Stranded Aussies in COVID-19: “I am, you are, we are Australian”… unless you are overseas

By Adam Vilaca and Zach Cole

“We are one, but we are many” begins the chorus of The Seekers alternative Australian anthem — “I am Australian”. A rousing tune, it can be heard in Australian schools, on Australian national holidays, and — probably most reverently — reverberating from a bunch of drunk Australians at an “Australian” pub somewhere overseas on an early Sunday morning.

It even became the theme song for a national singalong in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort by the Australian national broadcaster to liven national spirits.

“I am, you are, we are Australian” sang the Everyday choir. But one group was missing, Australians overseas. A group who, since the start of this pandemic, has been effectively cut off from Australia. In many cases, unable to return due to the populist political positioning of state and federal governments.

40k Australians can’t come home

Over 40k Australians are registered as wanting to come home but are currently unable to secure a return journey. Flights are canceled last minute, at times at boarding gates. Some Australians have had upwards of 6 flights canceled.

The number of Australians registered as wanting to come home has been fairly constant through the pandemic, that is even though approximately 50k Australians returned home during 2020.

Why? As it became apparent to Australians overseas that it was practically impossible and economically infeasible to get home in early/mid-2020, many held on in their current locations. Drawing down savings, draining superannuation, and trying to wait out the pandemic. But as savings ran low and jobs were lost, more and more Australians have been forced into desperate living conditions in an attempt to return with severe impacts on mental health. Many of which were initially told by DFAT to shelter in place if they had secured housing and employment, many of these have had a dramatic change to these arrangements as a result of the devastation the pandemic has had on the global economy.

By not enabling Australians to return easily at the start of the pandemic, Australian governments have put many overseas Australians in vulnerable positions and put the responsibility onto foreign governments for their own citizens.

This is a peculiarly Australian problem, other governments have moved mountains to get their people home. UK, US, Germany, Vietnam, India, South Korea, Spain, New Zealand.

But why can’t these stranded Australians just get on a plane and come home?

Australian governments (state and federal) are placing very low caps on international arrivals; roughly 5,000 per week. This figure keeps changing resulting in frequent cancellations for the very few tickets that are available into Australia.

Airlines are often flying with very low utilisation; often less than ~30 seats in a ~300 seat plane. This means that airlines prioritise business/first class fares, making it even more difficult for the most vulnerable and at-risk Australians to return home. Creating a negative feedback loop.

The basis for restricting the number of Australians coming into the country is because governments are concerned that this will lead to an increase in COVID-19. It is the old human rights vs. safety/security argument.

Australians at home have lapped it up like dogs to a water bowl on a scorching summer’s day.

But, there are three key problems with this argument:

  1. Australian governments have had 1 year to solve the challenges with quarantine and lift the caps

It is true that the Australian quarantine (particularly hotel quarantine) system for international arrivals has been the primary cause for some minor outbreaks of COVID-19 on the Australian “island”.

By and large, the quarantine works. But Australian governments have not — even after 1 year — been able and/or willing to scale this quarantine approach and improve it. State governments have done a half-cooked effort and the federal government — with the constitutional responsibility in relation to quarantine — has put its hands up in the air and refused to take responsibility.

It is really not that hard to sort out this quarantine situation. There is an abundance of available hotel rooms and other infrastructure available and private sector players willing to play a key role in making this work effectively.

The bottom line is that Australia could have sorted out quarantine if it wanted to. The world invented several vaccines in a year. But the Australian government couldn’t work out how to scale up keeping people in hotel rooms for two weeks?

It’s not a matter of capability, but a matter of will.

2. Australia has allowed 50k non-citizens into the country over the past year deliberately over allowing its own citizens to return

Many of these are permanent residents travelling with citizens. My wife (Zach) would be one of these if we returned home. We understand the need to keep families together and treat permanent residents like citizens.

BUT! There are also many, many, many non-citizens who have been allowed in for purely economic reasons.

There are the famous ones. Tennis star Novak Djokovic, film star Chris Pratt. The argument here from the Australian government is “well you know… the economic benefit outweighs the risk and we prioritise this over Australian citizens stuck overseas”.

Now. Just read that again. Australian governments have prioritised cash over citizenship rights. Again, cash over citizens.

Let’s assume that the moral boost of Djokovic hitting some balls over a net and seeing Chris Pratt drink coffee with Joel Egerton is worth it.

There are also some foreign entries that don’t make any sense. No matter how you spin it.

  • Danka Kovinic — a Montenegrin tennis player who played 44mins against Ash Barty and lost 6–0 6–0. Was that worth more than allowing an Australian stuck in the UK to return who currently has no job, no income having to couch surf in a place rife with COVID-19?

Let us reiterate. Cash over citizenship. And in some cases, not even cash.

3. Citizenship is an absolute, not conditional, human right

The right to return to one’s country is a fundamental principle under international law enshrined under various treaties many of which Australia helped establish. You open an Australian passport and the message from our head of state “requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer, an Australian Citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.” Covid-19 has been a test of this principle, and Australia has arguably failed it.

Acknowledging the absolute nature of citizenship, most other comparative countries have pulled all stops to enable their citizens to come home. Yet, in Australia from embassies, consulates and high commissions for months now has been “we are working on it” clearly understating the criticality of the situation. “Repatriation flights” are few and far between, a drop in the ocean of stranded Australians needing to get home.

Why are Australian governments behaving like this?

Most Australians react positively to strict border measures. It’s rule number 1 in the Australian political playbook. There is an enemy at our doorstep that will harm us if it enters. One just has to look back to the success of “Stop the Boats” policy from the Abbott years…

But this time we’re deploying a “Stop the Boats” logic on Australians.

In 2 weeks the State of Western Australia will head to an election. Premier Mark McGowan and the Labor Government will win a landslide. The opposition Liberal party has already conceded publicly in a strange, reverse psychology tactic…

Western Australia has had some of the harshest border restrictions globally — it basically shut itself off from the world and the rest of Australia for most of 2020. This has been the key determinant in what will be a landslide win.

But surely, COVID-19 an exception to justify these drastic measures from Australian governments? After all, Australia has been one of the most successful countries in managing COVID-19.

Many Australians justify their disenfranchisement of overseas Australians with the logic that this is just an “exception”. COVID-19 is such a severe event that we “couldn’t have expected” (well yes we could, read here) and therefore we need some Australians to “ sacrifice for the majority”. But, this won’t happen again…

That might be true. But it’s probably not.

Once we accept, as a society, that we make citizenship conditional on security and safety we begin to slide down that slippery, slippery slope.

If we only want to allow Australians back into the country who “can’t bring COVID” do we only allow those back that have been vaccinated in a 3rd country. Leaving those unvaccinated to continue to be at risk, often without jobs and income. “Bring the clean one’s homes”.

And what about the next pandemic… It will happen, it will just be a question of when. Let’s say it breaks out on Kuta beach while half of Australia is sinking Bintangs. Should we just close the borders to Indonesia?

What about Australians who refuse or are unable to be vaccinated? Arguably these present as much danger as Australians coming from overseas in potentially spreading the virus. Do we remove citizenship rights from Australians who refuse to be vaccinated?

Citizenship is a human right and it has to be absolute. Hopefully we can truly pursue a culture where “I am, you are, we are Australian” is not a condition on your country of origin, race, or “current location”. Our call to Australian governments is to get Australians home that want to come home now. Move oceans to make it work because it is more than just relocating 40k people, it’s about demonstrating that Australian citizenship is absolute.

About the authors

Zach Cole and Adam Vilaca are Australians currently residing overseas (Norway and UK, respectively). Both are graduates from leading Australian law schools and have previously worked as advisors — some years ago — on opposite sides of the Australian political spectrum (Labor and Liberal).