Elderly tourists on border control hit list



What does it take to secure room at Australia's inn? For the refugee, as we well know, it's virtually impossible, with a fraction of the many millions of displaced people in the world granted entry into this privileged country each year.

Old woman with suitcaseThose who immigrate here, like my own family did, must engage in an expensive and convoluted process in which fingerprints are taken, archives full of documents are produced and verified, blood is tested for HIV, lungs x-rayed for tuberculosis and children examined for physical or mental defects.

But the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has now gone a step too far by subjecting a third group of people to its sustained program of suspicion and inhospitality: elderly tourists.

Earlier this year, as my South African mother-in-law started preparing for a Christmas visit with her Australian-based family, she found her attempts at obtaining a tourist visa thwarted at every turn. Though she's visited several times before and has never overstayed her visa, she discovered with some shock that her age (76) had somehow transformed her into a prime suspect for illegal migration to this country.

While obtaining a tourist visa to Australia has never been a straightforward process — bank statements have had to be produced, letters of invitation written — the level of contempt and interrogation she endured this time came as a rude shock to us all.

Not in possession of a computer, nor the skill that would enable her to use one, she was unable to initiate her application, which could only be done online via the Australian Visa Application Centre in Cape Town. A kind and patient family member helped her out.

My mother-in-law's application was duly submitted. Thereafter followed three months' worth of preposterous correspondences from the centre, each one demanding she produce yet another piece of evidence: the letter of invitation and her bank statement proving she had money at her disposal; an unabridged birth certificate (which had to be applied for through a South African government bureau); evidence of her travel history and proof of travel insurance; an assurance from her son — my husband — that he would support her financially during her six-week stay; evidence of her intention to return to South Africa; a medical certificate from an Australian government-approved doctor in Cape Town stating that she was medically fit to fly; and finally, and most audacious of all, the title deeds to her house. This would serve as evidence of her personal assets, the centre said, without which a visa couldn't be issued.

Contemplating the gauntlet my mother-in-law had had to run (and the vast sums of money she'd had to pay for invasive medical tests, documents and visa processing fees), I wondered: has any Australian tourist ever had to produce the title deeds of their house in order to visit another country? Has any of them ever had to submit to such a range of unreasonable visa application criteria?


"It should seem incomprehensible that Australia, whose people enjoy warm hospitality and respect almost everywhere they venture, would treat certain categories of incoming tourists in precisely the opposite way."


I hazard a guess at the answer: if Australian citizens were treated with the same contempt and derision with which elderly tourists from South Africa (and presumably elsewhere) are treated, there would surely be a national outcry.

Though there remain some countries that are hostile towards foreigners, this country's citizens — among the most active and adventurous travellers in the world — are generally welcomed and well-treated wherever they go.

It should seem incomprehensible, then, that this same country, whose people enjoy warm hospitality and respect almost everywhere they venture, would treat certain categories of incoming tourists in precisely the opposite way. But it doesn't come as a surprise at all, for Australia's aptly-named border protection agency has become mistrustful and cold-hearted in the execution of its duties, reflecting the policies of a government that continues to pander to the expectations of an increasingly xenophobic electorate.

Refugees have felt the fullest force of this campaign of prejudice and judgement; by comparison, those others considered a threat to the lucky country — elderly tourists, at least those from countries not deemed to be 'like us' — have had it easy. After all, my mother-in-law was finally granted her precious visa, just weeks before her scheduled departure. It will expire exactly a week after she returns home. She will not subject herself to the process again, and so this will be her final visit.

And so Australia has succeeded in deterring the most innocent of arrivals on its shores. There is now less room at its inn than ever before for those who come to visit, and those who come to stay.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, border control



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Existing comments

Many would just give up. The title deeds thing is remarkable; what about those who don't own a house? Strange choice of photograph. That traveller is obviously not elderly!

Penelope | 08 December 2016  

Yeah my partner can't visit this christmas now and meet my parents - he doesn't own property and the reasoning was that he would immediately never want to go back if allowed in. We have a child and another on way - and have to do spouse visa (another year's wait and $7k) just to come for holiday it seems

stace | 08 December 2016  

A doctor friend wanted her father and brother to be at her wedding. Both were eminent , well heeled professionals , employed in a major city and were leaving spouse and other family members behind. Tourist visas refused . Condemned to exclusion because they lived and worked in Afghanistan. Illogical prejudice. ( Barf...) institutionalised in the culture of border control and White Christian Australia ...

Fred | 08 December 2016  

A great article, Catherine. Peter Singer's ideas that our moral sense expands to include ever widening circles of beings, must also apply to our prejudices and desires to exclude certain types of people. We saw and experienced this under apartheid where the law used skin colour as one type of difference to exclude or punish. Eventually other differences and varieties of human expression were legislated against and we all unconsciously internalised these prejudices and live(d) them in our most personal moments. Australians are the same as any other humans - we have long and dark histories to confront here, the shadows are reaching into all of our present moments as well.

cecile yazbek | 09 December 2016  

Please tell me that I will wake up soon and find this is all a bad dream! Who does this stuff in our name?

Brian Finlayson | 09 December 2016  

Is it immoral for Australia (or any country) pre-emptively to sift out visitors who might submit an on-shore claim for asylum? If it isn’t, what’s immoral about turning back boats? Turning back a potential asylum seeker in their own country is not very different from turning them back while on Indonesian soil, let alone on the high seas. If it is, on the ground that one shouldn’t impede an asylum seeker from using any means possible to acquire asylum because personal safety is personal safety, is there no moral limit to the number of tourist visas a country should grant, that tourists should be admitted on an honesty system and that if a proportion of them wish to apply for asylum, so be it? If the proportion becomes a rising dynamic because of the demand-pull factor that Australia is a safe and wealthy place in which to live and raise families, will that affect the principle of ‘so be it’?

Roy Chen Yee | 09 December 2016  

Thank you for this article. It makes one feel ashamed of being Australian. I didn't realise tourists were being treated like that. A good contemporary story of "No room in the Inn"

Liz Morris | 09 December 2016  

Yes Catherine it is a worry. Perhaps it harks back to the retributive legacies Australia has in its genetic makeup. Trust in people's honest assertions is viewed under the prevailing cloud of doubt and negativity. Centrelink is often run within the same mindset although Service NSFW has a sunnier disposition

Rein Zeilstra | 09 December 2016  

My first thought was that it was competitive; a couple of lairs in the office competing to see who could obstruct a client more. But then I read the comments and saw that others have had similar experiences. How about someone give a trophy, call it the Dutton Cup, after the minister for keep-em-out, for the most uncooperative operative of the year.

Gavan | 09 December 2016  

I am very sad to hear how your elderly Mother in law was treated. No one deserves this. Can you imagine how these same Border Force officials are treating those who have no one to stand up for them? At the end of detention visits an alarm rings out continually. The visitors say their goodbyes with hugs and handshakes while no fewer than 6 guards- 4 of them togged up in riot gear stand by the door in a threatening manner. When we leave the people we visited have to turn out their pockets and are inspected then marched like criminals back to their locked compounds. They have committed no crime- just asked for our help. I am a sixth generation Australian- I have no where else to go but sometimes I wish I did.

Pamela | 09 December 2016  

Congratulations on a well written article, Catherine, despite the very depressing facts it contains It is sad to say, but the re-election of the Coalition parties to the federal government and the election of the One Nation and other extreme right wing parties to our parliament has largely led to an even more xenophobic, mean-minded, and inhumane immigration policy. However, it has to be said that the right wing and the pseudo left of the ALP did not do much to improve the policy when it was in office between 2007 - 2013. Such a short-sighted policy that imposes such restrictions will lead to us having fewer visitors pa. And whoever dreamt up the idea of adding the words "and Border Protection" to the title of our Immigration Department? This was surely a weak ploy to justify the harsh treatment of asylum seekers, but now it is causing bureaucratic problems for ordinary visitors. I thought we had a Defence Department to defend our shores although our armed forces spend more on fighting US wars than defending our shores. The irony is that it is the Coalition that usually argues about red tape needing to be cut back and here it is not only introducing it, but revelling in the problems it causes asylum seekers and prospective visitors.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 09 December 2016  

Thank you, Catherine. 'Australia's aptly-named border protection agency has become mistrustful and cold-hearted in the execution of its duties'. Sadly, this seems indeed to be the case. To add to the mountain of evidence: I heard at the weekend of the near-incredible dealings that my Chinese- Australian neighbour endured while seeking to sponsor his 74-year old mother. This reflects very poorly on us as a country. I see benefit in keeping elected representatives and leaders informed of this situation, as I can't credit that they would endorse it. Your article does us all a service by shining light on the current unacceptable situation.

Denis Fitzgerald | 12 December 2016  

Roy, wouldn't the "preemptive sifting of potential asylum seekers" be based on source countries where people are likely to have a reason to seek asylum (ie fleeing persecution?) And if so, wouldn't that mean Australia is simply turning its back on people in need? In your moral vision, Mary and Joseph would not have even had a chance to leave Nazareth to find a place for Jesus to be born, and they would never have been refused a room at the inn - and Jesus would probably have been born someone else and perhaps culled as a baby by Herod.

AURELIUS | 13 December 2016  

Aurelius: “wouldn't the "preemptive sifting of potential asylum seekers" be based on source countries where people are likely to have a reason to seek asylum (ie fleeing persecution?) And if so, wouldn't that mean Australia is simply turning its back on people in need? In your moral vision….” The question isn’t ‘moral vision’ but ‘practical vision’. Angela Merkel’s ‘moral vision’ was mugged by reality. A ‘moral vision’ mugged by reality accomplishes no purpose, like a cheetah with paralysed hind legs accomplishing no purpose of being the fastest land animal. How long will your ‘moral vision’ survive Australia issuing tourist visas to anyone who wants one from ‘source countries where people are likely to have a reason to seek asylum (ie fleeing persecution?)’, ie., from any of the –stans south of Russia, pretty well anywhere in Africa and the Middle East, and from large swathes of Asia and the Americas? Why only tourists? Why not use the student visa, working visa, or any other visa, to save everybody, all several hundred million, by getting them here to safe ground first, before working out the details of integration later?

Roy Chen Yee | 13 December 2016  

No room at the inn because there is not enough room for Christ in our hearts.

Mark Porter | 14 December 2016  

'A ‘moral vision’ mugged by reality accomplishes no purpose... ' Yes Roy, a bit like a Messiah who gets crucified.

Ginger Meggs | 14 December 2016  

'By their fruits shall yo know them...' Once upon a time, entering a country through immigration and customs was a snapshot of what you would find beyond the doors. At Heathrow, it was a shambles, but they were polite. In Hong Kong they were organised and polite. In the US, they asked if you have ever been a member of the Communist Party, In Tashkent, they collected you passports, in NZ they were more interested in whether there was mud on your boots, in Australia they smiled and welcomed you home. Not any more. The last time my wife and I returned to Australia we were faced by an officer dressed in a military-style uniform with the words 'BORDER FORCE' on the breast who looked me up and down silently for several minutes, then gave me back my documents and waved me through without saying a word. He then did the same to a young unescorted girl with a NZ passport. I'm convinced that he was not having a 'bad hair day', that his behaviour was not accidental. This sort of behaviour is learned, or rather trained. Welcome to Australia, have a nice day.

Ginger Meggs | 14 December 2016  

“'A ‘moral vision’ mugged by reality accomplishes no purpose... ' Yes Roy, a bit like a Messiah who gets crucified.” Was the Messiah’s moral vision mugged by reality? It all depends on whether one believes God can be mugged by a ‘reality’ that is only a process of what he created. (1 Cor. 15:14 “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty”).

Roy Chen Yee | 16 December 2016  

I'm aware there has been a crackdown on family reunion visas. Most Australians would find this report upsetting. It seems draconian and many would describe it as unAustralian. Dealing with government departments has become extremely difficult. Especially for the elderly and non technologically literate. All forms are online. I don't think you can leap to all categories of visas based on this example. We need more evidence for that conclusion. As for the other subtext - the refugee issue - the issue is complex and nuanced. There are two programs at work. The continued offshore program that we know is unsustainable and pray will end soon. And the program of resettling currently some 600 refugees a week in a country that is still generous in its spirit, despite something that is at play in the world. I've been volunteering in my region, mentoring, offering support where I can. The region is hard pressed to do it; it has its own poor and needy. Little work. Having coffee with a refugee family this week, they told me they were overwhelmed by the generosity of people. There is room at the inn. Walk through the streets of its cities and look. You'll find it even in my small country town.

john | 21 December 2016  

Catherine, sorry to tell you that yes, Indo-Chinese visitors have to produce all those documents for any visit and have for years. It's standard procedure. But glad to see a complaint!

NOLA RANDALL-MOHK | 27 January 2017  

Thanks Catherine for letting us know this. I had no idea. It makes me shudder to think how mean the people with responsibility of 'protecting our borders' have become. I feel ashamed. We are not like this, we are better than this. Is there no end to such stupidity that sets out to hurt and harm people? We must keep making our feelings known to our government. I feel so sad to read this. God help us!

Mary B Murphy | 30 January 2017  

South Africans (myself being one) are subjected to these visa application conditions for many countries we plan to visit. Nothing new there. Nobody wants anyone from Africa visiting their country without proof that they MUST return back to their country. I am guessing your mother-in-law needed to provide the title deed as proof because she no longer works. Most of the time, a letter confirming employment is required. Without that, i will not be granted a visa for Australia, America, UK, or Europe. I work for myself as a freelancer, so I will be declined - and I don't own a house - so can't provide a title deed.

Deevra Norling | 16 February 2017  

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