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Australia’s Borders Aren’t Closed for Everyone

Celebrity exemptions are testing the public’s patience.

By , an Australian journalist.
Residents walk in Australia.
Residents walk by the usually busy Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra, Australia, on Aug. 12. Rohan Thomson/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a famous turn of phrase Australians use when describing their home country: the land of the fair go. Australians like to think of themselves as egalitarians, as a place where everybody gets a shot. These days, tens of thousands of Australians might disagree as tough border policies keep them locked out while the rich and powerful cut the line.

Since March 2020, Australia’s international borders have been closed to most of the world, a policy that has played an integral part in the country’s COVID-19 response, helping keep infections and fatalities low—less than 1,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Australia. But it has also stoked inequality in a country that traditionally prides itself on fairness.

More than a year into the pandemic, tens of thousands of Australians are stranded abroad. Around 38,000 Australians are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to come home. On the other side, tens of thousands of Australians want to leave the country but can’t do so without an exemption. Just this month, the government announced further restrictions that will prevent Australians who live abroad and returned temporarily from departing without permission from border force officials.

There’s a famous turn of phrase Australians use when describing their home country: the land of the fair go. Australians like to think of themselves as egalitarians, as a place where everybody gets a shot. These days, tens of thousands of Australians might disagree as tough border policies keep them locked out while the rich and powerful cut the line.

Since March 2020, Australia’s international borders have been closed to most of the world, a policy that has played an integral part in the country’s COVID-19 response, helping keep infections and fatalities low—less than 1,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Australia. But it has also stoked inequality in a country that traditionally prides itself on fairness.

More than a year into the pandemic, tens of thousands of Australians are stranded abroad. Around 38,000 Australians are registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to come home. On the other side, tens of thousands of Australians want to leave the country but can’t do so without an exemption. Just this month, the government announced further restrictions that will prevent Australians who live abroad and returned temporarily from departing without permission from border force officials.

Over the course of the pandemic, the federal government has progressively tightened restrictions on travel for its own citizens while handing out countless exemptions for the rich, famous, and well connected.

An exhaustive list of Hollywood A-listers—including Zac Efron, Natalie Portman, and Julia Roberts as well as a host of lower-grade celebrities—have settled Down Under to film their latest projects. Cricket, rugby, and tennis players have jetted in for tournaments. Even some religious figures have been coming and going. Last year, the government expanded the list of critical skills that warrant an exemption to include religious and theology fields while exempting certain wealthy visa holders from the travel ban altogether.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Australia’s Department of Home Affairs has issued some 15,000 business innovation and investment visas since the start of the pandemic, with more than 3,000 such visa holders landing on Australian shores.

Although Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has faced criticism over these double standards, it has maintained this is in the nation’s interest.

None caused controversy quite like far-right British commentator Katie Hopkins—who infamously likened migrants to cockroaches—after she posted a video of herself boasting about efforts to breach Australia’s health protocols while in hotel quarantine in Sydney.

Hopkins has since been deported, but her brief presence in Australia has reignited questions about government values and priorities during the pandemic. Australian Greens senator for New South Wales Mehreen Faruqi described Hopkins’s arrival in Australia as a “new low.”

“British far-right commentator Katie Hopkins—banned from Twitter for hateful conduct—has made it to Sydney. Meanwhile, thousands of Australian families are separated from their loved ones overseas,” she tweeted.

Hopkins’s arrival in Sydney coincided with a drastic reduction in the number of people allowed to fly into the country each week in response to the spread of the delta variant. Capped at just over 3,000 people, these restrictions will likely remain for months to come. Data analyzed by the Guardian suggests the current caps are “the harshest since restrictions on incoming passengers were introduced.”

Fielding questions about Hopkins’s arrival in Australia, Australian Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews stated “it happens reasonably regularly that state governments approach the federal government on the basis that there is an economic benefit to some people coming in over the quarantine caps.”

It’s unclear how much Hopkins—who was reportedly in Australia to take part in a celebrity version of reality television series Big Brother—would have benefited the economy.

To be sure, it’s expected film stars flying into the country will help net billions of dollars for the local economy and create thousands of jobs. The country’s earlier success in containing the pandemic coupled with government incentives have made Australia an attractive location for the industry. But many feel the government has given precedence to the economy over the well-being and safety of its own citizens stranded abroad.

Australians have reported being left jobless and homeless after wrapping up their lives abroad with the intention of going home only to have their flights canceled at the last minute. Restrictions on arrivals have forced some planes to fly with less than a dozen passengers onboard, prompting airlines to hike up flight prices or prioritize costlier first and business class tickets to remain viable. This means wealthy business people are likely jumping the queue ahead of ordinary Australians.

Stranded Australians have repeatedly told media outlets they feel abandoned. The government has budgeted for more than 100 extra repatriation flights over the coming year, but it will be able to bring less than half of the people currently registered as wanting to come home, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. A grant and loan program offering stranded Australians from $1,467 to $3,668 for a family of four to tide them over until they can get on the next flight home—sometimes, that’s many months—shows just how out of touch the government is with the plight of its citizens abroad. And although some may also access subsidies and loans for flights, eligibility criteria for these programs is stringent.

The government has justified repatriation rates with not wanting to overburden the hotel quarantine system, but extra spaces have often been found for sports stars. At the start of the year, the Victorian government not only found the means to quarantine 1,200 tennis players, officials, and support staff for the Australian Open in Melbourne but also managed to organize dedicated venues where players could go to train each day. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that travel exemptions for families of tennis players were also granted at a time when many Australians have been unable to see their own families for years. The government doesn’t even consider parents of citizens and permanent residents as immediate family.

And yet, far from sympathy from their fellow Australians, stories of those stranded have been typically received with vitriol. Last December, former businessperson Andrew Mohl described those returning as “potential biological terrorists” in a piece published by the Australian Financial Review. (That line has since been removed from the original piece on their site.)

“In most healthy democratic societies, there would be outrage if people were prevented from returning or prevented from leaving while so-called celebrities swan in and out of the country,” said Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab.

Outrage has largely come from those who found themselves on the wrong side of Australia’s international borders. And although legal scholars and human rights bodies have repeatedly questioned the legality and ethics of Australia’s border policies, the government has faced little backlash for the treatment of its own citizens abroad. A poll by a Sydney-based think tank found nearly 60 percent of respondents said the government has done the “right amount” to bring Australians home, and 7 percent said the government has done “too much.” More than 40 percent of those surveyed support the government’s current system of requiring Australians to seek a permit for travel. Numerous polls show Australians overwhelmingly back border closures.

However, pressure is building for Australia to start rethinking this policy. A task force of leaders from various sectors have put together “A Roadmap To Reopening,” which urges the country to reconnect with the world sooner rather than later or risk “economic, social and cultural harm.”

Recent outbreaks of the delta variant across the country, which forced more than half of the population into lockdowns in the past month, only further demonstrate that living in isolation from the world to pursue a strategy of virus elimination is unsustainable.

In late July, Morrison said he wanted 80 percent of eligible Australians vaccinated before the government eased international border restrictions under the cabinet’s pandemic exit plan. Although currently only around 20 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, some experts believe Australia can reach the 80 percent target by the end of the year. But what if it doesn’t?

Stears, a co-author of “A Roadmap to Reopening,” warns the country’s current approach to international borders and Australians trying to cross them will “come back to haunt us.”

“At some point, the pandemic will ease, the borders will reopen, and there will be some kind of reckoning with the fact that people were treated this way,” he said.

Natalie Vikhrov is an Australian journalist.

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