Visa chaos

Last Saturday night, Clara Nitsch, who has been a long term WWOOFer/helper here at the farm for many months, was refused re-entry to Australia after a short trip to New Zealand.  Clara had gone to NZ to spend time with a friend there, but also to ensure she complied with her tourist visa, which allows a maximum stay in Australia of 3 months at a time.

girls on couch smiling
Clara on a happier day!

When she was stopped at Tullamarine, Clara explained to Border Force that she was WWOOFing here; that she worked a set number of hours each week in exchange for room & board.  The officer claimed that she must be being paid to stay at one place for an extended period.  There’s your first cultural gulf right there – the inability of a person working within a conservative government structure to understand why another would choose to explore the world through WWOOFing, Workaway, HelpX or similar schemes.

[WWOOFing has declined significantly since the changes to 2nd Year Working Holiday visa laws; to the point that after a couple of years of having no enquiries from the WWOOF system, I am no longer registered as a WWOOF host.  Other schemes, particularly Workaway, seem to have become more popular and nearly all my helpers in the last 3 years have come through Workaway.]

Regardless of which scheme they use, visitors to Australia (whether tourists or working holiday visa holders) are surely entitled to choose to spend their holidays any way they want.  Border Force don’t get to make them go to Uluru or the Great Barrier Reef, buy crap fake boomerangs or have Aussie flag tattoos.  If visitors want to learn about permaculture or sustainable agriculture or just like hanging out with chickens on farms, they have the right to decide how they want to spend their holidays… or do they?

Clara was completely accurate in describing the work arrangements here.  I have never paid her or any of the many other helpers I’ve here over the last decade or more.  I’d be very happy to sign a Statutory Declaration or testify in court to that effect, but Border Force didn’t ask me to do that.  Seems like an obvious thing to do, but they don’t ring anyone to check facts.  It must be a bit of a power rush to be judge jury & executioner all rolled into one.  I understand that entering another country is a privilege, not a right, and that Border Force officers have a tough job where they have to judge whether people are telling the truth or not.  I used to be an auditor and I know that, over time, you get a pretty good sense of whether people are lying to you.  On Saturday night, Border Force got it wrong.  Clara was telling the truth.

But once they decide that they aren’t going to believe you, what hope have you got?  How do you feel when you are confined in a secured room, your phone and passport are taken from you and you are subjected to a series of obtuse interviews over many hours? When you went overseas last time, did you have your dossier of ‘defence’ documents with you, or the phone number of a local immigration lawyer…  and there’s the old conundrum of “How do you prove that you haven’t done something?:  Reminds me of the joke “When did you stop beating your wife?” Tricky, huh?

Many helpers have stayed here at the farm for months at a time.  Many helpers have returned to the farm multiple times.  I’m proud of the score of international friends I’ve made over the years, and their testimonials are evidence of the value of the WWOOFing/helping experience.

Clara had taken what she thought was a brief trip to NZ to comply with her visa conditions.  I wonder if her pattern of leaving the country regularly – ironically, to comply with visa conditions! – was what prompted officials to take her aside and question her in the first place?   Being only away for a week, she’d left lots of important things here (e.g. laptop, official documents, most of her clothes, etc) so when she was forced to get on a plane to Germany on Saturday night, all those things remained here.  Messy shipping arrangements are still to be made.

Clara now faces the prospect of being banned from re-entering Australia for years.  The arbitrary nature of the decision to cancel her visa is extraordinary.  If a different official who understood WWOOFing more or had a different attitude had interviewed her, she’d be working on the farm today.  Instead, she’s back in Germany looking at WWOOFing opportunities on permaculture farms in England.

In the big picture, what’s going on?

Have Border Force decided that they don’t like WWOOFers?  Did someone have a quota of cancellations to fill?  Should Germans who travel be taught to make small-talk?  Should incoming visitors pretend that they are champing at the bit to see the penguin-parade at Phillip Island or go to Sovereign Hill?

The whole thing is rather surreal.  One thing’s for sure; if you are here with WWOOF, Workaway or HelpX, complying with your visa conditions is no longer enough to ensure you get to stay in Australia, you also have to get lucky at airport roulette.

Clara constructing cubby hosue framework
Clara learning about pre-fab stud wall framing