She wanted to fly home to Canada to see her dying father. The Australian government said no
Australian citizens and permanent residents can't leave the country without permission
A Canadian citizen living in Australia as a permanent resident has been trying to fly to B.C. to visit her dying father, but Australia's COVID-19 border measures made returning home nearly impossible.
Cheryl Joy is one of the thousands living in Australia who have had to jump through hoops to get permission from the Australian government to leave the country — a request that isn't always granted and was only resolved once CBC News became involved.
"As a Canadian citizen, I can't even say 'I'm leaving Australia, I don't want to be here anymore, I'm moving back to my home country' without an exemption," said Joy from her home in Perth, Australia.
"We are literally being held against our will."
Australia's tough border and travel measures have helped the island nation keep COVID-19 infections at bay, but some of those who live in the country say the measures have gone too far.
No Australian citizen or permanent resident is allowed to leave the country without permission in the form of an exemption. There are several exemptions people can apply for, including compassionate grounds, but no guarantee the applications will be approved.
Joy's application was denied. And she was forced to grapple with the idea that she might never see her father again before he died.
"I'm so stressed. I can't eat. I got sent home from work because I couldn't stop crying," said Joy.
"They say they're letting people go for compassionate reasons. If this isn't a compassionate reason, then what is?"
Within hours of the CBC reaching out to the Australian Border Force [ABF], Joy received a call informing her that they had decided to reopen her case and she has now been approved. But the entire situation highlights the seemingly arbitrary plight that many people face when trying to leave the country.
According to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, Australian citizens and permanent residents have submitted more than 363,000 applications seeking an exemption to leave the country since March 25, 2020.
More than a dozen supporting documents
Joy was surprised when she first found out she needed permission to fly back to Canada, but she went through the motions and did everything the Australian government required of her.
She provided them with more than a dozen documents including passports for herself and her children, a medical note from her father's doctor describing his condition and prognosis, a letter from her parents, itineraries, a marriage license and birth certificates.
As well, she was already fully vaccinated.
She quickly received a response to her application.
"I have considered your request and, as an authorized decision-maker, determined that this travel is not exempt from the travel restrictions," the ABF commissioner wrote.
They said Joy failed to prove her father was indeed her father. Her birth certificate, from the 1980s, doesn't include her parents' names.
"If I had known that this was even a possibility in this day and age, that Australia would do this, I would've never ever, ever moved here," she said.
When asked for a statement, the ABF simply replied "the department does not comment on individual cases."
According to the Australian Department of Home Affairs, "the ABF commissioner has been authorized by the prime minister ... to consider on a case by case basis requests for exemption to travel restrictions."
Joy says Australia's border measures have gone too far and are now infringing on people's human rights.
Article 13 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."
Joy's case isn't unique.
Online, a Facebook group called Travel Exemption Australia has over 47,000 members, many of whom share similar experiences about being forced to stay in a country they want to leave.
The entire experience has layered anxiety on top of what is already a stressful time, not just for Joy, but also for her parents Frank and Joanna Giampa.
"I have Stage 4 cancer so I want my daughter home. I want my grandson home. I want my granddaughter. And I want them home while I can still walk and do that sort of thing," said Frank.
"We're all missing them up here. We just want to see them, hold them and hug them," added his wife.
ABF changes its mind
Joy says the ABF's quick reversal of her exemption request once contacted by media shows how Australian officials are arbitrarily deciding who gets to leave the country. Decisions that she says have real, life-changing implications.
Still, she's overjoyed to be able to return to her family and will soon book her ticket to Canada.
'I'm so happy. I'm so relieved," she said.
"But I feel really sad for the other people who are in the same situation who haven't been as vocal and have just accepted what their response has been."
Global Affairs Canada says, unfortunately, there isn't much it can do in this circumstance.
"Every country or territory decides who can enter or exit through its borders," it said in a statement.
"The Government of Canada cannot intervene on a Canadian citizen's behalf if they do not meet their destination's entry or exit requirements."
But it says consular assistance is available if needed.
- A previous version of this story said Australia's COVID-19 restrictions keep anyone from leaving the country. In fact, only Australian citizens and permanent residents need permission to leave.Jul 17, 2021 12:35 PM PT