Virus travel bans separate families even as lockdowns ease

When Julie Sergent’s father died, she faced an agonising decision: if she travelled from her home in Japan to attend the funeral in France, she wouldn’t be allowed back.

Across Asia, domestic lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus are easing, but international travel restrictions in the region remain tight.

Many countries have banned non-citizens from entry or even closed their borders altogether, with devastating consequences for some living far from family.

In Japan, citizens can leave and re-enter the country. Those coming from designated high-risk areas are tested for the virus on arrival and asked to observe a quarantine.

But foreign residents, even those with long-term ties or married to Japanese citizens, cannot do the same.

That put Sergent in an impossible situation when her father died suddenly in April: if she left for France, she would be stranded there.

“I might lose my job, my apartment, my income for quite a while,” she said.

The 29-year-old was told she might be able to apply for a humanitarian exemption, but with just two days before the funeral, there wasn’t time.

“My mother was devastated. I was the only one in the family who couldn’t attend my father’s funeral,” she told AFP.

“My brother and sister described to me how they wrote a message on a little piece of paper and placed it on his jacket. And that was something I couldn’t do,” she added, her voice cracking.

‘There’s no one else’

Yukari, who asked to be identified by her first name only, faces a similar situation.

She is half-American, half-Japanese and lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and their nine-year-old son.

But she doesn’t have Japanese citizenship and faces being separated from her son and husband if she travels to the United States, where her mother is battling cancer.

Foreign residents are banned from re-entering Japan. PHOTO: AFP / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU

“I’m… (the) only immediate family that she has. There’s no one else… in the US,” she told AFP.

Her mother was diagnosed with bile duct cancer in March, and in April her doctor warned she might have just weeks to live.

Ordinarily, Yukari would have taken the first flight out, but instead, she was forced to rely on friends of the family to help her mother.

After a touch-and-go period, her mother’s health has stabilised, though the cancer has not gone away.

“I talked to her helpers, and one of them said ‘I think she’s holding on, to see you one more time.’ That was hard to hear.”

Humanitarian exceptions?

Elsewhere in Asia, the rules are even stricter, with countries like Mongolia effectively sealing its borders altogether. Even citizens are only able to re-enter the country on rare evacuation flights.

That has left people like Nyamtseren Erdenetsetseg and her husband Sukhbaatar Dorj, who are stuck in South Korea, with no way back and no idea when they will see their children in Mongolia again.

The couple went to South Korea in January to visit Erdenetsetseg’s mother, who lives in Seoul. They left their five children with Dorj’s mother while they were away.

But on February 23, Mongolia announced it was banning entry from South Korea, leaving the couple stranded.

They tried in vain to get a seat on an evacuation flight, and then on May 3, Dorj’s mother died suddenly.

In Japan, citizens can leave and re-enter the country but foreign residents, even those with long-term ties or married to Japanese citizens, cannot do the same. PHOTO: AFP/File / CHARLY TRIBALLEAU

His sister has taken in the couple’s children, who ask their parents on phone calls when they will be back.

“I don’t say anything,” Erdenetsetseg said. “I don’t want to get their hopes up for nothing.”

She has even considered allowing her Korean visa to expire instead of extending it, in the hope authorities would deport her. But doing that would mean she would be banned from South Korea in the future.

In some places, there are signs of tentative changes. China has begun relaxing travel caps for some foreign firms and is increasing the number of international flights.

And in early June, Japan’s government said foreign residents now “may be granted” humanitarian exceptions to the ban, potentially offering Yukari an opportunity to see her mother.

“I just pray that… I can go and see her one last time.”

Reporting and photos: AFP

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