‘I’m stuck’: expat in Kuwait can’t visit her seriously ill mother in Australia due to strict new rules | Australian immigration and asylum

Sam Espejo was halfway across the world when she learned her mother had stomach cancer.

Even with travel restrictions and expensive flights, Espejo held out some hope of getting back to Gympie in Queensland, from her new home in Kuwait, to support her mother through surgeries and chemotherapy.

But when the government quietly tightened requirements on Australians living abroad last week, she gave up all hope.

The government now requires Australians living abroad who return home temporarily to apply for an exemption before leaving again.

“I’d like to know that if I go to Australia, I’d be able to come back to my husband and my dogs,” she said. “It’s very difficult. I’m stuck here.”

Expats are now required to provide compelling documentary evidence that they live abroad – a residency card, bills, and a lease agreement, for example.

Espejo fears she would not have the documentary evidence the government requires. She has a residency card but the lease agreement is in her husband’s name. The company they work for takes care of all the bills. “The paperwork you’ve got to submit to get that permission, I don’t have,” she said.

Her mother has already had three surgeries since her diagnosis. She has just started chemotherapy. “I’m double vaccinated, I’m no threat to the country,” Espejo said.

The Australian government says the change is designed to stop a small number of people who are frequently travelling between countries and is not meant to stop people legitimately attempting to return to their homes abroad.

“Outbound exemptions for Australian citizens are necessary as every Australian leaving, and planning to return, creates a queue of people wanting to come back,” the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, has said. “This is because Australian citizens and permanent residents and their immediate family are automatically exempt from inwards travel restrictions and can enter Australia without obtaining an individual exemption.”

The Guardian has encountered other Australians who, despite having evidence they live abroad, have been refused the necessary exemption to leave Australia after returning temporarily.

Charlie Keirnan has lived in the United States since 2019 when she moved to New York to study musical theatre. She came home in 2020, when Covid-19 first hit New York hard, before moving back to the US, this time to live in Los Angeles.

She returned to Australia in June 2021 for her summer break. She was fully vaccinated and completed hotel quarantine but is now trying to get back to the US to continue her studies.

Last week, her request for an exemption to leave Australia was denied. The government asked her to submit further evidence of her lease agreement and study details.

“I just never thought I’d have an issue leaving Australia,” she said. “I just didn’t think it’d be a massive issue.”

Keirnan sought help from a Facebook group for expats who live in New York City. Many of those who replied said they’d had to apply multiple times with comprehensive evidence of the fact they lived abroad.

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