It’s no secret that Australia’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been, for the most part, a success.
In comparison to other Western nations — the United Kingdom and the United States chief among them — our conduct and swift uptake of restrictions has been lauded by leaders, experts and media around the globe.
But 10 days from Christmas, and on the doorstep of a COVID-normal 2021 spent waiting for a vaccine to be approved and administered, one “draconian” rule unfairly penalising Aussies has drawn the world’s attention.
“Anxious, angry and abandoned. Less than two weeks from Christmas, at least 39,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents are still stranded overseas due to Australia’s international arrival caps,” Jessie Gretener wrote in a piece for CNN today.
“Hitching a ride on Santa’s sleigh now seems like the only option for those making it home for the holidays.”
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In September, the cap on international arrivals – a measure initially introduced in mid-July after a hotel quarantine bungle led to Victoria’s devastating second wave – was raised to 6000 per week, and then increased again in November.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters he intended to get “as many people (as possible home, if not all of them, by Christmas”, while Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he wanted to “ensure that every Australian who wants to come home is home by Christmas”.
And yet, tens of thousands of Australians remain stuck overseas as life here slowly returns to normal – drawing criticism from a number of prominent publications in America which have deemed the measures not only “close to unreasonable” and “extreme”, but questioned whether it’s a potential “breach of international law”.
“Australia is one of the few places in the world that is barring citizens from leaving their own country and limiting the number of those who can return,” a September piece in The New York Timesread.
“The tough regulations have raised legal concerns about the right to freedom of movement, and have been especially painful for the large numbers of Australians who turn to travel as a balm against the tyranny of distance from the rest of the world.”
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In a relatively scathing piece for The Washington Post, professor at George Washington University Law School, Laura A Dickinson, said the situation is “getting pretty dire”.
“There is a case to be made that individuals’ rights have been violated,” Professor Dickinson, who specialises in human rights and national security, told the publication.
“We’ve seen it’s possible for people to come in through quarantine. If the state is not providing adequate facilities for people to do that, instead of closing the border, that is getting close to unreasonable.”
In her piece for CNN, Gretener echoed a similar sentiment, writing that “the situation for those stranded is only getting worse”.
“The caps are one of the many stringent border controls the country has adopted in its battle against COVID-19. The government has banned foreign travellers from entering the country and barred its own citizens from leaving since March, meaning those looking to return under the cap scheme are Australian citizens and permanent residents,” she wrote.
“Many have no jobs, no visa, no healthcare, no access to welfare, and in some cases, no permanent roof over their head.”
The PM, along with a number of experts, have repeatedly maintained the stringent international arrivals caps are helping to keep Australia safe – arguing that to allow people to flood home could threaten one of the world’s most successful pandemic responses.
“There is no justification for rushing it and having an inferior quarantine system,” University of New South Wales epidemiologist John Kaldor told The Washington Post.
“It is the quarantine system that has allowed us to go back to a semi-normal state.”
But Amnesty International campaigner Joel Mackay told Aljazeeraearly last month that the Federal Government is “not only depriving citizens of their right to return, but is also failing to provide adequate support to those stranded abroad”.
“There is this myth out there that the Australians still overseas left it too late to get home, but there were huge disadvantages that meant they couldn’t access flights such as localised lockdowns or border closures,” he said.
“Now we are in a situation where Australians are stranded in countries that have severe COVID outbreaks and are at risk of catching the virus because the Australian government hasn’t brought them home.”