“I proposed to her at the place where we met in Moscow – it was just the best day,” he said.
In what Mr Clarke describes as the “luckiest and unluckiest” turn of events, the couple were granted a Prospective Marriage visa in February this year. It cost $7715 and stipulates that couples must be married in Australia within nine months.
“We had the visa, we had the wedding planned for September,” said Mr Clarke.
But then the pandemic hit and the government banned all Australians from leaving the country and foreigners from entering. Foreigners with valid Prospective Marriage visas are not exempt, even though they have just nine months to wed before their visa expires.
Amelia Elliott, who co-ordinates a social media group for affected couples started a parliamentary petition on the issue. Ms Elliott says the visa trap has snared hundreds and the backlog of applications lodged stands at about 90,000.
Mr Clarke said he and Ms Bazykina became concerned in June that the travel bans would be extended for longer than expected and began applying for an exemption for Anastasiia to travel on compelling and compassionate grounds. They have had four applications ignored and a further 16 rejected, one just 17 minutes after applying.
“They are rejecting our life and for me and my girlfriend that’s been traumatising,” Mr Clarke said.
“I am now very severely depressed because of these exemptions. Right now I feel hopeless, I don’t know what to do. You can’t talk to anybody,” he said.
American Ken Dorman gave up his seven-year career as a mechanic with the US Air Force to move to Australia to wed his fiancee Bianca Hildenbrand who lives on the Gold Coast.
“I don’t want to raise kids where I currently live, the living conditions are a lot safer, the opportunities are better in Australia,” he said, speaking via Zoom from Florida.
They applied for a Prospective Marriage visa but it is still being processed. The department of Immigration takes almost two-and-a-half years to process 90 per cent of Prospective Marriage visa applications.
Like Mr Clarke and Ms Bazykina, they have been on the receiving end of Australia’s bans, once having a exemption application, including 95 pages of documents, rejected within 30 minutes.
“I was shocked because we put a lot of thought into the statement.”
Ms Hildenbrand said the rejection was astonishing given they supplied more documents for their request than they did for their original visa application.
“Ken’s given up his entire military career and we’ve just been left, forgotten and completely excluded from the travel exemption,” she said.
Paul Iskander from Sydney and his French fiancee, Monica, are another couple running out of time before their visa also expires in November.
The Coptic Orthodox Christians met at an international youth conference in Egypt in 2018.
The couple successfully applied for the Prospective Marriage visa but, like Mr Clarke and Ms Bazykina, are facing the prospect of it expiring before the travel ban is lifted.
“We got the visa approved. I don’t understand why they say now we can’t be together and live together.
“I’m Paul’s partner but not having the same rights – I consider it as being not really fair,” she said.
The majority of MPs who believe the bans are too harsh are reluctant to criticise them publicly because they are supported by the broader public.
Labor MP Julian Hill said the government needed to urgently address the issue.
“Is the government seriously saying people will have to fork out another $10,000-$15,000 and start the years-long visa process again and hope they might get lucky?
“We are a fair and decent country, if people play by the rules they should be treated properly, not have the government run off with their money.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said the travel bans had been implemented on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and Prospective Marriage visa holders were eligible to apply for exemptions.
“The government will ease travel restrictions once it is safe to do so and consider options for visa holders who were unable to travel to Australia during this period,” the spokesman said.
The department did not answer The Sun Herald’s request for the number of Prospective Marriage visa holders who have been granted exemptions.
Independent MP Zali Steggall said she had been inundated with emails from Australians caught by the travel bans and called for the national cabinet to set out sustainable long-term policies to address the consequences they were having.
“Everyone is extremely conscious of how effective our closed border policy has been in limiting the health crisis, and we are all supportive of that,” the Member for Warringah said.
“But what we do need to understand is how distressing it is for people in relationships, or people with urgent family situations where there are sick family members or a death in the family.
Ms Steggal said she supported continuing quarantine paid for by travellers as that would address any public health risks from returning Australians and travellers.
“Whilst I appreciate certain measures were taken by Government in its immediate response to reducing the transmission and the threat of the virus, longer term policies to enable Australia to operate in a COVID world are now needed.
Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.