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After having flown to his home country in March to visit his ill mother, he has had little luck coming back as Australia prohibits temporary visa holders, like him, from flying into the country during the coronavirus pandemic. But that changed last week.
When she first spoke to HuffPost Australia in July, Thilakarathne had been jobless and depressed. She was receiving no monetary support from the government because she’s on a student visa. Since then, community awareness of her situation has spread, and she’s managed to reach authorities with her case.
After several failed applications, the Department of Home Affairs granted her husband an exemption from travel restrictions last Tuesday, but this good news has been overshadowed by uncertainty and panic.
It’s a harrowing race against time. He will have to first fly into Sydney on August 28, quarantine for 14 days in a hotel and then fly to Melbourne in mid-September. Thilakarathne is due to give birth on October 2. The couple are relying on the plane from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to take off as scheduled.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently capped the arrival of Australians from abroad at 4,000 people a week. This means the limited number of airlines that still fly to Australia are permitted to carry up to 50 passengers only. On top of that, some international airlines have been cancelling flights at the last minute and leaving Aussies stranded overseas.
Thilakarathne has felt more “relaxed” since her husband’s application was approved, but she admitted she’s a “bit worried about the flight”. When she first contacted Sri Lankan Airlines, they said all flights were “fully booked”.
It was only after the Sri Lankan consulate and community members in Melbourne contacted the airline directly to plead this case’s “urgency” that Thilakarathne could finally secure a seat for her husband.
Using donations from the community and money sent from her husband, she paid for the economy-class ticket that was “two to three times more expensive” than usual. Now she’s depending on the flight to go ahead.
“I think it [the flight] will operate; however, I don’t know if they will cancel it. I hope everything will be fine,” Thilakarathne told HuffPost Australia by phone from her Melbourne home.
Thilakarathne came to Australia on a student visa with her husband in October 2018, and the couple have lived in a sharehouse with a Sri Lankan couple and another woman since then.
As is the case for many international students in Australia, Thilakarathne’s family is back home. Social isolation has been felt even harder during this lockdown, with her support network nearly inaccessible.
“It’s actually been difficult for me,” she said. The student has been speaking to her friends and husband on the phone every day, but she won’t feel at ease until they’re together again.
Australia has more than a million temporary visa holders who don’t have access to welfare payments, Medicare or the recent JobSeeker/JobKeeper schemes. The only Victorian government support Thilakarathne received was a one-off $1100 payment called the International Student Emergency Relief Fund.
In July, she said her studies at Melbourne Polytechnic had been paused because she couldn’t pay her fees. She had until December to pay or her Confirmation of Enrolment (CoE) would be cancelled. Thanks to donations from community members since then, she’s been able to make monthly payments for her course.
Others have donated food or given her funds, especially for Uber rides so she can get to medical appointments that she previously had missed because of transport troubles. In the meantime, she is keeping “busy arranging the stuff for my baby,” including a cot and pram that were donated.
As for her husband, who worked as a cleaner at a pub until COVID-19 restrictions ended his job in March, there’s hope of employment once he returns.
“Already a couple of people, like some contractors, have told me they will provide a job once Victoria gradually opens things after the lockdown,” Thilakarathne said.
It’s now a matter of weeks, and a plane flight, before this family starts its new chapter.