Home without a heart

“You have every right to come home,” the prime minister told the more than 30,000 Australians stranded overseas in December last year.

He promised to get as many as possible – if not all – home by Christmas.

In the months since, the numbers have hardly fallen.

As time stretches on, the situation for these people becomes more desperate. Work dries up, savings dwindle, visas expire. Nearly 5000 citizens overseas have been classed as vulnerable by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

This week, a group of stranded Australians filed legal action with the United Nations against the Morrison government.

They claim that “their right to return to the land of their birth or citizenship” has been breached.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who has advised the group, argues that “no respectable government would impose travel caps to prevent, for over a year, its citizens from returning if they are prepared to do quarantine”.

“Mr Morrison is behaving as if in a moral vacuum,” Robertson says.

Of course, Morrison would not be the first prime minister to act without a moral consideration when it comes to the question of Australia’s borders and who is allowed to cross them. But anger is growing about the brazen inequities of the arrivals cap.

“You are Australian, and you are my first priority in terms of people coming back into the country,” the prime minister said.

And yet while pop stars and Broadway producers are granted special exemptions to enter, Australian citizens languish on the other side of the world – some facing homelessness as a global pandemic still rages.

Those rich enough to afford the cost of flights and quarantine – easily upwards of $10,000 – have mobility; those without the means, the people who most need to get home, are trapped.

March 20 marked a year since the government closed the Australian border.

Enough time has passed for the government’s illusion that this pandemic can be managed by temporary fixes – chief among them the use of hotels for quarantine – to fade.

A national quarantine scheme must be established, with dedicated infrastructure, to allow for the return of these stranded Australians, and for the country to reopen to the world. Waiting for full vaccination is not a viable option, not with the rollout likely to stretch into next year.

This will be costly, no doubt, but it will not be a waste.

Consider the cost of yet another hotel quarantine breach, yet another major city lockdown. Consider the human cost of another person not being able to get home to be with their dying parent or their newborn child.

Each day, the number of stranded Australians who need to return grows. The demand is real, and urgent, and must be taken seriously by the government.

As Lynette Wood, DFAT’s assistant secretary, told senate estimates last week, “The cup keeps refilling.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 3, 2021 as "Home without a heart".

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