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Double standards in Australian travel ban crisis

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Australia has some of the tightest restrictions in the world when it comes to outward travel (Image by Dan Jensen)

While Australians are left struggling to leave the country on compassionate grounds, the Government turns a blind eye to celebrity transit, writes Max MacBride.

MY SON WAS BORN at the height of lockdown last April, a ray of light in an otherwise dark year. So eager was he to meet his parents, he arrived two months prematurely, in dramatic and terrifying fashion. As our family is spread across the UK, Spain and the USA, he has yet to meet any of them, other than through the suffocating blue light of a screen. 

It’s a daily heartache shared by too many in Australia, as separated families grow increasingly desperate with the country’s draconian and arguably illegal outward travel ban. Australia is the only democratic country in the world that requires its citizens to be granted an exemption to leave its shores. Most are denied. 

This is a hidden tragedy too often swallowed up by the larger border debate, which is generally framed as a question of economics. Worse, it is being compounded by the opaque and often merciless exemption system. The result is a severe and growing mental health crisis for a significant portion of the population, who feel forgotten by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Government and alienated within Australia, the place they call home. 

In theory, those with ‘compassionate or compelling grounds’ are eligible for an exemption to leave. In practice, however, the criteria for these exemptions are unclear and arbitrarily applied. Double standards abound, with stories of celebrities and those with connections to power granted permission to travel overseas to visit family, while others are denied the right to attend funerals, care for ill family members or even to leave for good.

Gut-wrenching stories of those affected are not hard to find. Karyn Pyle, 42, an Australian citizen from Newcastle, suffered the sudden loss of her young brother who lived in the USA. Needing to obtain a death certificate to make the funeral three days later, the family scrambled amidst their grief to provide the necessary documentation to secure an exemption. Despite assurances that urgent compassionate requests would be processed within 48 hours, the response didn’t come until days after the funeral. It was denied. 

Karen reflects on the experience:

“Trying to obtain a death certificate just hours after someone has passed away is near impossible and more importantly, appears callous to those who are grieving.”

Ashish Srivastava, 39, is an Indian citizen living in Melbourne and has permanent residence status.

Ashish told me:

“I sought an exemption to permanently leave Australia with my family to care for my father in India, who was critically ill with COVID-19. Three of my requests were denied and my father died. I then applied for an exemption to leave and attend my father’s funeral, which was again denied. My mother is now alone in India, and doesn’t know what to do.”

How can it be right, or in the public interest, that someone who is not a citizen and has no intention to return to Australia, is denied the right to return home?

Let’s be clear: this is not about relaxing border controls entirely, an important conversation in its own right. Nor is it about the right to take a holiday to Bali. This is about people visiting ill or dying relatives, ageing parents or reuniting with their families, many of whom they haven’t seen for years. 

Australia’s international borders slammed shut on 25 March 2020. All arrivals except for nationals, residents and special exemptions were barred, a harsh new age of isolation ushered in. The border closure was met with little resistance and remains understandably popular with Australians. By and large, it has been a success; the primary reason that Australia has maintained its remarkably low levels of virus and a semblance of normality. 

We have all had to make sacrifices for the greater good during this pandemic. Most of us understand that they are a necessary evil. But the rationale for banning people from leaving is flimsy, especially when weighed against the huge cost to so many. The risk to public health comes from inbound travellers, not outbound ones. 

Of course, it can be argued that many who leave will need to come back and that when they do, they risk bringing the virus with them. That is true, but we have other effective ways of managing this risk, not least quarantine, pre-travel testing and mandatory vaccination for all travellers. These are powerful mitigators and they are largely already in place. 

Lawyers have argued that the outward travel ban may violate Australia’s obligations under the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), under which the right to leave any country, including one’s own, is protected. 

Australia does have the right to place restrictions on freedom of movement if they are necessary to protect specific stated objectives, including public health. However, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which oversees the implementation of the ICCPR, states that these restrictions must be proportionate, appropriate and as unobtrusive as possible.

The HRC also states that ‘restrictions should use precise criteria and may not confer unfettered discretion on those charged with their execution’. It is increasingly hard to argue that any of these conditions are being met here. 

Combine all this with the glacial pace of the vaccine rollout, which has left Australia uniquely unprepared amongst OECD countries to face the current Delta outbreaks and the seeming lack of urgency in creating scaled-up and fit-for-purpose quarantine centres, it is not hard to understand why so many feel neglected. It’s not only that the system seems inhumane and hard to justify, it’s that the Government barely acknowledges the pain it is causing.

Harder to accept still, there is precious little sign of the roadmap to relax borders which would at least offer a glimmer of hope to separated families. 

Nearly a third of all Australians were born overseas and many of them still have close family abroad. They retain an intrinsic and vital part of themselves elsewhere. And yet they are a political constituency that appears not to exist in the eyes of this government.

We find ourselves faced with a system that values the transit of cricket teams, tennis players and contestants on The Celebrity Apprentice above the right of its citizens to care for dying family members. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. 

Meanwhile, I watch my son grow, each joyous milestone a bittersweet reminder that his family is missing these irreplaceable moments. I wonder when we will be reunited and remind myself that I am one of the lucky ones. 

Max MacBride is a Sydney-based freelance journalist and digital campaigner who has worked in advocacy at organisations including Greenpeace, Action Aid and UNICEF UK.

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