Estonians waiting for permission to travel

Australia's largest airline Qantas has grounded almost all international flights at least until October.

PHOTO: © David Gray / Reuters/REUTERS

Citizens and permanent residents of Australia need to apply for a permit to leave the country. “After four weeks of waiting, I finally got my answer that for some miraculous reason came back positive,” says Aet Madison, head of travel agents Aero Travel, who lives and works in Sydney. She adds that her emotions ranged from hopefulness to worry, hopelessness, uncertainty, confusion and anxiety during the waiting period. She will finally be allowed to travel to Estonia on Thursday.

The application gauntlet

Madison says that all Estonians in Australia who have been issued a residence permit or passport need to apply for a travel permit. Traveling without a permit is allowed to those who have spent more time away from Australia than in the country over the past 12-24 months. There have been cases where border agents have been counting individual days to determine whether someone can travel or not.

A travel permit can be applied for if the purpose of one’s trip is to combat the coronavirus, essential manufacturing or business activity, treatment not available in Australia or other urgent personal circumstances that cannot be postponed, such as weddings or funerals. Permits might also be granted on humanitarian or national considerations.

“The application needs to include all available documents that can prove the purpose of travel, the more documents, the better,” Madison says. Next, the bureaucracy apparatus comes to life – working for free but slowly. “The applications are reviewed by the Australian Border Force that people cannot contact neither by phone nor email; there is not a single way to contact them,” Madison describes the wait. She turned to the Estonian Embassy that, according to her, did everything in its power to speed up the process. “Sitting on your couch with your bags packed three hours before your flight, simply waiting for someone to work their way to your application to say “yes” or “no,” the entire process seems inhuman and inconsiderate,” Madison says. She got her first travel permit with 30 minutes left until her flight, but check-in had already closed by then. “Luckily, as a travel agent, I have access to the booking system and I managed to switch to a flight the following week at the last minute.”

Madison characterizes the process of applying for permits as completely ridiculous and opaque. “I have been greatly affected as half of our clients depend on whether they will be allowed to leave the country. I know people who have been issued permits and those who have not, while a lot of people are still waiting for their decision.”

She says that many Australians who seldom travel are not bothered by border closures, with this sentiment reinforced by the conviction that an uptick in COVID-19 cases that started in Melbourne was caused by people allowed into the country. On the other hand, people with families or businesses in other countries feel the restriction is harrowing and exaggerated. “Especially when they can see Europe opening its borders and the world seemingly returning to normal. It is perfectly understandable as people who have been separated from their families and loved ones feel an effect on their mental wellbeing.”

Strict hotel quarantine

Tough quarantine measures that await a person returning to Australia are also completely different from the obligation in Estonia to self-isolate for 14 days. An Australian citizen who flew back home from Estonia has described having to wait four hours at the airport, followed by a health check after which you get a police escort to a special Sheraton quarantine hotel where you need to spend the next two weeks at the expense of the Australian taxpayer, with police guards behind the door.

As of July 7, the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria is closed, something that Melbourne Estonian Sirje Rivers associates with a spike in COVID-19 cases in Victoria. “Somehow, the virus slipped in and started spreading rapidly,” she says. On July 7, 191 new cases were reported in the past 24 hours. Rivers says that residents of districts hit by the virus and social apartments in high-rises have been prohibited from leaving, while the mood still remains positive and people still smile to each other, some of them wearing masks.