Sydney construction worker Steven Ramos returns home every day and switches on the lights to find nothing but dirty dishes waiting for him.
He last saw his 10-year-old son, Mattias, and wife, Laura, at Sydney airport in February, as they left for a month-long holiday in Colombia, their home country.
Five months later, they haven’t returned, and the family remains divided.
“Every day, I come to an empty house and I miss my family,” says Ramos. “I FaceTime with my son every day.”
The family were in Australia on Laura’s student visa. She and Mattias have been unable to return for reasons including international travel restrictions in both Colombia and Australia.
Today (10 July) the federal government nearly halved the number of international flights permitted to arrive in Australia, and said returning travellers will have to pay for their two weeks of hotel quarantine.
That made the prospect of reunion seem even more distant for the Ramos family.
And further problems may lie ahead. If Laura’s visa is cancelled, none of the family will be able to stay in Australia, even if mother and son manage to return.
“I need to be enrolled and take classes in my school for my visa to be valid, but it’s hard to do that in a different timezone, in a house with many housemates, [and] also with my son,” says Laura.
Then there is the emotional toll of the long separation.
Steven says the time difference has made late-night arguments “exhausting and old”.
“We have to think about our visa, our kid, our house here, our house there, so there [are] so many problems and money issues involved that I don’t talk to my wife that often anymore.”
The separation is particularly tough for Mattias.
“Sometimes, when I fight with my mom a lot, I want to go back [to Sydney] with my dad,” he says.
University of Sydney psychology professor Dianna Kenny says a chid of 10 would be undergoing a lot of emotional stress, due to his new environment, new education system and missing his father.
She emphasises the importance of maintaining regular contact between father and son.
England-born Tess O’Brien experienced a similar situation a year ago when she and her newborn baby were waiting for visas to return home to her Australian partner.
“The main thing was the isolation, because she [the baby] didn’t have much exposure to other people because we were stuck in a village in the middle of nowhere,” says Tess.
“It has had an effect as well [on] how confident she is – she’s quite shy,” she adds.
Prof Kenny warns that extended separation can damage a child’s mental health, as well as adult relationships. But she says people are also good at adapting.
“Even married couples can get used to extended separation,” she says. “People adapt to their new circumstances.”