Ron and Julie Parsons’ nightmare began just before Christmas, courtesy of a letter from the Department of Home Affairs.
The letter demanded the couple do the unimaginable. Something that ran contrary to all common sense and all other health and travel advice.
Fly abroad, in the middle of a global pandemic, and return to Australia after three days, or risk derailing their costly, five-year application process for permanent residency through parent visas.
The Parsons – both Victorian frontline health workers, aged 58 and 62 – were confused and afraid.
Travel restrictions meant the only place they could reach with certainty was the United Kingdom, where they had citizenship.
But they knew what waited for them there.
A week earlier, the new mutant variant of the virus began wreaking havoc across the UK, spreading at a new and alarming scale.
“They sent us into a biological minefield,” Julie told the Guardian. “The new strain, the variant, was so contagious, we were going to get tests and we were too scared to touch doorways.”
The language in the letter, though, was unequivocal.
It was also wrong.
Unbeknown to the Parsons, the department had sent the letter “inadvertently”. It was a standardised letter designed to explain the normal requirements for parent visas, which require applicants to be outside Australia for a brief period at the time of final approval.
During the pandemic, the department was supposed to be giving temporary extensions to applicants to prevent them travelling unnecessarily.
But the letter said nothing of that. It also said nothing about the pandemic or the added risk of international travel.
It just gave the Parsons an unmistakable choice: leave, or risk ruining your visa application.
“We felt absolutely beholden to them,” Ron said. “It was terrible, although we knew it was wrong, we thought ‘this can’t be right. It’s so ridiculous’.”
The pair urgently tried to contact the department. They received no response to an email asking for clarification, and their UK-based migration agent advised that the Australian department was extremely difficult to deal with on visa issues, was unlikely to reply, and could quash their application if they didn’t do as they were told.
So the pair boarded a plane to the UK as the country lost control of a resurgent Covid-19 crisis.
“It is a nightmare,” Ron said. “It’s wrong, it’s totally wrong, it really is.”
The department did call to check in two days before their flight out, to tell the Parsons they could delay until February, if they wanted.
It was far too late at that point. And they were given no guarantee about what would happen if the pandemic worsened and travel restrictions remained in February.
Once in the UK, the pair became trapped.
Flight after flight back to Australia was cancelled, with travel to Covid-19 testing centres required before each scheduled trip.
Their savings, designed for retirement, were quickly exhausted. The airlines were pushing people into expensive business class seats – worth $10,000 each – and not processing refunds for cancelled flights for 100 days.
Eventually, they flew to France in a desperate attempt to connect with a flight to Perth.
They arrived in Paris on New Year’s Day, the day Brexit was enacted.
French authorities told them they couldn’t exit Charles de Gaulle airport to collect their bags and connecting tickets, unless they had a visa.
“You wouldn’t believe this story,” Ron said.
Eventually, they were able to find a way to collect their bags and tickets to Perth, where they quarantined for two weeks at their own expense.
The pair arrived back at their home in Portarlington, Victoria this week, after almost six weeks.
All up, they believe the trip cost them $67,000.
They suspect the department – at some point – realised what it had done. A manager called their Australian-based son while they were away, asking about their welfare.
The couple had not previously spoken to anyone from the department during the entirety of their five-year visa process.
“It was almost like he had a guilty conscience, that he’d realised what he’d sent us into,” Julie said.
The department would not comment directly on the Parson case.
But it previously conceded it “inadvertently” sent out letters to some parent visa applicants that contained outdated advice.
“Some standard letter requests with regard to completing visa requirements were inadvertently sent to applicants, including to those who may have been granted extensions of time,” the department said in a statement.
“The department has updated the standard correspondence to parent visa applicants, and published information on the department’s website, to reflect the availability of extensions of time for completion of parent visa requirements.”
The department said it had also been calling applicants to ensure they knew that extensions were on offer.
Labor MP Julian Hill has called the current policy “madness” and questioned whether the department’s explanation is credible, given it remains their policy to enforce offshore requirements for some permanent visa types.
The former immigration minister, Alan Tudge, has promised to exempt partner visa applicants – but not parent visa applicants – from the requirement, saying it is “common sense” during the pandemic.
Tudge’s promise, limited though it is, still hasn’t been acted upon.
The Parsons have urged the government to stop the practice of compelling visa applicants to go offshore and compensate them for their vast expenses.
“For people who have been working here, and are working, and are paying taxes and everything else, it’s ridiculous,” Ron said.