Australia. Some have been denied exemptions on compassionate grounds to attend funerals abroad.
Others have been kept away from family for years.
Shorya Prashar, a Canberra-based restaurant manager, came to Australia on a temporary skilled worker visa, but is on a bridging visa while he challenges a decision by the immigration department in the administrative appeals tribunal.
But the waiting times for AAT decisions have ballooned during the pandemic, leaving him stuck on the bridging visa for the foreseeable future, unable to travel. He has already been waiting 29 months, but expects it could take as long as three years.
Prashar, who is fully vaccinated, has not seen his family in India since the pandemic began. He says it is deeply frustrating that the government’s continued border restrictions have singled out bridging visa holders.
“We are paying taxes, we are working for an Australian employer, they need us, we are working full-time,” he said. “We can’t understand what the logic is behind this.”
He said his parents, also unable to visit from India, have lost hope.
“We are working here for the last six years,” he said. “We have given everything to Australia, like the taxes and everything, and still we are not eligible to get visas to go and come back to Australia. This is the only thing we want.”
The federal government has previously defended its continued border restrictions for bridging visa holders. A spokesperson for the home affairs department said they were needed to “balance the need to safely reopen with the continuing need to protect the Australian community from Covid-19”.
“These border policies have contributed to Australia having one of the lowest death rates from Covid-19, strongest economies and highest vaccination rates in the world,” the spokesperson said.