Critics of the new policy say that instead of rescuing Australians in distress, 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 the right to ‘enter his country. [or her] own country. ”
While many countries have imposed restrictions on foreign arrivals during Covid, Kim Rubenstein of the University of Canberra, Australia’s leading expert on citizenship law, told POLITICO that “no other democratic country has imposed such extreme measures on its citizens ”. Australian Commissioner for Human Rights Edward Santow insisted on local television that “people have the right to return to their own country”.
The government’s political calculation is that the 25 million Australians already in Australia will be thankful that their government takes another tough step to protect them from Covid. The immediate victims of this policy are the approximately 9,000 Australians stranded in India, ranging from dual citizenship returning to India for a family funeral to top sports stars competing in the Premier League cricket competition in India.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison avoided facing reporters after the decision, leaving Health Minister Greg Hunt to announce that “the risk assessment that informed the decision was based on the proportion of travelers from overseas quarantined in Australia who contracted Covid-19 infection in Australia. India. “The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that 47 cases of Covid had been recorded among quarantined passengers who had recently arrived from India last week.
Australia has only seen an average of three new cases of Covid per day in April, almost all of which have been identified in the country’s strict hotel quarantine system, meaning there is no community transmission. of the novel coronavirus in Australia.
“Citizenship means little if you can’t use your passport to return home when needed. At first glance, this policy undermines the value of citizenship, ”Professor Tim Soutphommasane told POLITICO. Soutphommasane is a former head of the Australian Human Rights Commission. “The public is very concerned about this policy and its discriminatory nature,” he said.
The problems of discrimination are twofold.
First, the policy creates a second class of citizenship: Australian citizens in India are less entitled to Covid protection than citizens currently in Australia.
Second, critics claim that the epidemic in India has been treated in a racist manner. Given the likely undercoverage of the Covid epidemic in India, India today still has a lower per capita infection and death rate than the US, UK and many others. majority white country at the height of their Covid epidemic. Arrivals to Australia from these countries were not prohibited, Soutphommasane noted.
By comparison, the United States still allows Americans and aid workers to return home from India, although restrictions on others attempting to enter the United States from India will begin on Tuesday.
Although the Australian government has announced that it will review the policy on May 15, which could end it, there is little public interest in the change. “The Australian public has rewarded governments that have taken tough action to respond to Covid-19, as we have seen in the comeback of many state governments over the past year,” said Soutphommasane , including the Conservative government of Tasmania – the first to close its state borders in 2020 – which returned to power in an election on Saturday.
The Australian Human Rights Commission – a statutory body – said in a statement on Saturday that it was “deeply concerned” about the new rules and urged the Australian Senate to investigate. “The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified. The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and are the only appropriate way to deal with the threat to public health, ”the Commission said.
While Australia’s Biosafety Act authorizes the country’s Minister of Health to take emergency measures, it requires that such measures be “no more restrictive or intrusive than is required in the circumstances.” Sarah Joseph, professor of human rights law at Griffith University, told POLITICO that a legal challenge based on excessive use of power is likely and that this tactic gives critics their greatest chance of overthrowing the new policy.
Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee criticized Australia for its Covid arrivals capping policy, which limited overseas arrivals to between 3,000 and 6,000 per week, leaving around 35,000 Australians stranded abroad, despite having registered with the government as wishing to return home.
The United Nations Committee ruled that the Australian government should “facilitate and ensure” the speedy return of two Australians who argued that the arrival limits violate Australia’s international legal obligations under the International Covenant. civil and political rights.
The national government operates a specialized quarantine facility for returning travelers on government-chartered repatriation flights, in a remote town in the country’s Northern Territory. The Howard Springs facility has capacity for just 850 travelers every 14 days (the government plans to double that capacity), which means it could take months to clear the backlog of Australians stuck overseas . If flights from India resume in the coming weeks, many passengers will have to complete quarantine at regular government-hired hotels.
No way back to normal
While Australia may be winning the fight against Covid-19, it risks losing the war to return to normal life.
Australian state governments, alongside the federal government, have enacted a series of popular border closures and restrictions over the past 12 months. The left-wing government of Western Australia has locked down people who do not live in the state for more than 220 days from April 2020 and was re-elected in a landslide on March 13 .
Nationally, the federal government has banned almost all departures from the country, and it has no concrete plan to reopen.
Australians and permanent residents of the country must apply for an exemption to leave, except to travel to neighboring New Zealand. The policy traps at least 4.4 million foreign passport holders – including US citizens – and Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is “in no rush” to change the system.
Tourism and education have been badly affected. Typically, before Covid struck, 10 million foreign tourists and 900,000 foreign students would arrive in Australia each year, but nearly all of them are currently excluded from 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 classes. At this rate, it would take the state two decades to bring its international student population back to pre-Covid levels. The problem, again: the lack of quarantine facilities.
Simon Westaway, executive director of the Australian Tourism Industry Council, said Australia will soon have to change its policies or risk causing permanent damage to its tourism sector. The current “fourteen-day quarantine” policy completely rules out a viable tourism experience, ”he said. “It just won’t work commercially or work for individuals,” Westaway said.