Paris (CNN) — When Riëtte Badenhorst got home from her cancer surgery in South Africa, all her fiancé Steve Mann could do was comfort her on the phone, all the way from the UK. Riëtte wishes he had been with her.
“Friends and family help, but it’s not the same,” she tells CNN. “Video calls help, but it’s not the same…. We want to hold each other when one is sad and feel overwhelmed.”
Badenhorst and Mann began dating in 2016 and got engaged three years later. They have not seen each other in more than a year, even after Badenhorst cancer diagnosis.
They’re among many unmarried couples of differing nationalities who, separated by coronavirus travel bans, will spend this year’s Valentine’s Day apart from their loved ones.
It began last March when rising concerns over the virus prompted the United States to introduce restrictions on most travelers from Europe’s Schengen area and Brazil.
Many other countries introduced their own travel bans. Most allowed exemptions, but only for spouses — leaving unmarried partners and their families in limbo.
Unconventional families separated
Since 2016, Elizabeth Anne Shannon had been traveling from Oklahoma to the Philippines four times a year to visit her fiancée Recca Morcada. Her son Lane — one of the five children she had with her ex-husband Ed — even came with her twice.
“We consider this a family for us, it may be unconventional but it’s our family, and it’s worked great for four and a half years,” Shannon tells CNN.
With both the Philippines and the United States having imposed strict travel restrictions, Shannon and Morcada have not seen each other in more than a year.
“I can’t wait for you to come home to your Oklahoma family,” Shannon writes to her partner on Facebook. “We need you with us and miss you.”
More than half of American millennials are not married, and those who marry do so later in life, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Similar trends are seen in Europe.
“This isn’t 1850 anymore,” says Offely Epain, a French Londoner who has been unable to see her Sri Lankan partner in almost eight months. “We need to go beyond this archaic rule that only recognizes couples when they are married.”
She says rules that separate rules for unwedded couples are “out of age, in a world of globalization that, until now, allowed us to move freely, meet anybody and fall in love with people who aren’t the same nationality.”
“You can certainly have couples who are very committed, who have been together for years and who aren’t married; or couples who aren’t able to live in the same country for whatever reason, that’s just a product of the world changing,” adds American Maggie Foster, who is in love with French doctoral student Alexandre Portier.
“Now, that’s been shut down without any thought given to the really drastic effects it had on some people’s lives,” she continues.
Fighting for recognition
Last spring, Foster founded Couples Separated By Travel Bans, a Facebook group where couples shared information on travel restrictions.
“Quickly, the group kind of exploded,” she says. Its members joined forces with other groups such as Love Not Tourism and lobbied elected representatives to get rules waived for unmarried couples — so-called sweetheart exemptions.
In July, Denmark was the first country to grant sweetheart exemptions. Other countries followed, including Austria, the Netherlands, Germany and France, as the European Commission encouraged all countries to allow unmarried couples to enter.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” Foster says. “It became this organic grassroots movement, we forced governments to pay attention to us. European governments were a lot more responsive than the US.”
While Denmark only asks for a signed declaration, France requires comprehensive documents including a history of the relationship, photos of the couple, passport stamps from trips together, anything proving a “romantic relationship with a French citizen for at least six months before borders closed,” according to its Foreign Ministry.
France has given out 2,570 sweetheart exemptions, according to official figures. Among the lucky couples were French pharmacist Béatrice Vayleux and American opera singer Jackson Williams.
“We made a 31-page file with everything we could find, a signed letter, photos of us, passport stamps, everything,” Vayleux says. “It was a lot of work, but it was worth it.”
“I’m so grateful that we have this chance to see each other in the pandemic — for us I feel that it was very easy compared to other couples,” Vayleux says after reuniting with Williams in Paris on January 30.
Keeping up with the news
Coronavirus travel restrictions change weekly. After opening their borders last summer as the first wave of infections faded, European countries began closing them down again.
On February 4, France said it would stop offering exemptions to unmarried couples, to prevent the spread of new variants.
France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told CNN it would only resume the procedure “depending on the health situation.” The Netherlands also stopped allowing long-distance couples in the country.
“Most of the time, I try not to look at what’s on social media about travel rules because if it’s bad, it’ll make me feel worse,” says Italo-German dancer Jasmine Jasper.
“But at the same time, I want to be informed about it 24/7.”
Jasper spoke to CNN from a hotel in Serbia where she was spending two weeks before being able to reunite with her boyfriend Anthony Pototski in New York.
Serbia is not currently on the US travel ban list, which means Jasper should be able to travel to the United States after more than 14 days in Belgrade, unless the rule changes.
Requirements are changing constantly for all travelers, with countries adopting new policies like self-funded hotel quarantines or tests prior to departure and after arrival. While making travel more complicated, Jasper hopes these will pave the way for countries to safely reopen borders.
“We are committed to quarantining, getting tested, keeping everyone safe,” she says. “We don’t want to get sick; we don’t want to get others to get sick. We just want to be with our loved ones, create our lives and build up our families.”
In December 2019, when Javier came back to Spain after a vacation with Kazakh Nazym, he had just proposed to her.
“We came back to our countries very happy, dreaming of a life together,” Javier, who did not want to give his surname for personal reasons, tells CNN.
But, he says, the life project “has been paralyzed for more than a year, with the uncertainty of not knowing how long this will last, and the pain of being far in this difficult time.
“The dream of being able to share our lives, start our family and share a future together keeps us strong and full of energy to fight day after day.”
With border restrictions strengthening, some long-distance binational couples are rethinking life-plans in their search for more security.
Some are giving in to convention and even making wedding plans.
“A lot of couples are considering getting married now, which is ironic,” says Maggie Foster, who has been in contact with many couples through her Facebook group.
Anna Liebermann from New York was lucky enough to get a sweetheart exemption to visit her partner Clément Roux in France in December. Still, both tell CNN that the pandemic has made them review their priorities.
Although Roux loves his job in Paris, the pandemic has made him realize that he should “hurry up” to try and live closer to Liebermann.
Liebermann adds: “Both of us have been heavily considering what is our next move after the pandemic, so we don’t have to go through this again.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Elizabeth Anne Shannon’s surname.