Since my partner lives in Melbourne, early this year I decided to leave the U.S. and move to Australia in May. We had returned to our respective countries in January after travelling together. And then the pandemic hit, and Australia was closed to travelers. We have not seen each other since.
Though my partner and I playfully placed bets on when the borders might open once again, it was no longer fun after I realized my chosen month of June was too optimistic. I spinelessly deserted the bet.
The Australian government grants exemptions to its pandemic travel ban primarily to “immediate family” members, a designation that includes married partners, engaged, dating and “de facto”—Australia’s catchall for couples who’ve built a household together.
I spent months of the pandemic in a Facebook group for people applying for such an exemption. To receive one, you must prove that you and your partner are monogamously committed. There must be evidence that your social and financial lives are interdependent. Entanglement and reliance in your relationship is necessary, because being able to survive on your own may mean that you are not really in need of your partner.
Is dependency the sign of a healthy relationship? In the eyes of the Australian Border Force (ABF), yes. You apply, and their response lets you know if your relationship is adequate.
Documentation to prove the strength of your relationship is required—shared leases, joint bank accounts, household bills, terms of your wills, joint social invitations and the like. Lacking these, people have submitted minute details of their relations through things like screenshots of intimate text messages, social media posts, and emails with each other’s mothers. Some have simply made picture and receipt slideshows and sent it as a pdf, presenting their relationship as if in a high school class. For most, all this evidence adds up to 60-90 pages, suitable for presentation as a wedding slideshow.
Successful applicants in the Facebook group suggested attaching a timeline of your relationship—when you met, how your intentions together developed. The inclusion of mushy details was debated, like when you first declared “I love you,” and weaving that into a romantic narrative, and determined to be advantageous. After rejection, some admitted to resubmitting an identical application in hopes of being assigned a kinder immigration agent. I didn’t think I’d ever need to send the Australian government our selfies, but alas. People in the group declared themselves ready to send their nudes to the ABF.
Applicants seemed to average six or seven rejections before resorting to the Facebook group to ask for advice. Will the ABF punish us if we didn’t live together? How do I gather Facetime records? Does it help to call your local premiers and ask them to escalate your case? Various unqualified people pitched in to offer help and cynical commentary. A social media campaign began, with the hashtag #LoveIsNotTourism.
When I first saw this hashtag, I felt it was absurd to think of something as little as love, which seemed almost like an expendable luxury when so many vulnerable people were dying all around the world. It’s true, too, that the loss of this year for so many separated couples has lasting consequences in ways we cannot observe or imagine, as the dissolving of loving relationships damages hope amongst the living. Pregnant mothers are separated from their partners. Children from their parents. Maybe your partner isn’t good at long distance, and the relationship suffers. Life passes by on your own, day after day.
On one page of our application, I attached a screenshot of my Instagram story which, in short, stated that my partner had appreciated the birthday gift I sent him. In the story I wrote over a screenshot of my partner’s Instagram story, in which he tagged my gram handle. Would the faceless entity of the ABF understand this somewhat layered proof of love? They could decode that he had mentioned me to his followers, and him to mine, in a public declaration of gratitude. Perhaps they’d be impressed that despite the 15-hour time difference, I had managed to deliver him fresh truffles over the weekend. Not to mention the “miss u” exhibited across my photo.
The Australian government closed its borders to international travellers on March 27th, effectively locking out anyone without citizenship or permanent residency. That meant international students, those with work visas, skilled workers, temporary visa holders and more. At the beginning, six months was the estimated length of the closure. “’I am the only leader in the world at the moment talking about a much longer time frame,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, back in April.
Now the government says the border may not open until next year. Australia has been doing decently well on Covid-19 response, with a 2.5% death rate for its 22,127 cases as of mid-August. In comparison, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s cases though only 4% of the population. To be fair, nearly everywhere is doing better than the U.S.
For the first few months there was no limit on exemptions granted, but a resurgence in Australian cases led to a cap on international arrivals. Until late October, only 350 passengers are allowed to arrive per day in Sydney, 500 per week in Perth, 500 per week in Brisbane and none at all are allowed to arrive in Melbourne. There has been speculation that Australia’s hyperattentiveness to travel restrictions might be creating a false sense of security for its citizens.
I regretted not leading a better-documented relationship. Maybe my partner and I shouldn’t have taken turns paying for meals and housing on our holiday, so we’d have a statement of bank transfers to send to the ABF. I wished we’d kept our chats on Facetime, and not roulette-wheeled our way through Skype, Facebook and What’s App, so I’d have a larger chat log to compile. We should’ve stayed in one place longer instead of travelling around South America, so we’d have a documented history of sharing a household.
After the border closed, there were days when I felt so numb and sad about not seeing my partner that I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling, unable to move. I cried over the phone so many times I learned how to position the mic on my earphones, so as to avoid overwhelming my partner.
On our eighth application, we decided to take a break on applying for a while. Even if I did get an exemption to travel, the cost for the mandatory two-week hotel quarantine would be $3000 AUD or more. We knew that our relationship would make it through this time; we were more in love than the government supposed, even if the rejections were starting to hurt.
Update: Our tenth application made it through! I’ll be allowed to enter Australia. We decided to transfer money to each other’s accounts and send the ABF our receipts. Could that have been all it took? That may have been the tipping point, but also we believe we happened to get extremely lucky. I also decorated our cover letter with a fun photo collage, so it also could’ve been that.