SINGAPORE - When Ms Isha Chaudhari travelled out of Singapore in February, she would never have guessed that she would not see her husband again for more than four months.
Her sister in India had suffered a stroke and she went to visit her, bringing her two young children along.
"My daughter, who is in K2 now, has been missing her preschool for months. My husband is alone in Singapore and he has lost some weight because he has been struggling with eating," said Ms Chaudhari, 32, a dependant's pass holder who has been living with her family in Singapore for the past five years. Her husband is a vice-president in a bank here.
Ms Chaudhari and her two children, aged two and six, have been unable to return to Singapore without the required approval from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Re-entering Singapore is not easy after travel restrictions were put in place during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Work pass holders and their dependants say they have been stuck abroad for months because their applications to return have been repeatedly rejected.
Some found themselves separated from their families in Singapore with no idea when they could return, after the country closed its borders. Others lost their jobs and have not been able to return for their things or to try to find new jobs.
The Ministry of Health said in a press release on Monday (June 15) that more Long Term Pass holders who are still outside Singapore will be able to return, as the country reopens to international travel.
But prior approval before entering Singapore will still be required.
No official figures have been released about how many people have been affected in this manner due to travel restrictions.
However, a private social media group called "Getting back home to SG" has about 6,000 members.
In the past two weeks, several group members have posted that their applications for entry have been approved and some are back in Singapore serving their stay home notices.
On Feb 7, the MOM announced that all work pass holders with recent travel history to mainland China would have to obtain approval from the Singapore Government before returning. By mid-March, these restrictions were extended to those travelling from other countries as well. On March 22, Singapore closed its borders to all short-term visitors.
Mr Manish, 32, who asked that only his first name be used, will have his Employment Pass (EP) cancelled at the end of this month because the IT company he is working for is closing down its operations in Singapore. He had flown to India with his family in February and has been stranded there since.
"Since my EP will be cancelled, I won't be able to come back to find a job or even vacate my HDB flat that I am currently renting. I plan to continue to apply for new jobs available in Singapore while I stay overseas and also wait for flights to open up," said Mr Manish, who is in Hyderabad with his wife and two-year-old child. He has been living in Singapore for the last eight years.
Companies are trying to hold on to their foreign workforce despite cost pressures, but if push comes to shove, this group could be the first to go, said employers and human resource experts in a previous Straits Times report.
Such workers are a mainstay of the economy, with around 1.15 million employment pass, S pass or work permit holders working here. The number excludes foreign domestic workers.
Applications for entry into Singapore are usually handled by the human resources department of the EP holder's company.
However, a common complaint raised by the applicants is the lack of clarity and transparency in the approval process. This has also been pointed out in the Law Gazette published by the Law Society of Singapore.
"Based on the contents of the various press releases described above, minimal explanation or guidance has been provided regarding the scope of the restrictions and the criteria to be fulfilled for applicants seeking entry approval into Singapore," wrote lawyer Leo Zhi Wei. "While the restrictions appear to envisage that the statutory authorities may allow permit holders to enter Singapore in exceptional circumstances, these exceptions have not been set out clearly."
Mr Clement Nedelcu and his Chinese wife, for instance, have found themselves in a peculiar bind.
They have not seen their two-year-old son Daniel for months because the couple and their elder son, Leo, flew back home to Singapore from China on Jan 2 while Daniel stayed back with his maternal grandparents over the Chinese New Year period. He is now stuck in China without his parents.
"Our younger son cannot travel alone to Singapore. I cannot fly to China, as the borders are closed for foreigners. If my wife goes to China, she may not be able to come back, as she will be 'deprioritised for re-entry'. But we have decided that she will go soon. After months of waiting, we have found no other possibility," said Mr Nedelcu, 32, an IT business owner.
In response to press queries, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said Singapore has managed to successfully control the importation of Covid-19 cases through strict controls on inbound travel.
"Any work pass holders or his or her dependant can choose to travel back to their home countries any time as long as there are flights out to their home countries," said the MOM spokesman.
"However, those who leave Singapore from March 27 will be deprioritised for entry approval and could see significant delays before they are allowed to return to Singapore. We seek the understanding and patience of those affected. These restrictions will be adjusted when conditions allow," he added.
The MOM did not answer questions about how many entry applications from work pass holders have been approved so far and which criteria were used to assess them.
But some have had their applications approved recently.
Said Ms Ramya Kancharla, 36, whose husband left Singapore in March to go to Britain for a family get-together: "Since March, we have been applying for his entry every other day but it kept getting rejected. We received the approval on the night of his birthday on June 10, so it feels like a birthday gift from Singapore."
Her husband, who works for a Singapore-based technology start-up, arrived in Singapore on Monday and is serving out his quarantine period.
"This is such a huge relief after being alone during these stressful times, and I hope others will be able to reunite with their loved ones soon too," she said.