For the past 28 months, Amy Alhashimi says she has lived her life hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
Amy has been waiting for more than two years for an Australian offshore partner visa to be approved for her husband, Karrar, who is originally from Iraq.
It has meant she has been raising their young son Mohammad (Mo) Ali on her own in Gympie, Queensland, for most of his life.
“Half of me has always believed that, yes, it will happen. But the other half has always felt it wouldn’t surprise me if it doesn’t,” the 37-year-old told SBS News.
“I’ve known legally and rationally that we should have had that visa by now. Because of that, I’ve always had hope that it would come very soon.”
SBS News first spoke to Amy in August 2020, along with other Australians who were calling on the federal government to make the offshore partner visa processing system fairer and more transparent. They were desperate to know when they would be reunited with their partners.
That moment came for Amy last month when she received a call from her migration agent saying Karrar’s visa had been approved. She says the feeling was hard to put into words.
“I was in shock. I thought to myself, ‘does this mean I can start planning for my future? Can I start thinking about plans for my husband? Is my son going to see his father again?'”
‘The most amazing birthday present’
The 33-year-old’s permanent residency visa (subclass 100) was approved on 14 December. Within 10 days, he was on a flight from Baghdad – narrowly avoiding a ban on flights from Iraq to at least eight countries, including Australia – and arrived in Brisbane on Christmas Eve.
After completing 14 days in hotel quarantine over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Karrar was reunited with Amy and his son Mo earlier this month, on his wife’s birthday.
“It was the most amazing birthday present ever to go and collect Karrar,” she said.
“It was the most beautiful thing ever,” Karrar added. “It was a special moment for me to see my family, and finally I’m with them.”
But their path to being together hasn’t been easy.
Meeting on Manus Island
The couple first met at the Manus Island detention centre where Amy was working in welfare and Karrar was detained for four years after fleeing Iraq fearing political persecution.
After returning to Australia, Amy kept in touch with Karrar and would go on to visit him several times in Papua New Guinea before they got married. But Karrar would soon need to go back to his homeland.
“It has been really hard – a lot of suffering,” Karrar said.
Amy lodged an offshore 309 visa application for her husband on 4 August 2018 through the Australian Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, where he was required to apply. Months later, their son was born.
Since then, Amy had only seen her husband on two occasions until this month.
During that time, she says they were reaching their “wit’s end” trying to get answers as to why Karrar’s application was taking so long to process. According to the Department of Home Affairs, 75 per cent of subclass 309 visas are currently processed in 18 months, with 90 per cent processed in 21 months.
“We were going to give it until May 2021 and if we hadn’t got the visa yet, we were going to move to Turkey just so that we could be together as a family and continue to wait for our visa to be processed,” Amy said.
In Turkey, the family would be eligible to apply for a one-year residency tourist visa.
“That was our plan B,” she said.
‘Human rights breach’
But last October, Melbourne-based migration agent Danijela Stojanovic contacted Amy after seeing a post she shared on Facebook about her situation.
“I could just feel in her post that she was suffering. I felt like I had to reach out,” Ms Stojanovic said.
The couple allowed Ms Stojanovic to take on their case.
The agent says she started putting pressure on several channels already pursued by her clients, and others including the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian embassy in Jordan, where Karrar’s application was transferred last September.
“The case was decision-ready … we couldn’t figure out what the problem was,” she said.
“I was getting the same response as Amy, that the case is under ‘active consideration’.
“They started to convince me that there was something wrong, but it turns out that wasn’t the case.”
Ms Stojanovic says she then lodged a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), while also making a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Department of Immigration for a copy of her client’s file.
According to Ms Stojanovic, the couple’s case was found to have breached Articles 17 and 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Articles 3, 8, 9,10 and 16 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC). These human rights cover separating a family and separating a parent from their child.
Ms Stojanovic claims once that information, which had previously been provided to the embassy in Jordan, was passed onto the AHRC, “we got a visa”.
The AHRC was contacted by SBS News but declined to comment.
While the couple originally applied for a 309 visa, which allows a partner or spouse to live in Australia temporarily, Karrar received a subclass 100 visa, the second stage in the process, which granted him permanent residency.
Ms Stojanovic says she is yet to receive a “clear response” from the embassy in Jordan about the delay in processing Karrar’s application.
“We are never going to know what ‘active consideration’ means and why they were doing this,” she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said it does not comment on individual cases but that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted visa processing, with ongoing disruptions to services.
“The department has continued to process applications from family visa applicants, prioritising onshore applicants and those offshore applicants who meet all the requirements for a visa. During COVID-19, priority has been given to immediate family with an urgent need to travel,” they said.
“Partner visa applications are generally considered in the order in which they are received to ensure fairness and equity to all visa applicants, however processing times vary according to the individual circumstances affecting each case.”
In November, the federal government announced it would introduce visa concessions so those applying for offshore family and partner visas don’t have to leave the country to get their visa during the coronavirus pandemic.
For now, Amy and Karrar say they’ll be spending their time together resting, relaxing, and healing as a family.
“We’ve been through so much with this journey,” Karrar said.
“It’s almost like there has been an open wound for almost three years and finally that wound can close. But we need to give ourselves time for that to close,” Amy said.
The couple says they’ll also continue advocating to offer hope to other families who are going through “this extremely painful process” in Australia’s immigration system.
“There are so many times when you feel like it’s never going to happen,” Amy said. “Then, with a lot of fighting, one day it does.”