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I grew up in Australia – but I've been locked out because of Covid

I was sitting in the Heathrow Airport Terminal hotel feeling insurmountable grief and anger in August last year.

Having grown up in Australia, my brother and I were now attempting to fly there to be with our parents, only to have been denied entry at check in.

As I sat, I wrestled with the thought that all my belongings were on their way to the other side of the world, all of my savings spent to get them there. I was now wondering how I was going to pay my rent, or keep warm in the winter – I no longer had any bedding, winter coats, or even an address.

I have dual British and New Zealand nationality but grew up in Perth, Western Australia, from ages 10 to 22, where my parents still live.

During this time, I was a resident in Australia as a New Zealander on a Special Category visa. As a child on this type of visa, the rules dictated that my parents needed to obtain Australian citizenship before I could qualify for it myself.

Since my parents were over 45 years of age, they did not meet the criteria for eligibility, thus making it impossible for me to become an Australian citizen at any point during my childhood. 

No one in my family is an Australian citizen or a permanent resident. In theory, this should be irrelevant.

We are all New Zealand citizens and therefore are to be treated, for all intents and purposes, as Australians under the ‘reciprocal and special’ relationship – a term commonly used to describe the Trans-Tasman Arrangement. In reality, it is neither.

Growing up in Australia, I dreamt of getting out. I hated living there for many reasons, not least because of the constant bigotry I experienced and witnessed as a child, teenager and young adult.

This included horrifying treatment of Aboriginal Australians, immigrants and refugees. I frequently witnessed behaviour and attitudes deeply ingrained in a culture, which both saddened and disgusted me.

Coronavirus restrictions only heightened tensions, with border closures until at least 2022. 

The xenophobia I have observed from Australia has reached a breaking point and I cannot help but hate the entire country.

This might sound extreme, but I am going big, because in the most devastating year of my life, Australia told me that I cannot go home.

I moved to London in 2016 for work, vowing never to go back unless I needed to. When the pandemic hit, as a comic who lost all their income, I really needed to.

As my brother – who I live with – and I are both at risk of Covid-19 due to underlying health conditions, we took the pandemic seriously from day one. We were concerned about the risks of travelling and were aware of Australia’s border policies.

Being constantly treated as an unwelcome outsider while growing up made me feel skeptical about how we might be treated when trying to return.

In May last year, when it became clear the pandemic was going to be for the long haul, we decided we should go home to our parents’ to see it out.

The Australian Government website stated that New Zealand citizens returning to immediate family were an exempt category, so we booked flights.

The earliest we could get affordable flights was in August, so for three additional months we isolated and only saw each other.

Being a stand up comedian and writer, most of my work disappeared overnight in March last year. It was devastating and terrifying to lose my income and have no idea when it might return.

I was also aware of the long-term impacts a pandemic could have on both my own career and the industry I love dearly. As someone who grew up without ever being allowed to feel at home, I had found a home in comedy and on stage – and in losing it, I felt lost.

At our eventual check-in in August, we presented documents required – passports, negative Covid-19 tests and proof that our immediate family lived in Australia in the form of household bills from my parents’ home.

But, as expected, our New Zealand passports caused confusion, and a call to Australian immigration was made. My parents’ names on the bills were queried by immigration and the most insane sentence I have ever heard was spoken: ‘Your parents are not your immediate family.’

I was shocked, angry and confused. We were not only told that we would not be let into the country we grew up in, but also chastised for ‘lying’ on our application by claiming that our parents were our immediate family. 

Our travel histories were pulled up as we stood in bewilderment – family holidays we had gone on over a decade prior, a year I had studied abroad during university in America in 2013.

Immigration used this information to argue that we couldn’t claim to be Australian given such nomadic travel histories. I have never claimed to be Australian – I claimed to be a New Zealand passport holder desperate to see her immediate family.

I was furious because it was abundantly clear it wasn’t about Covid-19 – we had taken every precaution. 

More than anything, I felt powerless. My brother and I had meticulously planned only to be turned away on the basis of an arbitrary rule. 

My parents were beside themselves at the other end. Over Skype, I had to watch my father cry as I told him that we weren’t allowed home. Through my laptop in the hotel room, I watched him plead with the Department of Home Affairs, hoping that they might be willing to help us.

Australia defines ‘immediate family’ as a spouse, de facto partner, dependent child or if you are a legal guardian of a child under 23. Although the website has since been updated to make this clear, at the time, in all my searches, I never found this information.

Based on such a definition, the only way I would be permitted to see my parents would be via marriage. Immigration policies need to be reviewed if they dictate that the only father allowed to be reunited with his children is Woody Allen.

I have spent a year reading about the preferential treatment of celebrities by Australia, seething with rage at how unconscionable it is that people like Rita Ora can behave however they please and still go anywhere.

She first broke Covid-19 rules in the UK by failing to self-isolate following a trip to Egypt and then again by hosting a party for her many privileged pals. Yet, she was allowed into Australia in February for her role as a coach on The Voice. 

While I was cast away, people like Tom Hanks and Ed Sheeran were granted approval to travel, proving a different set of rules exists for the A team.

Australian culture is widely regarded as down to earth but I think prioritising the likes of Zac Efron over citizens and residents is extremely wicked and shockingly vile.

He was reportedly granted an extension to his visa, a hugely difficult task for people who are not Zac Efron.

My brother and I spent five nights – and our remaining savings – at the airport hotel desperate for this to be an unbelievable but rectifiable misunderstanding. We reapplied and made countless calls to the Australian and New Zealand embassies.

Our final application was on compassionate grounds. We sent seven separate applications over a week. The government heard my mental health was severely impacted and a doctor believed I was at risk of harming myself if not allowed home. 

This application was rejected and I was told ‘your circumstances do not outweigh the risk to the Australian community’. It was heartbreaking but unsurprising that people like us are considered a risk to the community we grew up in, rather than a part of it.

The myopia in Australia’s culture has created a mentality that Covid-19 is not their problem – the approach is to keep the virus out rather than vaccinate against it. 

It is sickening to see leaders there praised globally for their handling of the pandemic. The ‘low’ numbers of cases and deaths they boast do not include those stranded overseas who have been deserted. 

My heart breaks for Indian-Australians prevented from returning home and threatened with jail time and fines. The government announced a penalty of up to five years in jail and a $66k fine for anyone who attempts to return home from India, a move they backpedaled on following a backlash.

Yet they never made this policy for nations that were predominantly white. The US and UK had similar periods of high numbers of Covid-19 cases but flights were not banned in the same way they were for India.

They say their quarantine system couldn’t handle the potential threat, and instead of creating the necessary infrastructure in a country with no shortage of space, they are using this limitation and the fact the population isn’t vaccinated as an excuse to control immigration.

I think this last year has been a dream come true for Australia, an opportunity to be praised for doing what they love; separating families and closing borders.

I am no longer trying to get to Australia. I am devastated about not being able to be with my family, especially during a time when I needed them most.

I hope that the borders will open up so that families like mine are no longer torn apart, but this is unlikely to happen until at least the end of 2022.

I am now spending my time writing a show about what Australia is doing. I am looking forward to performing it in the UK as soon as stand up starts up again.

Hopefully it will be successful and might even turn me into a ‘celebrity’ of sorts – then Australia might actually listen.

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