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Bridging visa travel allowed for “good reason”: Do you qualify?

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Australia's international borders opened to some eligible visa holders today, but those on bridging visas have been left off the list.

After nearly 2 years of border restrictions, eligible visa holders are finally able to leave and re-enter Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption.

However, a number of temporary and bridging visa holders have been left off the Department of Home Affairs list, meaning many residents still have no idea when they'll next see their loved ones.

"I still can't travel home and see my family for Christmas"

That's left many people like UK citizen Hannah Thomas, who is about to go onto a bridging visa while applying for permanent residency, unable to return to Australia if they were to leave.

Thomas is currently on a 482 temporary skills shortage visa, which is listed as eligible to travel from 15 December. Unfortunately, it expires on 22 December.

"Because of this devastating timing, I am still unable to travel home and see my family for Christmas, as I won't be permitted back into the country without an exemption," says Thomas. "I have waited 2 long years to see my family and still I am told to continue waiting."

In April this year, Thomas's father passed away very suddenly. In addition to the travel restrictions, the cost of flights and hotel quarantine meant they were unable to return home. A month later, their grandmother passed away.

Without an exemption, they have no idea when they might be able to return if they were to leave.

From 15 December, who is still unable to leave and re-enter Australia?

Yin Chiew, corporate immigration practice lead at LegalVision, has seen many cases similar to Thomas's.

Chiew says that people will generally not be eligible to leave and re-enter Australia without an exemption from 15 December if: their visa is not listed on the Department of Home Affairs website, they're overseas and have only applied for a visa or are currently on a bridging visa.

According to Chiew, this includes bridging visa holders who were on a substantive visa that is listed as an eligible visa or "they're applying for another substantive visa that hasn't yet been granted".

The key word is "holding"

The current interpretation of the rules outlined by the Department of Home Affairs is that only those who hold an eligible visa are able to leave and re-enter the country without an exemption.

Residents who have applied for an eligible visa that has not yet been granted are not considered part of the current arrangements.

"The key wording that we interpreted and has been confirmed by the department is 'holding' this eligible visa," says Chiew.

"We have sought some clarity with the Department of Home Affairs around whether that includes bridging visa holders that are currently in Australia who may have applied for one of the eligible visas.

"We haven't yet received confirmation, and to be quite frank, I don't think they will be included anyway because the language is quite clear around that," added Chiew.

A "good reason" to leave and re-enter

According to the Department of Home Affairs, those on a Bridging visa B (BVB) may be able to leave and return to Australia but will need to have a "good reason".

While a terminally ill loved one may seem like a legitimate reason, the government's exemption requirements are more complicated than that.

"So it's actually two-fold," says Chiew. The first is that there must be "compelling compassionate reasons or business purposes."

The second is that "they're also an individual that can claim one of the exemptions to return; namely, that they have a critical skill or work in a critical occupation," added Chiew.

For instance, according to Chiew, a software engineer may be required by their company to go overseas as part of their job, fulfilling the first requirement. They can also meet the second condition because their occupation is on the priority list.

Similarly, a sick or terminally ill parent may also be considered "a legitimate reason to return", says Chiew. However, they also need to prove that they work in a critical occupation in order to be eligible to re-enter.

"Someone who was not working in a critical skill [...] say a marketing specialist […] they may not be able to demonstrate that they have a critical skill or work in a critical sector to then meet one of the exemption criteria to return," says Chiew.

This means that temporary and bridging visa holders in this situation, such as Hannah Thomas – who works for a not-for-profit medical research institute – are essentially stuck in Australia unless they are willing to abandon the life they've built in Australia.

"The government has made us feel like second class citizens throughout the entire pandemic," says Thomas. "There is no way to describe the impact these experiences had on my mental well-being."

It's unclear when current restrictions are likely to change

As to when the current travel restrictions on some temporary and bridging visa holders is likely to change, it's unclear.

"I appreciate that it's quite a difficult time for them," says Chiew. "I would say until there is more certainty around border openings, around the fact that BVB holders can travel without needing to apply for the exemption to return or having that level of scrutiny involved, to sit tight."

A petition calling on the government to extend the current arrangements to include more temporary visa holders now has almost 12,000 signatures.

If you're a visa holder in Australia who is able to leave and re-enter the country, consider taking out travel insurance when you go overseas for added security. It can cover some COVID-related expenses including medical expenses if you catch COVID. You can head to our COVID travel insurance page for more information on what is and isn't covered.

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