‘Unnecessarily cruel’: how Australia’s closed border is forcing migrants to leave permanently

“We need to decide how long we can live like this,” says Jennie Edeleanu.

Fifteen months after the coronavirus pandemic brought international travel to a standstill, Australia’s progressive tightening of its borders is forcing newly arrived migrants such as Jennie and her fiance, Steen Reed, to consider leaving permanently.

The couple had moved from the UK to Newcastle, in New South Wales, at the beginning of 2019, to take up a job opportunity for Steen. He would work as a medical registrar, training to be a physician, while Jennie worked in the finance industry.

While Steen was born in Denmark and could claim Australian citizenship through his father, both he and Jennie had family in the UK, so their ideal life relied on their ability to regularly visit their parents. Once in Newcastle, the couple made friends with other expat doctors.

They became engaged, Jennie gained permanent residency, and they were midway through their fairytale life in Australia when the pandemic hit and borders shut.

What they thought would be only a brief border closure dragged on, forcing them to cancel repeated trips back to the UK. They also had to cancel their wedding, realising their friends and family would not be able to attend.

Months on, they find themselves choosing between starting their future family in Australia, with no firm indication from the Australian government about when they would be able to reunite with their family so their children could grow up seeing their grandparents, or scrapping their new life and moving back to the UK.

“We really love life in Australia, the career opportunities and the lifestyle are unbeatable. But life is short, and family is everything.”

While Jennie’s parents have been vaccinated and are willing to quarantine and pay for it, they are not eligible for an immediate family exemption to Australia’s border closure to non-citizens.

Jennie Edeleanu and Steen Reed
‘We are both struggling with the endless uncertainty’: Jennie Edeleanu and Steen Reed

And even without children, Jennie and Steen cannot travel back and forth to the UK easily – they must get exemptions, pay for quarantine, and risk becoming stranded due to changes in the strict arrival caps.

“How long can we do this for? We have delayed our wedding, we are delaying having children.”

If Steen completed his doctor training in Australia, it would be difficult to transfer back to the UK, so the couple feel they need to make an immediate decision about continuing.

“We are both struggling with the endless uncertainty about when we can next see our family,” Jennie says. “The lack of a roadmap is making this unbearable.”

The couple are not alone. Thousands of new Australians have been expressing their angst at the situation for months, with the Guardian approached by many in desperate predicaments.

“Both my mother and father struggle with the ever-increasing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease … These are years with my parents I will never get back,” one Sydney resident, who works as a teacher, told the Guardian, adding that she is desperate to move back to the US – which means walking away from a relationship with an Australian who cannot move with them.

“It is killing our souls and you don’t know what it’s like unless you are going through this,” said a mother of a family who migrated to Australia, as her ageing parents miss out on their grandchildren’s lives. “Feeling like we are in a prison at the moment.”

When Moe and her husband, Ian, became Australian citizens in 2019, their longtime future in their adopted country seemed certain.

Moe was pregnant and, two months after her naturalisation, gave birth to her first child, an Australian citizen.

The couple had first moved to Sydney in 2014 as skilled migrants when Ian started a new job at a major Australian university. Within a year, they had bought a house together in the city’s upper north shore.

Moe, originally from the US, and Ian, born in the UK, fell in love with Australia and planned to frequently visit their families in their respective countries.

“We own our home and have made a wonderful life here … We have our baby here, we truly did not ever plan on leaving,” Moe told the Guardian.

When Australia initially shut its border at the beginning of the pandemic, Moe, who worked in the travel industry, understood the reasons for halting international movement.

The couple reasoned that Australia would reopen as soon as possible and their international family would be reunited.

However, in the 15 months since Australia’s border closed, the couple have grown bitter at the progressively tightening border restrictions.

Moe’s anxiety has “skyrocketed” at the prospect of being separated from her mother until at least the second half of 2022 – the date the Morrison government has tentatively set to begin reopening Australia to international travel.

“We do not have a single family member in all of Australia,” she says. “We are devastated by the long-term family separation.”

Unwilling to risk years away from their ageing parents while citizens around the world can move freely, the couple are now negotiating jobs overseas and preparing to pack up their life in Australia in the coming months.

Ian is leaning towards taking a job offered to him by a British university, which would be a roughly $75,000 pay cut on his current salary.

“But we’re probably going to take it,” Moe says, noting they have come to fear for job security in the higher education sector after repeated rounds of redundancies due to border closures and the loss of the lucrative international student market.

Moe’s job in the travel industry has also become precarious. With no Australians booking international holidays, travel agents and airlines have been shedding jobs the longer the border remains shut.

‘I see Australia falling badly behind’

The couple say they have been scarred by comments by the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, that vaccines may not necessarily equate to eased quarantine and travel restrictions, and a federal budget assumption in May that travel would only resume in the second half of next year.

Moe, 38, and Ian, 40, have grown frustrated that getting the jab will not grant them greater freedoms.

“We were supportive of the handling in the first year, even the lockdowns, but there is no guarantee this will end and we can see our family,” Moe says.

“The current arrival caps on quarantine seem so unnecessarily cruel, and yet they still keep botching it, the virus is still getting in.

“We have vaccines now, but the government hasn’t said that will be enough to reopen. Well, what exactly is the other secret magic bullet they’re waiting on?”

“We saw Morrison running around Cornwall [at the G7] with his arms around a publican. Why is that fine? Does he know what it’s like for us to see that?”

Eszter Molnar left Australia during the pandemic
‘All I saw was narrowing job options and attitudes from the people around me’: Eszter Molnar left Australia during the pandemic

While many are investigating how they can move their lives overseas, others have already taken the plunge.

Eszter Molnar was working as a graphic designer in Melbourne and lost her job when the pandemic began.

Having moved to Australia from Romania with her family, who were persecuted ethnic Hungarians, Eszter had not planned on moving back to Europe.

But the realities of the pandemic were harsh, and strategies of elimination and repeated lockdowns meant the prospects of work in the arts industry mostly dried up.

“The creative industries have been hit hard by the pandemic I think because there has been so little government support,” she says. “All I saw was narrowing job options and attitudes from the people around me.”

In November, the 37-year-old packed up her life in Melbourne and moved to Amsterdam, choosing the city for its creative opportunities.

“Leaving was the best decision I have ever made … Life is returning to normal in Europe and I see Australia falling badly behind.”

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