A group of Australian citizens representing tens of thousands of people who have been stranded overseas by border closures and flight caps, some since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, are taking their complaint against the Australian government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing they have been denied the basic human right to return home.

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In February 2020 Australia pre-empted the World Health Organization and declared that Covid-19 was a pandemic, setting out drastic measures to contain the spread of the virus. The country closed its external borders and caps were set to limit the number of Australians who could enter. It is one of the few countries in the world to have imposed such strict restrictions.

But one year later, and with those restrictions still in place, many Australians are unable to return home despite the prime minister’s promise to have all stranded overseas citizens back by Christmas 2020. 

Many say they are in dire straits. Some have lost their jobs, have little savings left and are forced to take out loans to survive. Others are either sick themselves or need to care for a loved one who is seriously or terminally ill. Others simply want to be reunited with their families.

According to official figures from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) up to 40,000 Australians based overseas are registered as wanting to return urgently. Of these, 5,000 are classed by the government as “vulnerable”.

Three Australian citizens who have been stranded overseas for months are now taking matters into their own hands.

Last week they launched legal action by petitioning the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva where they hope to successfully challenge the Australian government’s policy which they say violates human rights law.

Prominent Australian-born, British human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson QC, whose firm represents WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, will be presenting the petition at the UN Human Rights Committee. He has spoken out against sweeping caps on arriving Australians because the mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine programme imposed by the state governments already addresses any health risks posed by returning citizens.

In an interview with Australia’s ABC Radio National, Robertson accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of “behaving as if in a moral vacuum”.

“International law recognises the strong bond between individuals and their homeland and no respectable government would impose travel caps to prevent, for over a year, its citizens from returning if they are prepared to do quarantine,” he said.

The legal basis for the UN petition is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Robertson says guarantees the right of a person to leave their own country freely and states no one should be “arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”.

One of the petitioners, Jason, a microbiologist who lives in the US, has been trying to return to Tasmania with his Australian wife to see sick and elderly relatives.

“I’m just an ordinary Aussie trying to get back home,” says Jason, who for privacy reasons has chosen not to divulge his surname.

“My visa runs out end of December and normally I’d have to leave the country then reapply for a visa outside. My wife has major depression and anxiety simply because of the helplessness of this situation.”

Other complainants include a volcanologist from Melbourne trying to secure a flight back to Australia since March last year and a family from the UK who want to be reunited with their loved ones.

Jason says he first became aware of the vast number of Australians stuck abroad when he joined StrandedAussies.org and found several other groups online where Australians were sharing stories and seeking advice.

He blames fear and a lack of adequate educational messaging by experts and government for failing to dispel the myth that returning Australians are carriers of Covid-19.

“We just want a fair go in the spirit of mateship. Everyone has a need to stay connected to family, to country.

“This petition represents all Australians stuck abroad,” said Jason, who estimates that the real figure of those wanting to return far exceeds the 40,000 quoted by DFAT.

The petition could damage Australia’s international standing at a time when the country has been hailed globally as a huge success story for its containment of the virus.  

Australia has so far escaped the shocking death tolls of other countries, recording 909 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

On Tuesday, Australia announced it would open a travel bubble with New Zealand, allowing residents to travel between the two nations without the need for quarantine from April 19.

Lucy Morrell of the online group Stranded Aussies Action Network has been helping Australians overwhelmed by the logistics of returning home. She was recently repatriated on April 1 along with her husband and 12-year-old daughter from Japan.

Lucy
Lucy
Lucy © Lucy Morrell

After three attempts and at a cost of AU$22,000 (€14,253), she considers herself one of the lucky ones. Among those Morrell is helping is a mother in Australia whose daughter has been stuck in Africa since the start of the pandemic.

Morrell says the young woman in her 20s was originally in Africa doing charity work. But when in March 2020 the Morrison government advised Australians to return, or to shelter in place ahead of border closures, it was too late for the young woman – the airports in her host country had shut. She had no choice but to shelter in place. Without a job to pay the rent, and having exhausted her savings, she’s since been taken in by a local family. Her mother has been forced to take out a loan against the mortgage on the family home in the hopes that paying for an upgraded plane ticket may finally bring her daughter back.

Morrell says she wants to do more to raise awareness within Australia of the predicament of fellow citizens.

“People have become more fragile, worn out after months of trying and becoming more frightened to speak out. They’re scared of their own government,” Morrell says.

“We’ve had people regularly contact us who have been suicidal. They’re up against a wall – unable to get back because they don’t qualify as destitute and have no government assistance from Australia. Many are not citizens in the countries they’re in so they’re not able to access support services there – it’s as though they’re stateless,” she explains.

Critics of Australia’s handling of repatriation say there should be more hotel quarantine accommodation to allow for a lifting of the weekly caps on arrivals, which currently stands at roughly around 4,000.

Although the government has subsidised repatriation flights on the national carrier Qantas from London, Frankfurt and capitals in Asia, there are not enough seats to go round. Foreign airlines, fighting to stay commercially afloat, have had to scale back flights and either bump off travellers or cancel flights altogether at the last moment. When flights become available again, seats sell out in minutes.

Morrell says those who can afford it are paying between AU$7,000 (€4,500) and AU$9,000 (€5,800) for a “reliable” ticket that’s most likely to guarantee them a spot on a plane. Then there’s the mandatory AU$3,000 (€1,900) for hotel quarantine.

While citizens and permanent residents are scrambling to acquire scarce passage to Australia, thousands of temporary residents including a litany of celebrities such as Matt Damon, Ed Sheeran, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Dev Patel and tennis players who in January arrived for the Australian Open, along with their vast entourages, have been shown the welcome mat. The double standard is fuelling anger and resentment and is also raising questions about citizens’ rights.

Legal scholar and citizenship expert Kim Rubenstein believes “there’s a real question as to the lawfulness” of these caps on returning Australians. Without a bill of rights outlining the rights of Australian citizens  – in fact, Australia is one of the few democracies not to have a bill of rights – there is no means available to them within Australia’s judicial system to challenge the government on its repatriation policy.

“So there’s a peg upon which these individuals could actually challenge the lawfulness of these caps. Government has powers in relation to international trade and commerce but are there limitations on the extent of that power.”

There is also the question, for those unable to return, of national identity and belonging.

While health experts have spent the last year warning of the psychological impacts of the pandemic on mental health, Morrell says there’s “a certain pain” that comes from feeling you’ve been locked out of your country.

“These are people who thought they belonged in Australia, who thought they had rights in Australia only to find they weren’t actively welcomed back home.”

James Cater is an Australian stranded in Russia.
James Cater is an Australian stranded in Russia.
James Cater is an Australian stranded in Russia. © James Cater

James Cater, who is stranded in Russia, says while some expatriates may believe their fellow citizens “don’t care or outright despise us”, he’s optimistic that this is not typical of how most Australians feel.

“If they encountered us and our stories in a real-life situation they might understand. But that’s the thing, because so many of us are stranded they don’t see us,” Cater says, admitting that the cycle of trying and then failing to get on flights has been emotionally taxing.

Two of the online citizens groups StrandedAussies.org and the Stranded Aussies Action Network are calling for a nationally coordinated system of repatriation. They raise the examples of Taiwan and New Zealand, countries that use a pre-booking hotel quarantine system that guarantees placement. As a result, these countries have managed to take in around double the number of international arrivals per capital compared with Australia.

The outcome of the petition, meanwhile, is uncertain and the UN committee may not be able to compel the Australian government to bring more of its citizens home. The Australian government, after all, has not imposed a full ban on its returning citizens.

Morrell hopes that the petition to the UN will lead to the government taking action.

“It seems citizenship ends at the border and once you’ve left Australian shores your rights are no longer those of the rights of other Australians. It’s the thin edge of the wedge.

“At the moment it’s impacting ex-patriates wanting to repatriate but next time the government flexes its muscles against its citizens it could be some other group.”