The strict COVID travel restrictions were instituted to protect our populace, but with many having roots overseas, it also presents a problem.
CW: This piece discusses rape.
Last week, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while. He is Australian, married to a Danish girl and lives in Copenhagen. They’ve since had twins. I was surprised to see him here. When we sat down for a cup of tea and a catch-up, he told me he had been back since February. He told me about an amazing job opportunity paid for by his Danish employer. But then COVID-19 happened, and by the time he had decided to go back to his family, it was too late.
On 25 March, Health Minister Greg Hunt put his name to a special travel restriction in the Biosecurity Law of 2015: nobody was now able to leave the country without an exemption. And those are hard to get. In short: my friend was stuck here. That was a bummer, but it turned into a major drama when in early June he got a phone call from his wife. Actually, he didn’t speak to her, but to a doctor at one of the city’s largest hospitals: his wife had been raped and wasn’t doing very well.
The advice was to come over as quickly as he could. You can imagine his desperation, especially when he quickly realised that Border Force didn’t think this was a good enough reason to let him go. Over the next six weeks, he was knocked back three times. In the meantime, his wife was out of the hospital, but wounded and traumatised, and still trying to take care of the twins. My friend organised help but was getting more and more distressed and miserable. Finally, a day before I met him, he got permission to leave. It took him a few days to organise a flight, but as far I know he is back where he belongs now.
In Australia, 28.2% of the population was born overseas. That amounts to 7.5 million people. About the same percentage has parents or other family members who were born elsewhere. Let me try to explain something about migrants, if I can be so presumptuous as to speak for the whole of the group. We love Australia, of course, we do. We live here, we work here, we have friends and family here. And gardens and soccer clubs and routines and favourite coffee shops.
But we also have loved ones abroad. Parents, often, or, as in my case, children and grandchildren. When we migrated, we did so with the promise that if they needed us, we would be there in a day or two. Now that pledge can’t be fulfilled, because we can’t leave. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. The official reason is ‘to protect the health of the Australian population’. I am not exactly stupid, but I don’t understand: how would we be threatening the health of the Australian population by not being here?
The advice was to come over as quickly as he could. You can imagine his desperation, especially when he quickly realised that Border Force didn’t think this was a good enough reason to let him go. Over the next six weeks, he was knocked back three times.
Let me tell you what I do understand. First of all, there is a problem with people coming into the country. Since the borders were closed, 357,000 people have returned. Most of them Australians, some of the others, like diplomats, aviation or maritime crew or emergency workers. The latter group, by the way, are not required to quarantine. Doesn’t make sense to me, but anyway. Most of the people who have come home, have to go into quarantine. That has been expensive and difficult to organise. It has also, as we can see in Victoria, not been flawless. So, when the National Cabinet announced last week that it was going to cut the amount of flights into the big cities (a cap of 525 people a week to Perth, 500 a week to Brisbane and 450 a day to Sydney) I thought that made sense.
Although I know that this causes enormous heartbreak with people who have not been able to come home. If it isn’t easy to be a migrant here, it is not that simple to be an ex-pat either. If you work overseas, are tied to a lease, have a family and friends there, it isn’t straightforward (and sometimes not even possible) to wind all of that up quickly. So, there are a lot of people stranded abroad. I feel for them and I think we should let them in if they promise to pay for their quarantine. But I do understand that there are issues there, issues that might impact on ‘the health of the Australian population’.
I also get that people now have to pay for quarantine, although I think the amount is ridiculous. Especially because the consequence of that is that travel, even if it is simply to come back home, is now only possible if you are rich. And that, the dear PM who often does the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’, is very much against your egalitarian adage. Nevertheless, I get that we can’t let taxpayers foot the bill forever, so I do think that a contribution is a good idea. Then there are the travel restrictions between the states. Although that still seems unconstitutional to me (we are one country, aren’t we?), it is a prudent and even life-saving measure to take.
Then there are the people who are refused or have serious problems getting out. One of them was a British doctor, who applied in May after he accepted a job in the UK. Border Force refused to let him and his family leave until The Guardian started asking questions. There were Dutch-Australian citizens too who were ‘held against will’, as they themselves put it, even after they had told the Department that they were moving back to The Netherlands for good. Even more strangely: some of them were dual citizens, which means that the Australian government actually forbade citizens of another country to leave. Most other countries in the world have restrictions on people entering, but not on people leaving.
I also get that people now have to pay for quarantine, although I think the amount is ridiculous. Especially because the consequence of that is that travel, even if it is simply to come back home, is now only possible if you are rich.
The US advises its citizens not to leave, but that is legally speaking as far as they can go. Europe has had a temporary ban on non-essential travel but has lifted that a while ago. That brings us to Australia. We are an island and that is a boon for all the bureaucrats at Border Force. Now it is up to them to decide what we can and cannot do. Finally, some real power! And they use it too. So far, 6180 people have had their exemption-application approved. 1720 have been knocked back, often without a reason. That is almost 28%. What is also interesting, is that the website that tells you about what you should do in order to get an exemption, also says that you have to allow four weeks for a reply. Often, people don’t leave for the fun of it, but because there is an emergency. Emergencies don’t wait four weeks until a bureaucrat has put a stamp on a piece of paper.
Frankly, I think this is absolute madness. And it has to stop. Or, as Scott Morrison’s Bible would say: ‘Pharaoh, Let my people go!’