Critics of the new policy say the government is not rescuing stranded Australians but leaving them, in violation of their political commitment International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that “no one should be indiscriminately deprived of their right to access their rights” [or her] own country.”
While many countries have restricted foreign arrivals during Covid, Canberra University’s Kim Rubenstein, Australia’s leading expert on citizenship law, told POLITICO that “no other democratic country has imposed such extreme measures on its citizens.” Australian Human Rights Representative Edward Santow told local television that “people have the right to return to their own country”.
The government’s political calculation is that the 25 million Australians who are already in Australia will be grateful that their government is taking another tough measure to protect them from Covid. The immediate victims of politics are the roughly 9,000 Australians stranded in India, from dual citizens returning to India for family burials to high-profile sports stars playing in the Indian Premier League cricket competition.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison avoided reporting to reporters after the decision, leaving Health Secretary Greg Hunt to announce that “the risk assessment that informed the decision was based on the proportion of overseas travelers quarantined in Australia who received Covid -19 infection in Australia acquired India. “The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that 47 Covid cases had been recorded among quarantine passengers who traveled from India last week.
In Australia, an average of just three new Covid cases per day were recorded in April, almost all of which were identified in the country’s strict hotel quarantine system. This means that there is no community transmission of the novel coronavirus in Australia.
“Citizenship means little if you cannot use your passport to return home in a time of need. On the face of it, these policies undermine the value of citizenship,” Professor Tim Soutphommasane told POLITICO. Soutphommasane is a former head of the Australian Commission on Human Rights “This policy and its discriminatory nature is a major public concern,” he said.
The discrimination concerns are twofold.
First, that politics creates a second class of citizenship: Australian citizens in India are less entitled to protection from Covid than citizens currently in Australia.
Second, critics argue that India’s outbreak has been treated in a racist manner. Given the likely undercounting of the Covid outbreak in India, India even ranks lower today Per capita infection and death rate than the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other white-majority countries at the height of their Covid outbreaks. Arrivals from these countries to Australia were not prohibited, Soutphommasane noted.
By comparison, the United States continues to allow 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 announced that it will review and possibly end the policy on May 15, there is little public interest in change. “The Australian public has rewarded governments that have taken tough measures to respond to Covid-19, as we saw from the impressive return of numerous state governments over the past year,” said Soutphommasane, including the conservative Tasmanian government – the first to close theirs State borders in 2020 – which came back to power on an election Saturday.
The Australian Commission on Human Rights – a statutory body – said in a statement on Saturday that it is “Deep concern” about the new rules and has urged the Australian Senate to investigate. “The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified. The government must demonstrate that these measures are non-discriminatory and the only appropriate way to deal with the public health threat, ”the commission said.
Australia’s Biosafety Act, while requiring the country’s health minister to take immediate action, requires that such action be “no more restrictive or intrusive than the circumstances require.” Sarah Joseph, professor of human rights law at Griffith University, told POLITICO that a legal challenge due to excessive use of power was likely and that this tactic gave critics the highest chance of overthrowing the new policy.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee last month knocked out Australia for its Covid arrival restriction policiesThe number of overseas arrivals is limited to 3,000 to 6,000 per week, leaving around 35,000 Australians stranded overseas despite having registered with the government as returnees home.
The U.N. committee ruled that the Australian government must “facilitate and ensure” the immediate return of two Australians who argued the arrival restrictions were in violation of Australia’s international obligations under the United States International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The national government operates a specialized quarantine facility for returning travelers on government-chartered return flights in a remote town in the country’s Northern Territory. The facility in Howard Springs accommodates only 850 travelers every 14 days (The government plans to double that capacity) which means it could take months to clean up the backlog of Australians bogged down overseas. If flights from India resume in the coming weeks, many passengers would have to complete the quarantine in regular hotels rented by the government.
No way to normal
As Australia wins the battle against Covid-19, it risks losing the war to get back to normal life.
Australian state governments, along with the federal government, have enacted a number of border closings and restrictions in the past 12 months. The left-wing government of the state of Western Australia locked out people who had not lived in the state for more than 220 days from April 2020 and won re-election in a landslide on March 13.
Nationally, the federal government has banned almost all flights from the country, and there is no specific plan to reopen.
Australians and permanent residents of the country must apply for an exit permit except to travel to neighboring New Zealand. The policy traps at least 4.4 million foreign passport holders – including American citizens Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is in no hurry to change the system.
Tourism and education have taken a great success. Before Covid hit, 10 million overseas tourists and 900,000 overseas university students typically came to Australia each year, but almost all of them are currently out of the country.
The state of Victoria is considering a pilot program that will allow 125 international students per week to return to Australia for face-to-face tuition. At this rate, it would take the state two decades to bring its international student population back to pre-Covid levels. The problem again: lack of quarantine facilities.
Simon Westaway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, said Australia must change its policies soon or risk the permanent damage to its tourism sector. The current policy of “14-day quarantine completely precludes a viable tourist experience,” he said. “It’s just not going to work commercially or for individuals,” Westaway said.