After being separated from his parents for two years, Jimmy Sugandi, 42, touched down in Melbourne from Indonesia with his wife and two young children.
“It’s unbelievable,” ” he said. “We thought we were never coming back..”
Mr. Sugandi and his family are Australian permanent residents who live in Indonesia. During the pandemic, he tried to fly to Melbourne to see his parents, who live here. But he, along with countless other Australian citizens and permanent residents, couldn’t enter the country because of its strict border restrictions.
On Monday, eighteen months after the country slammed it borders shut, stranding tens of thousands of Australians overseas, the government lifted restrictions on citizens and permanent residents seeking to return to the country. Australians also now no longer need to obtain an exemption to leave the country.
Just a week after Melbourne emerged from the world’s longest cumulative lockdown, the state of Victoria, of which it is the capital, is allowing vaccinated Australians to return without quarantining. Along with New South Wales, it is removing caps on the number of citizens able to fly back into the country each week, which had previously made it difficult to obtain airline tickets.
At Melbourne airport, the first international flight to touch down, from Singapore, was greeted with water cannons. Families reunited with tears and kisses as airport staff handed out bouquets of flowers.
After 21 months apart, Kirsty Rae and her daughter Keely tearfully embraced.
“It’s been pretty surreal,” Keely said. “It’s been really difficult to get back.”
“I want to confiscate her passport so she doesn’t take off again,” her mother said with a laugh.
Joy and relief were tempered by reminders of important moments missed and lives upended.
Elva Duan, who spent 18 months away from her husband, returned from Hong Kong with three young children in tow who grabbed at her clothes and clamored: “Where’s daddy? Is daddy here yet?”
“When we went back, he was only a few months old,” she said of her youngest son, who is two years old. “Now he knows how to run, how to walk, how to speak.”
Her husband “hadn’t gotten to see him grow up,” she added.
For some, there was a sense that Australians stranded overseas had been abandoned by their government.
“It’s been difficult,” said Julien Reidy, who was returning from Singapore after being been separated from his wife and children since the middle of the year. It was “pretty demoralizing when these caps came in and so many of us were stuck over there.”
Although New South Wales and Victoria’s international borders have reopened, other Australians states remain closed to the world, and to other Australians.