Whether political prisoner, pardoned criminal or a citizen on the wrong side of the pandemic; if you’re stuck overseas, you’re on your own.
Sometimes I wonder about Australian citizenship. I am one of 4.4 million Australians who is a citizen of two countries. That privilege has cost me tens of thousands of dollars and years of my time. I have had to allow bureaucrats offending, threatening and belittling me and my Australian husband. But in the end, I’m glad I have become a citizen of this country. Or am I? The thing is that recent actions of the Australian government have proven that Australian citizens are worth very little. Even true-blue Aussies, born and bred, so to speak, are treated like poo on the civil servant’s shoe when they are abroad. Let me count the ways and start with Australians who find themselves in overseas detention, as the Smart Traveller website calls it.
Last year, there were 1,572 of those, or more than four a day. God help you if that is you, because The Australian Government cannot get you out of prison, as Smart Traveller writes in cursive. There is ‘a limitation to what can be done’ and we ‘should have realistic expectations’. What those expectations are becomes painfully clear if you follow the news on any given day. Kylie Moore-Gilbert was released from an Iranian jail a few weeks ago, but only after 800 days and growing desperation and anger from family, friends and commentators like Peter Greste, who knows from experience what it is like to feel abandoned by your government. In January, when Moore-Gilbert was crumbling under the pressure, Greste wrote that the strategy of softly-softly had ‘failed spectacularly’. What was necessary, he thought, was for the government to finally do more than assist Iran in using the academic ‘as a bargaining chip’.
Of course, Greste and Moore-Gilbert are not the only Australians arrested abroad for political reasons. We all remember the case of soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi, who was taken to jail in Thailand on his honeymoon. It was the actions of Craig Foster, not the Australian government, that prevented extradition to Bahrain and eventually got the Australian back home. Not so lucky was Chau Van Kham, who has recently been sentenced to 12 years in Vietnam for ‘terrorism’. The 71-year old Sydney baker’s ‘crime’ was that he is a member of Viet Tan, a human rights organisation legal everywhere in the world but his birth country. Despite the fact that Van Kham is an Australian now, his family says that the Australian government has done ‘very little’ for him. They told the ABC that ‘they kind of stonewalled us on any kind of response or any kind of intervention on their side, there’s been no comments made since his appeal was rejected’.
Peter Dutton keeps repeating that ‘people shouldn’t have left’. If you want to see how factually wrong, but also how out-and-out cruel that statement is, spend half an hour on the Facebook page ‘Australians stuck around the world’. Here, hopelessness, anger and confusion reign.
There are other cases too: Julian Assange comes to mind, and even David Hicks, and lately poor sods in China, like Yang Heng Jun, an Australian citizen who was arrested on espionage claims in January 2019, and Cheng Lei, the journalist who was incarcerated in August this year. And let’s not even talk about people who have got themselves into criminal trouble, like Jock Palfreeman, who was arrested in 2007 in Bulgaria, or Karm Gillespie, who tried to smuggle meth out of China in 2013. Despite the fact that both are Australian, successive Australian governments have done almost nothing for them. Gillespie was even allowed to go missing for 7 years before he turned up again, just in time for his death sentence. A few months ago, Palfreeman expressed anger and frustration at the lack of action by officials during his 12-year ordeal. In response, the Department of Foreign Affairs told SBS that it was ‘closely monitoring’ the case. Oh, that’s OK then.
It is, frankly, a tad odd that our government responds like that, because according to last year’s Consular State of Play Report, the amount of Australians in trouble abroad has risen by a quarter in the last five years. But instead of ramping up assistance, Foreign Affairs puts the onus back on us. ‘Australians should be as prepared and self-reliant as possible’, it writes on its website. ‘We strive to empower Australians to help themselves overseas’. The advice is to take out ‘appropriate insurance’ and realise that ‘you don’t have a legal right to consular assistance, and you shouldn’t assume assistance will be provided’. Because: ‘our assistance is guided by many considerations’. And from the evidence, taking care of your citizens is not one of those. Ask the women who were ‘searched’, and I use that word to avoid the real one, at Qatar airport.
For weeks after, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne did not even pick up the phone to her Qatari counterpart to find out what had happened, let alone to protest. When she finally did something, pressed by a growling Penny Wong, she made it as far as the ambassador, who promised that a ‘detailed report’ would be forthcoming. When it did and offered apologies, Payne accepted. Without asking the women themselves, of course, because they, Australian citizens, were never important.
You can see the same thing with the more than 35,000 Australians who are still stranded overseas. According to the Consular Services Charter, ‘some international crises involving Australians overseas will require an exceptional response, such as …pandemics’. Exceptional, in this case, must mean, as Penny Wong called it, ‘cooking the books’. As we know, our great leader promised to get all stranded Australians home by Christmas. But when the numbers kept rising and it looked like he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise, he had the bureaucrats of DFAT call our fellow citizens abroad. And lo and behold, whatever they said, after the conversation, and without their knowledge or consent, their online status was changed to ‘I am not seeking to return to Australia at this time’.
That’s how that works in Canberra, obviously: you don’t help, you just mess with people’s lives and make them believe they’ve only got themselves to blame. At least, that is the endless mantra of Peter Dutton, who keeps repeating that ‘people shouldn’t have left’. If you want to see how factually wrong, but also how out-and-out cruel that statement is, spend half an hour on the Facebook page ‘Australians stuck around the world’. Here, hopelessness, anger and confusion reign. ‘After the way we have been treated, can we still call Australia home?’ more than one person asks. And it hurts that ‘Morrison doesn’t care and unfortunately I can’t see many Australians at home giving a crap about us strandies either’. They are desperate, contemplating asking the Queen for help, or even China. Traumatised and abandoned, they are thinking about ‘suing the government for damages and discrimination against us as citizens’.
So far, the government has done a whole lot of nothing much. Yes, caps have risen. A little. At the moment, 6,540 people can enter quarantine a week. The problem is that these are not only Australians. Since June, 31,000 non-citizens have arrived, the Covid-19 Senate Committee heard at the end of November, and foreign businesspeople and investors have preference over Australian citizens. As does the economy, in the shape of international students and fruit pickers.
Morrison himself wraps lack of interest and assistance in officialese, talking about developing a ‘risk stratification approach’ and making decisions ‘not today but down the track’, without ‘undue haste’. Australian human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson thinks that this amounts to a ‘total failure of government’. And more to the point: a ‘serious breach’ of the human rights of Australian citizens, because it clashes with the UN Treaty that enshrines a person’s right to return home, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Australian Human Rights Commission agrees, with President Rosalind Croucher, after ‘a significant number of complaints’, saying that the government is violating the rights of parents and children to be reunited, breaching the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Even America’s NBC was slightly puzzled, wondering why ‘Australians are exposed to potentially unnecessary restrictions on their rights and freedoms’.
Morrison himself wraps lack of interest and assistance in officialese, talking about developing a ‘risk stratification approach’ and making decisions ‘not today but down the track’, without ‘undue haste’.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this. If our government would take us as Australian citizens seriously, a myriad of steps could be taken. Richard Marles, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, recently wondered on 9News why the government wasn’t sending planes itself to get people home. We’ve got an Airforce, he reasoned, what are we waiting for? He also wasn’t buying the government line that quarantine is a matter for the states and that the Commonwealth can’t do anything to change the caps. ‘Quarantine is about national borders and those are a Commonwealth responsibility. I don’t care that you have made other arrangements in the National Cabinet. It is unprecedented that Australians are effectively stopped from coming home’. Amnesty International has been advocating other options too: opening more airports, introducing home quarantine, building federal facilities, chartering repatriation flights, including using the RAAF, working with airlines to maximise the number of flights and prioritising Australians.
But Australians, Australian citizens, are not what the Australian government is interested in. Maybe when we vote, but not when we are in trouble overseas. Then we’re on our own.