Christmases cancelled as soaring visa wait times delay family reunions

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Families wanting to be reunited after two years of border closures face a longer wait as visa processing times have blown out to months even when travel exemptions are granted.

The federal government changed the rules at the end of October for overseas-based parents of Australian citizens and permanent residents, including them in the definition of immediate family for travel exemptions.

Some families have been reunited since Australia eased international border restrictions, but a blowout in visa processing times has left others waiting.Credit:Bloomberg

But many are having to cancel or postpone flights as they wait for usually simple visa applications to be processed.

English-born Paul, who asked not to use his surname, was looking forward to seeing his parents for Christmas after the news that international borders would reopen and the change to travel exemption rules.

His parents’ travel exemptions were approved in a week and they applied for visas together shortly afterwards. His mother’s visa was granted in 17 days, but a month later and with flight times fast approaching, his father was still waiting. They postponed their flight once but decided on Friday the uncertainty was too much and cancelled the trip.

“The mental cost to them and us has been immense. None of us have slept much recently and the nightly call has drained me of any enthusiasm to celebrate Christmas,” Paul said.

“My parents are exhausted; my mum cried on the phone to Home Affairs last night through sheer frustration, but still no visa. I do not understand why Mum was approved in 17 days, yet Dad had not been approved after 31. He is an old man, desperate to see his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.”

Herald and Age reporter Sophie Aubrey wrote last week about her mother’s 50-day wait for a visa to travel from England to see her three children in Australia for the first time in two years.

“We understand that years of separation is a price we have had to pay in this pandemic. But, my god, it’s starting to really hurt,” Aubrey wrote. The next day, her mother Kristine’s visa was approved.

On Wednesday, the Department of Home Affairs updated the visa application processing times published on its website.

Two days earlier, it showed 75 per cent of visas in the type available for short visits by people from the UK and Europe were processed within 30 days. This has now blown out to seven months.

Most tourist visas now take between 23 days and four months to process and short-stay family visas for other countries are turned around in between 27 and 71 days.

“There has been a large increase in exemption requests and visa applications from parents of Australian citizens and permanent residents and the department is working through them as quickly as possible,” a Home Affairs spokesman said.

“The department is prioritising visa applications for travellers exempt from travel restrictions to help those who need urgent travel. If an exemption request is made and the criteria is met, the visa application will be prioritised for assessment and decision.”

The spokesman said the update to average waiting times would give people “more visibility on expected processing times” as they lodged applications.

Monthly data from Home Affairs on travel exemptions shows a threefold increase in “otherwise finalised” applications in November compared with October – to more than 61,000, up from almost 16,300. This includes people who meet an already exempt category, and probably reflects the relaxation of the hard closure of international borders that came into effect on November 1, including for overseas parents.

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