Recent graduates on temporary visas are being locked out of Australia due to a flaw with the government’s reopening plan, leaving many in a state of anxiety and financial hardship.
The government is planning to ease border restrictions for temporary visa holders from 15 December, including those holding 485 visas, a type of visa given to recent graduates with sought-after skills.
But that will not help a large number of visa holders who have been trapped abroad for so long that their graduate visas, which generally only last 18 months, have expired.
The assistant immigration minister Alex Hawke attempted in November to fix the problem by allowing 485 visa holders to apply for a second, replacement visa, something usually not permitted.
But graduates like Samantha Raut, who is trapped in Nepal after travelling for her brother’s wedding, have been told the replacement visas won’t be available until July 2022, seven months away.
In the meantime, Raut is locked out of Australia but is still having to pay her rent, bills, and other expenses while earning a relatively low income in Nepal. The replacement visa costs another $1,680 on top of the $1,680 already spent on the original visa.
“That’s actually not fair,” she said.
“We are financially broken, we are mentally broken, so many people are going through depression, anxiety attacks due to this issue.
“And after 21 months, when everyone is getting relief, we are being stranded and left out for another eight months.”
Others like Raut have been inundating Hawke’s office with pleas for help, asking him to bring forward the date for replacement visas.
They are also asking for concessions for the visa replacement fees. A letter to Hawke from a number of 485 visa holders said those trapped abroad had already suffered enough.
To make them wait another seven months, the letter said, was “unnecessary and risks further damage to Australia’s reputation as a place for international students to undertake their studies”.
“The depth of pain, anxiety and suffering being experienced as a result of the uncertainty surrounding our futures has been profound,” the letter says. “Some have developed severe mental health problems and are taking a heavy toll on their health. We have been locked out of the country we were calling home before the border closed, and all through no fault of our own.”
Those on expired 485 visas are not the only ones who are still trapped, despite the planned easing of restrictions.
Those on bridging visas are not included in the changes due to come into effect from 15 December.
That has caused profound difficulties for people like Hannah Thomas, a British citizen, who has lived in Australia since 2016. Thomas is on a 482 temporary skills visa, which is eligible for travel.
But the visa will expire three days before Christmas, and she will then be placed on a bridging visa until her permanent residency application is resolved.
That has left Thomas with an invidious choice. She can either give up the country she now calls home to see her family, or be cut off from her family for the foreseeable future. The choice is made even harder by the fact that, in April, Thomas had to miss her father’s funeral in the UK, watching it on video link instead.
She described the decision not to include bridging visas in the planned reopening as “devastating”.
“Now that they are reopening to temporary visa holders, it’s just so inconsistent to say ‘these ones can, but these ones still can’t’,” she said.
“It’s just really, really tough. It’s been a really difficult few weeks since they made that [reopening] announcement.”
The home affairs department said those offshore could apply for a replacement temporary graduate visa from mid-2022.
“In normal circumstances, applicants are limited to just one temporary graduate visa in a lifetime, and a further visa is only available based on regional work and study,” a spokesperson said. “It is expected this will benefit approximately 30,000 current or former temporary graduate visa holders.”
The department said it needed to amend the migration regulations to allow for replacement 485 visas to be applied for and granted. It also needed to introduce “information and communications technology changes”.
“Prospective replacement visa applicants may also consider a range of other existing visa options to enter Australia prior to 1 July 2022, according to their individual circumstances,” a spokesperson said.