Critics of the new policy say that instead of saving stranded Australians, their government is abandoning them, in violation of its obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their right to enter [or her] My country. ”
While many countries have imposed restrictions on foreign arrivals during Covid, Kim Rubinstein of the University of Canberra, a leading Australian expert on citizenship law, told POLITICO that “no other democratic country has imposed such extreme measures on its citizens.” The Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Edward Santo, categorically stated on local television that “people have the right to return to their country.”
The government’s political calculations are that the 25 million Australians already in Australia would be grateful that their government is adopting yet another drastic measure to keep them safe from Covid. The direct victims of this policy are the 9,000 or so Australians stranded in India, from dual citizens returning to India for family funerals, to notable sports stars playing in the Indian Cricket League competition.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison avoided confronting reporters after the decision, leaving it to Health Minister Greg Hunt to announce that “the risk assessment that was informed of the decision was based on the proportion of foreign travelers in quarantine in Australia who contracted the Covid-19 virus in India.” The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that 47 cases of Covid virus were recorded among quarantine passengers who recently arrived from India last week.
Australia saw an average of only three new cases of Covid per day in April, almost all of them identified in the country’s strict hotel quarantine system, which means there is no community transmission of the novel coronavirus in Australia.
“Citizenship doesn’t mean much if you cannot use your passport to come home when needed.” Professor Tim Sotfomasan told Politico, “On the face of it, this policy undermines the value of citizenship.” Soutphommasane is the former chair of the Australian Human Rights Commission. A big year regarding this policy and its discriminatory nature.
Discrimination concerns are two-fold.
First, the policy creates a second category of citizenship: Australian citizens in India are less entitled to protection from Covid than citizens in Australia are currently.
Second, critics argue that the outbreak in India has been treated in a racist manner. Bearing in mind the potential reduction of the Covid outbreak in India, India today still has a lower infection rate and death rate per capita compared to the United States, the United Kingdom and many other white-majority countries at the height of the Covid outbreak. Sotfomasan noted that access to Australia from those countries has not been blocked.
By comparison, the US is still allowing Americans and humanitarian workers to return home from India, although restrictions on others trying to enter the US from India will begin on Tuesday.
While the Australian government has said it will review the policy on May 15 and likely end it, there is not much public interest in the change. “Australian public opinion has rewarded governments that have taken harsh measures in response to Covid-19, as seen from the sudden return of many state governments over the past year,” said Sotfomasan, including the Conservative Tasmanian government. The country’s borders closed in 2020 – which returned to power in Saturday’s election.
The Australian Human Rights Commission – a statutory body – said in a statement on Saturday that it had “deep concerns” about the new rules and urged the Australian Senate to conduct an investigation. “The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified. The commission said the government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and that the only appropriate way to deal with the threat to public health.”
While Australia’s Biosecurity Act allows the country’s health minister to take emergency action, it requires that such measures be “not more restrictive or intrusive than is required in these circumstances”. Sarah Joseph, a professor of human rights law at Griffith University, told Politico that a legal challenge based on the excessive use of power is likely, and that this tactic gives critics the greatest opportunity to overturn the new policy.
Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized Australia for its Covid access ceiling policy, which restricted overseas arrivals by between 3,000 and 6,000 people a week, leaving about 35,000 Australians stranded abroad, despite registering with the government. However, they want to go home.
The UN panel ruled that the Australian government should “facilitate and ensure” the speedy return of two Australians, arguing that the access limit was in violation of Australia’s international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The national government runs a specialized quarantine facility for returning travelers on government-chartered return flights, in a remote town in the country’s Northern Territory. The Howard Springs facility only holds 850 passengers every 14 days (the government plans to double this capacity), which means it could take months to clear the backlog of Australians stranded overseas. If flights from India resume in the coming weeks, many passengers will have to complete quarantine in regular government-rented hotels.
There is no path to normal
While Australia may win the battle against Covid-19, it risks losing the war to return to normal life.
Australian state governments, along with the federal government, have enacted a raft of border closings and popular restrictions over the past 12 months. The left-wing government of Western Australia locked down people not living in the state for more than 220 days starting April 2020 and went on to be re-elected by an overwhelming majority on March 13.
Nationwide, the federal government has banned nearly all departures from the country, and has no concrete plan to open up returns.
Australians and permanent residents of the country need to apply for an exemption to leave, with the exception of travel to neighboring New Zealand. Politics is besieging at least 4.4 million foreign passport holders – including US citizens – and Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is “in no hurry” to change the system.
Tourism and education have taken a big hit. Usually, before the Covid hit, 10 million foreign tourists and 900,000 foreign university students arrived in Australia every year, but nearly all of them are currently closed in the country.
The state of Victoria is considering a pilot program to allow 125 international students per week to return to Australia for in-person lessons. At this rate, it will take two decades for the country to return international students to pre-Covid levels. The problem again: the lack of quarantine facilities.
Simon Westway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, said Australia will need to change its policies soon or risk permanent damage to its tourism sector. He said that the current policy of “a fourteen-day quarantine completely prevents the experience of viable tourism”. It’s not going to be successful commercially, or work for individuals, “said Westway.