Wendy McManus, from Beragh, Co Tyrone, received the call that every emigrant dreads last December. Her father, Anthony Duffy, was calling to tell her he had cancer and only had months to live.
“The whole thing happened so quick. I just automatically thought that I would have been able to get home,” says McManus, who has lived in Sydney for 17 years.
Australian citizens and permanent residents living there must currently apply for permission to leave, though the Australian authorities have capped the number who can return at just 3,000 weekly.
Besides limiting the numbers, the restrictions have sharply pushed up flight prices. Even for those with an exemption, there is no guarantee they will get back into the country when they want to.
McManus’s father died four weeks after the call. Given her job and that she has two daughters in school in Australia, she could not risk going back to Tyrone for the funeral and potentially become trapped there, unable to return.
“Having to watch your father’s funeral on Skype, it’s just the worst thing in the world,” she says.
Australia had gained a reputation as being a world-leading suppressor of Covid-19, but now two of the country’s largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are under tight restrictions amid a growing Delta outbreak.
However, the case numbers being seen across Australia – 139 cases reported on Monday, and a seven-day average of 114 – are just a fraction of those being seen in Ireland.
Now, though, the Australian government is facing criticism over its slow vaccine rollout – just 10 per of its population have been fully vaccinated – and its “Fortress Australia” approach to the border.
The rollout and the knock-on effect its slow pace is having on travel restrictions are now badly affecting all immigrant communities in the country.
“I would call Mum and Dad every other day, pretty much,” says McManus. “Since Daddy died, it’s just so weird seeing Mum sitting there on her own and makes me so emotional. So Mum’s not calling me and I’m afraid to call her in case I get upset and upset her.
“We need to just be together to just let it all out, rather than try to deal with it through a video screen. It’s really hard.”
Australia’s borders closed in March 2020. Now prime minister Scott Morrison is facing pressure to ditch the approach, though last month he would not commit to a Christmas 2022 reopening.
Given that about half of the people living in Australia were either born abroad or have at least one parent born overseas, millions of separated families face uncertainty over when they will see each other again.
Claragh Brennan, originally from Cookstown, Co Tyrone, is about to have her first child, the first grandchild in the family.
“It’s a mixed bag of emotions. We are so excited to welcome our baby, but it’s a tough one to take, knowing that my mother, father and two sisters aren’t going to be able to meet the baby,” says Brennan, who has lived in Australia since 2014 and is now an Australian citizen.
“My mammy works in a primary school and is off now for the summer, and it’s heartbreaking knowing she would be here now for the next couple of months only for the border closures.”
That uncertainty resonates with Jacqueline Owen, originally from Ballinteer in south Dublin, who has been in Sydney for 12 years with her husband, their son and newborn.
Owen, the youngest in a family of eight children, misses her family desperately. “We thought the borders were only going to be closed for a year and that maybe we’d be able to have people come over here,” she says.
“I do feel angry, I’m fed up now, it’s like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I’m just getting really frustrated and really angry that we don’t have a plan.”
“Things start looking like they’re going back to normal at home, and then we’re kind of going backwards. We want answers, we want to know when we’ll be able to see our families again and go home.”
The reality that “home” is no longer just a 24-hour flight away hit hard last year when her husband’s father died in October. “We decided that it was just too risky for my husband to go [to the funeral] and not actually be able to get back to Australia to me and the kids.
“We were hearing horror stories that people just couldn’t get back for months and months on end. There’s no option. The prices of flights – who can afford that? Then quarantining in a hotel with young kids is just not an option.”
Síobháine Slevin, from Drogheda, moved to Sydney three years ago with her husband and two children, aged seven and nine, due to a work opportunity for her husband.
Slevin’s eldest daughter, Aisling (24), stayed in Dublin to finish her degree in immunology at Trinity College. She was meant to join her family in Sydney after graduation, but that has not been possible.
“There’s a feeling you get in the pit of your stomach and it’s an ache,” she says. “There’s a physical ache for her that I can’t hear her or help her.”
The distance and uncertainty has been extremely difficult, with Slevin asking herself if she should “pack up” and go back to Ireland to be with her daughter.
But she has recently begun a start-up company and her two youngest have only just settled.
Slevin’s mother-in-law is unwell at the moment, and her husband is trying to apply for an exemption to go home, which is “proving to be stressful”.
As temporary residents, it’s easier for the Slevins to leave Australia than it would be to come back. Slevin knows if her husband does go back to Ireland, there is a possibility she will be a single parent in Sydney for some time.
Slevin says she and her husband have lost several relatives over the past two years and had to watch the funerals on Zoom.
Although it’s difficult and heartbreaking not to be there, Slevin says, part of living in Australia and calling it home, at least at the moment, means you also have to “sign up to the fact that you’ll need permission to leave and that if you get a phone call that a loved one is dying, you might not get there to say goodbye”.