Sarah flew home to Germany in April, leaving her boyfriend, Fares, behind in Jordan, unsure when they might see each other again. “She thought it might take a couple of months,” Fares said.
Inside, he was steeling himself for as long as six months apart, although “I didn’t tell her that,” he says.
Unmarried couples from different countries have been quiet victims of the sealing off of global borders in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Around 9,000 Europeans are estimated to be cut off from partners outside the EU, along with thousands of others similarly stranded apart elsewhere.
Their ranks includes Felix Urbasik, a German programmer whose Australian partner, April, is stuck in Sydney, unable to join him because of a government ban on citizens travelling. In July, Urbasik found a Facebook group for people in similar situations, and set up a website and forum to organise activism and share stories. “It got 50,000 visits in the first week,” he recalled.
Out of the various social media groups and websites has sprung a campaign called Love Is Not Tourism, to lobby countries to carve out travel exemptions for couples in committed relationships. “We are not tourists,” the campaign’s website says.
“We do not wish to travel and sightsee. We have one destination: the arms of our loved ones. We are willing to go into quarantine for however long it takes. We are willing to get tested as many times as it takes.”
They are starting to be heard. Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and six other countries are among the first to allow “sweethearts” of their citizens to enter regardless of their nationality, provided they have a negative Covid-19 test.
There are still hurdles: Norwegian authorities say couples must have met at least once before and have been together at least nine months. The Netherlands says three months, but that couples must have “regularly” seen each other in that time. France’s exemption, announced at the weekend, requires couples to present proof of their relationship to a local consulate.
The campaign has won EU support, with Brussels encouraging a meeting of member states’ border authorities on Friday to carve out exceptions across the bloc. Progress outside Europe has been slower, especially in regions still dealing with large outbreaks and conservative countries where unwed unions are taboo.
“In Europe, right from the get-go there were people involved with political connections, and that’s what we’re missing in the rest of the world: someone who knows someone who knows someone,” Urbasik said.
I fully support a common European approach to allow entry of people into EU if they have duly attested relationships with EU citizens & residents.
I encourage Member States to do so. Thanks to Minister Seehofer @EU2020DE for cooperation on this #LoveIsNotTourism #LoveIsEssential
August 7, 2020
In Jordan, Fares had spent the past months trying to find a way to Germany, with the country’s airport still sealed – and several scheduled reopenings aborted at the last minute. “It puts a strain on your relationship, not being able to set your expectations,” he says.
For months, Germany had held out from allowing binational couples to reunite. Then suddenly on Friday, they added unmarried couples to their list of exemptions.
Sarah heard the news on local radio. She messaged Fares, and when he didn’t immediately reply, she called him. “Did you hear the news?” she asked.
“It was my highest hope,” Fares said.
He says his joy is tempered by the situation of less fortunate friends with partners in Lebanon and other countries yet to offer a similar pathway, who face “months and months with no light at the end of the tunnel”, he said.
The campaign’s forum has become a repository for stories illustrating the cost of coronavirus in terms of disrupted relationships and separated lovers. “This is like a prison sentence,” said a woman in South Africa, cut off from her American husband since April. “We just want to live our life together.”
“People think [the travel bans] mean you can’t go on a summer holiday to Bali,” Urbasik said. “But it’s not about a vacation, it’s about people’s lives. It’s an interconnected world and having partners or family overseas is just normal these days.
“There are people who already have lost loved ones, whose partners are going through surgery, who have children born. Imagine having your first kid and not being able to witness that,” he says. “You can’t get that back.”
Fares is preparing to navigate the rigours of overseas travel in the coronavirus era. His flight to Frankfurt leaves on Sunday.
Urbasik is working on securing his partner a visa that will enable her to fly to Germany. It will still take months, but at least she has a pathway, he says.
“What kills you with these restriction is the feeling you can’t do anything. You just wait and wait. That’s why I started this, because at least it feels like you’re doing something.”