Family forced to return to Europe due to visa complications

By John Lewis

A German-born doctor who has practised in Shepparton for three years has been forced to return to Europe with his family because of visa complications.

Dr Alwin Hoelzl has worked as a GP at Shepparton Medical Centre on Graham St since arriving in Australia on a 457 temporary work visa with his wife Jana Kaufman and children Johanna, 13, and Eric , 10, in 2016.

During his time at Melbourne University’s Shepparton clinic, Dr Hoelzl has become a sub-dean lecturing students at the rural clinical school and has developed a monitoring service for HIV patients.

He has also offered his services as an examiner at the Royal College of General Practitioners in Melbourne as well as treating patients at the Shepparton clinic.

However, since starting the application process for his family’s Australian residency last year, Dr Hoelzl has faced a series of legal hurdles.

He was told in April this year he and his family would probably be ineligible for permanent residency because of his age, his daughter’s medical condition, changes to visa rules and his work contract.

He said Johanna was on the autism spectrum.

‘‘It was a surprise — not what we expected,’’ Dr Hoelzl said.

‘‘At first there was frustration, then disappointment,’’ he said.

They were eventually told in March it would take $16000 to apply for residency with no guarantee of success.

With the visa due to run out on June 4, the family had to make a decision.

‘‘We couldn’t wait until the last minute. I needed to look for work and get accreditation,’’ Dr Hoelzl said.

He said when he and his family arrived from the United Kingdom, where he worked as a rural GP in Scotland, they intended on setting up a new life in Australia.

‘‘It was a fantastic opportunity to join the medical centre in Shepparton and to work with the University of Melbourne,’’ he said.

‘‘For our family there was excitement and a sense of adventure — and it has exceeded our expectations,’’ he said.

Shepparton Medical Centre medical director Robert Campbell said Dr Hoelzl’s case was not unique.

‘‘It happens on a very regular basis, in an area where we are crying out for doctors,’’ he said.

He said it might have helped Dr Hoelzl’s case if he was employed at the centre under a private contract, but advice Dr Hoelzl received when he arrived meant he was placed on a regular contract with the centre.

Dr Campbell said Dr Hoelzl could have applied for a bridging visa but he chose not to.

‘‘We wanted him to stay, but he decided that the cost of applying for residency would get him back to Germany,’’ he said.

Dr Hoelzl’s children attend Goulburn Valley Grammar School, while Ms Kaufman volunteers at Goulburn Valley Health.

He said the university had been supportive, but there had been a lack of clarity around his legal status since he started the process of applying for residency.

‘‘We started to get our paperwork together last year, but were told we would probably be ineligible,’’ he said.

‘‘We embarked on a six-month process of talking to lawyers and immigration agencies, but there was a lot of conflicting information. Everything seemed vague and nobody could give us any real advice,’’ he said.

Ms Kaufman said the process was taking its toll on the family.

‘‘We were getting worn down with all the uncertainty,’’ she said.

The family leaves Australia for southern Germany on Friday.

Dr Hoelzl was in the process of applying for work in the UK and Canada.

He said the family has no regrets about the stay in Australia.

‘‘We’ve enjoyed our time here very much. We would like to thank the people of Shepparton, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback and support.

‘‘We have no hard feelings — we would certainly come back as tourists,’’ Dr Hoelzl said.

Dr Campbell said his colleague’s departure was ‘‘ very sad’’.

‘‘I’ll miss him terribly, both professionally and as a friend,’’ he said.

Federal Member for Murray Damian Drum said his office was in the process of requesting more detail to find out if anything could be done to help Dr Hoelzl.

‘‘We do not want to lose experienced medical practitioners from the area, but it needs to be clarified as to the reasons behind this.

‘‘Sourcing and retaining medical practitioners in regional areas has been a significant problem identified by the Federal Government,’’ he said.