Stranded Aussies and Advance Australia Unfair

By Esther Rockett

Esther Rockett, a co-founder of the Stranded Aussies Action Network, writes on the Government’s failure to guarantee the right to return to one’s home country for Australians abroad during the pandemic.

Australia is among the most successful countries in the world at containing the spread of coronavirus. The closure of its international border in March 2020 and a mandatory hotel quarantine requirement for inbound passengers were major factors in this success.      

However, following infection control failings in quarantine in Melbourne in June 2020 that led to over eight hundred deaths and a long state-wide lockdown, the Australian government imposed strict caps on international arrivals. Other countries that have effectively contained the virus have limited arrivals too, but those pale beside Australia’s drastically low intake. While the caps were implemented to relieve pressure on hotel quarantine systems, no end date was set, and in January 2021 they were cut again by one third, from around 7,000 per week. Since February, the Victorian state government has suspended international arrivals altogether.      

Up to a million Australians live, study and work overseas, and the caps were cut at a time when nearly forty thousand citizens and permanent residents (PRs) were registered with the federal government as needing urgent return, a number that has been increasing since they were imposed. Some have been stranded since the border closed last March. A year into the pandemic there is no plan from the federal or state governments to rectify the situation. 

With flights limited to 25 – 50 passengers, inbound travellers fortunate enough to get seats have paid from three to forty times the usual price of a one-way ticket. Those fortunate enough to get back are charged up to $3,000 per person to quarantine for fourteen days in unserviced hotel rooms, most without opening windows and no fresh air or exercise breaks. 

News media has reported a growing humanitarian crisis among those stranded abroad, stories of families without an income facing homelessness or living in vans; children, including kids with disabilities, and toddlers separated from parents and family for months; and people with medical conditions stranded away from family or support in countries where they’re not entitled to healthcare. 

Pupils and students have had their education disrupted; those who have been able to get back have had to leave their pets behind; those stranded have missed out on jobs or lost them. Others finished their work contracts or visas, ended their leases and shipped their belongings to Australia only to find their tickets cancelled. Australians on expired visas have had to negotiate with foreign governments to get permission to remain, while options for onward travel are close to nil. Many are uninsured with Australian providers suspending the sale of travel insurance. 

The United Nations Human Rights Committee states that there are few, if any, circumstances under which deprivation of the right to return to one’s home country can be considered reasonable. On the face of it, an uncontrolled pandemic that has caused global disruption and more than two million deaths might be considered one of those. However, the assumption that depriving people of their right to return is the only way to keep a country’s population safe from coronavirus is proven wrong by Taiwan and New Zealand. 

Taiwan is a small island nation with a population close to that of Australia’s. The combined population of those two countries is over 30 million, yet the sum of their coronavirus deaths is less than four percent of Australia’s toll. They have maintained low infection rates without stranding their residents abroad. Official Taiwan and New Zealand arrival statistics indicate that their quarantine capacity was at least double that of Australia and is triple or more at times. Taiwan and New Zealand have avoided separating families and couples, and have allowed entry to foreign workers. Taiwan has admitted international students and has allowed over 400,000 to quarantine at home under certain conditions. New Zealand releases its hotel quarantine inmates for supervised daily exercise breaks.

Limiting repatriation of a country’s residents also goes explicitly against World Health Organisation advisories, including those on the emerging coronavirus strains. These advisories say that essential travel ought to be facilitated, and any measures to restrict it must be evidence-based, proportionate and time-limited. Australia fails on all those counts. 

In fact, only around one percent of Australia’s international arrivals test positive for COVID-19. The quarantine system is operating reasonably well, continuing to undergo improvements and minor outbreaks since the Melbourne lockdown have been contained. Another factor that highlights the injudiciousness of the flight caps is that the federal government only allowed 150,000 citizens and PRs to enter between April and January, yet it gave 100,000 permission to exit on essential travel exemptions. With hundreds of thousands already stuck or residing overseas, the situation was always going to get worse.      

It’s been compounded further by the government allowing up to a quarter of arrival places to be occupied by foreign nationals on temporary visas, including sporting teams and celebrities and their entourages. There is no queue: stranded Aussies have had to compete in a bidding war for tickets, where the wealthy, Australian politicians among them, breeze in on clear advantage. The federal government has also talked up its chartered repatriation flights, but those have only brought back 15,000 travellers, with returnees from London paying $2,200 to $8,700 for the one way fare.  

Yet, political pressure to expand quarantine and raise the caps has been negligible. Both sides of Australian politics have engaged in obfuscation and buck-passing over whether quarantine is a state or federal responsibility. According to legal experts, it’s a joint responsibility, with each level of government dependent on the other. Beyond the bluster, no government leaders, state or federal, have expressed any meaningful intention of assisting Australians to get back, and have ignored recommendations made in two government-commissioned reports.

There’s also little pressure from the media. When I blogged the above figures, readers questioned why the media has not covered them. Reporting has often simplistically repeated the government’s line and focused on the threat of “infected international travellers.” In January, the editor of  The Age Gay Alcorn supported the cuts to the flight caps with the claim they “keep us safe.” The “us” was limited to those within our national borders, excluding the Australians overseas that the caps have endangered. Her opinion was published just days after Scott Morrison had changed the national anthem to include the inaccurate line that Australians are “one and free.” 

For many stranded Aussies, the experience of having their human rights violated is new, shattering their perception of Australia as a society that values fairness. They’ve been harmed by the government’s callousness, and disturbed by the public’s lack of sympathy for their hardship, finding themselves judged for daring to leave our shores. Many have been awakened to what marginalised Australians have experienced – that it’s in the interests of those in politics to make sure the majority of the population remains unsympathetic. As long as they are, there’s minimal pressure to change oppressive policies. Columnist for The Australian, Janet Albrechtsen, recently made a point that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is using the politics of division to get away with his government’s inaction on stranded Aussies, exploiting public animosity toward ex-pats. As astute as the observation was – an unexpected insight from a publication that has made an industry of sowing division – the states, the opposition party and the media are also complicit.

Stranded Aussies find themselves locked out, unheard, having to justify their whereabouts and their incomes to interrogating strangers. They’ve become victims of divisive rhetoric that has less to do with the threat of coronavirus than political expedience. In one social media exchange, a mother explained that she had just paid $21,000 for two tickets from London so that her husband and child could reunite with her in Melbourne. The family were stranded in the UK for ten months with no permits to work. Facing homelessness there, she found a job in Australia, but had to return alone as she was only able to get a booking for one seat. The first available flight for her husband and child, following eleven cancellations, is three months away. Commenters replied that things couldn’t be too bad if she had the disposable income to cover the outlay. “I paid with my credit card,” she answered. In her previous posts, she’d disclosed that her family’s savings were long gone, saying, “I’d never been away from my toddler for more than one night before this.”

None of the articles of the United Nations Human Rights covenants are legally enforceable in Australia. The government is therefore accountable to no one. This is not the first time it has separated families, or cruelly excluded and mistreated people with a legitimate right to be here. Some are our First Nations people. It’s part of a long-term pattern from a nation that imprisons children as young as ten, detains refugees, including children, for years in torturous conditions, and outsources its human rights breaches to foreign jurisdictions.

Our leaders exploit the ignorance and apathy of the public to get away with it. The formula is consistent; obscure the facts, deny responsibility and stoke antipathy toward the victims. That’s not to attribute equivalence to these breaches, but to place the government’s denial of the right to return to one’s country within the larger mosaic of Australia’s ugly human rights record. Fairness, for many in Australia, has never been more than a myth.