Australians Abandoned in India – the latest victims of political expedience

By Esther Rockett

Images of mass funeral pyres in an India ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic are now burned into the global consciousness – the result of a preventable coronavirus catastrophe. From safe within their national borders, Australians watch the calamity unfold on their screens – terror stricken families trying to save dying loved ones as the subcontinent’s hospital system collapses – desperately crowdsourcing medicine and oxygen cylinders. Commentators explain it was caused by a vacuum of political leadership, millions falling victim to the Indian Government’s “extraordinary hubris.”

We don’t know how many Australians (citizens and permanent residents) are currently in India, but we do know that at least 9,000 are registered with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade seeking urgent repatriation – a quarter of the Australians on a register that has continued to grow over the past year. We don’t know the total number of Australians stranded in other countries either. The Australian Government’s international travel ban with its draconian cap on international arrivals has left them abandoned abroad, often on expired visas, without health cover, some since the pandemic began. 

The crisis is not just an issue of Australians stranded abroad, either, but also onshore, where millions with deep connections overseas are banned from travelling to reunite with family or partners. A year in, at a point where Australia has virtually zero community Covid-19 cases, the government has not provided enough quarantine places to meet the demand for essential travel – to ensure those stranded and those who need to travel for work or to reunite with family can get home. With a cap of 25 – 50 passengers on inbound flights that are only permitted to bring in around 6,000 arrivals per week, the Commonwealth has left much of the country’s border control to the commercial considerations of foreign airlines. Over the past year, the ability to enter or return has been restricted by passengers’ ability to afford hyper-inflated fares for pitifully scarce seats. 

Many thousands of Australians stranded in India have therefore been stuck for up to fourteen months. Yet, as the pandemic continues to worsen overseas, we still see no hint of a proper plan for repatriation coming from the National Cabinet meetings of the Prime Minister and state premiers. 

A volunteer response to lack of government transparency and planning 

Months ago, some friends among the stranded Aussies community and I realised that no side of Australian politics had expressed any intention to acknowledge the scale of the crisis or to fix it. We established a website strandedaussies.com providing information quantifying the stranded Aussies crisis and explaining its causes

We researched world leading quarantine systems and found that throughout the pandemic, New Zealand and Taiwan have safely provided more than twice Australia’s quarantine capacity per capita without leaving their residents stranded abroad. 

In addition, we found that expert recommendations to the government for expanding quarantine had been ignored. In February 2021, as the Stranded Aussies Action Network, we put an action plan to both levels of government. We’ve had no acknowledgement or response. 

Instead, since the arrivals caps were introduced in July 2020, the problem is the worst it’s been and all we’ve heard, with reliable consistency, is divisive, buck-passing, political noise. 

Covering for government failure with a discriminatory ban

Just days before this year’s ANZAC commemoration of Australian bravery and service, coronavirus leaked into the community from a quarantine hotel in Perth, causing a minor outbreak that was quickly controlled. It was from a hotel that Western Australia’s Chief Health Officer had advised was unfit for purpose. As has happened in the wake of several such breaches, though, a government chose to attack the individuals infected, rather than accept responsibility for failure. 

Premier Mark McGowan berated a man who’d arrived from India, a man who’d been officially granted a travel ban exemption to attend his own wedding. McGowan then railed against the  Federal Government for issuing essential exemptions, said that he was going to ban flights from India, and went on to accuse the Commonwealth of failing to convert remote refugee detention centres into quarantine facilities, regardless of them being utterly unsuitable

With growing numbers of repatriates from India testing positive to coronavirus in quarantine, former Labor leader, Bill Shorten, joined the chorus of support for the ban, and soon after, National Cabinet’s bipartisan response was to ban flights from that country altogether, and without precedent, make it a criminal offence to return. It was a measure the Commonwealth did not table after previous breaches, when higher numbers of infected patients were arriving from the USA. 

Aside from its implicit racism, the message to those impacted by the caps is that National Cabinet is disinterested in putting measures in place to assist Australians to get back – that it’s easier for this country’s leaders to abandon our people to their peril and criminalise those who seek to return to the only sanctuary they have – their homes. 

The harm was compounded by politicians and others making statements like those of former minister for immigration, Alan Tudge, when, in a television interview, he repeatedly referred to residents of the Howard Springs quarantine facility as “returning Indians.” Economist Gabriela D’Souza pointed out that he was talking about people who’d arrived on repatriation flights that are restricted to citizens and permanent residents. If they weren’t born in Australia, the Indian Government does not allow dual citizenship. An Australian passport was therefore the only one those returning citizens have. 

Such treatment has led many to ask the question posed by legal expert Professor Kim Rubenstein; what is the point of Australian citizenship if it does not guarantee a person’s right to live in Australia? No legal remedies are available to those affected because Australia does not have a Bill of Rights. 

In the last couple of months, that led some desperate Australians to make a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee that the Commonwealth denying them the right to return to their home country is in breach of international law. The UN Committee issued an interim directive to the  Federal Government  to urgently facilitate and ensure their return, but unfortunately, such orders are not enforceable under Australian law. 

Leveraging the politics of division to avoid taking action

It clearly made no impact on the Prime Minister and other political leaders. They continue to  insist that barring Australians’ return keeps the nation safe, and that if they accepted more arrivals it would be an impermissible strain on a quarantine system they’ve had more than year to upgrade. Scott Morrison argued that the ban on flights from India is necessary to prevent a “third wave.”

In fact, when it was put in place, Commonwealth statistics show that through April, an average of only 17 cases of coronavirus per day were found in Australian quarantine nationwide. If 17 cases per day is the limit of a wealthy nation’s ability to deal with a proliferating virus, its systems and its leaders are still not pandemic prepared.

In reality, the likelihood of another large outbreak in Australia is negligible, provided the quarantine system continues to improve and as frontline workers are fully vaccinated. Over 330,000 arrivals have been processed through hotel quarantine since April 2020, and any breaches since the Victorian outbreak in June the same year have been rapidly contained. 

But such politicised fearmongering has proven remarkably effective in letting negligent governments off the hook. 

Stranded Australians, both on and offshore have found they have no political allies either. Australia’s pandemic border policy is the product of a vacuum of leadership. While continuing to willfully neglect the system, the Liberal government exaggerates the threat posed by a controlled number of international arrivals. For its part, federal Labor has misrepresented Australian laws to deflect the culpability of state governments in the crisis. The system is intrinsically reliant on state run tertiary hospitals and state employed health care workers, yet National Cabinet remain resistant to investing in improvements. Statistics show stark disparities in the quarantine performance of health departments in various states. 

Still, none of the non-government organisations with the resources to do a deep political and logistical analysis of the crisis have done so. Media reporting and public health commentary remains superficial – providing no modelling of solutions. No one in politics or media challenged our action plan or the figures in it because no one has come up with anything better. No one has come up with anything at all. We, therefore, hold little hope for change. National Cabinet is under no pressure.

Power versus humanity

As I pointed out in my previous article, leaders prioritising political expedience ahead of the welfare of the people they represent is nothing new. First Nations people, migrants and refugees are among the longstanding victims of expedient political othering. 

Catastrophising, sowing division and blame-shifting are so ingrained among Australia’s leaders they’ve become the default. Cooperating to create humane solutions barely rates as a consideration.

Subsequently, many members of the public unquestioningly follow the victim-blaming lead of politicians, taking it as permission to vilify compatriots on social media, often with racist connotations, for having the temerity to leave the borders to earn a living, or attend their own weddings or the funerals of their parents, and wanting to come back. It’s a triumph of the politics of division, because as long the public buys into the othering, they’re not holding those in power to account. Nor are they imagining the grief and terror of being put in that position themselves. 

It’s government failure that caused India’s pandemic horrors, and another government’s failure that has left many Australians displaced and families separated with no relent in sight in their time of great need. While those affected deal with their losses, politicians dodge and scheme, unconcerned by the antipathy they provoke. Faced with prejudice, a lack of sympathy from those safe within the borders and the callous incompetence of the political class, surgeon Dr Neela Janakiramanan wrote of a sorrow that many now share, “that the value of our Australian citizenship is somehow less.”

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