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For more than a year, tens of thousands of Australians have been stranded abroad. As early as February 2020, the country had decided to close its borders and restrict access to its territory due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Faced with this situation, a small group decided to act by filing a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

Faced with the threat of Covid-19, Australia very early on isolated itself from the rest of the world. As early as February 2020, the country decided to close its borders and restrict access to its territory to Australians abroad. Some of the most drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the world.

A year later, the restrictions are still in place and many Australians are unable to return to the island mainland. Prime Minister Scott Morrison had pledged to repatriate all citizens stranded abroad for Christmas.

Many of them today are in the throes of despair. Some lost their jobs, exhausted their savings and had to resort to loans to survive. Others have fallen ill or have to return home to care for their own, who are sometimes in critical condition.

A petition to the UN

According to official figures, nearly 40,000 Australians stranded abroad have applied for emergency return.

Faced with this situation, a small group decided to act by filing a petition on Thursday April 1 with the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

For Geoffrey Robertson QC, the internationally renowned lawyer responsible for leading this action at the UN, the drastic restrictions on entry into the country are not justified. The mandatory 14-day quarantines imposed by regional governments are more than enough, he said, to eliminate any health risk. “No government worthy of the name would impose restrictions to prevent, for more than a year, its citizens from returning when they are ready to submit to a quarantine”, lambasted the Briton of Australian origin during ‘an interview on ABC radio.

The petition addressed to the United Nations is based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which stipulates, according to Geoffrey Robertson QC, that no one can be “arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”.

Jason is one of the initiators of the petition. A microbiologist living in the United States, he tried to return to Tasmania with his wife to join family members, old and sick. In vain. Without a quick fix, he will soon have to deal with an unexpected situation: “My visa expires in December and I normally have to leave the country and reapply for a new visa from outside. My wife is in the midst of depression and anguish because of this situation over which she has no control ”.

Jason, here alongside his wife Deborah in New York City, is one of the Australians behind the petition to the UN Human Rights Committee. © Jason © Jason

Jason says he realized the scale of the phenomenon when he joined and found several other online groups where Australians were sharing their experiences and seeking advice.

“This petition (to the UN) represents all Australians stranded abroad,” said Jason, who estimates that the real number of those wishing to return far exceeds the figure of 40,000 people put forward by the authorities.

The petition could damage the image of Australia, whose health policy to contain the virus is currently perceived internationally as a great success.

With an official death toll of 909 since the start of the pandemic, the country has so far escaped the health disaster that many countries have suffered.

Around 4,000 weekly admissions

Each week, only about 4,000 people can enter Australia, due to the low number of places in the hotels responsible for quarantines.

Although the government has supported return flights with the national carrier Qantas from London, Frankfurt and several Asian capitals, there are not enough seats for everyone. In financial difficulties, foreign companies have had to reduce their flights, forcing them to refuse passengers or even cancel flights at the last minute. As soon as seats are available, they are gone within minutes.

Those who can afford it pay between 7,000 and 9,000 Australian dollars (4,500 to 5,800 euros) for a ticket considered “reliable”, that is to say one which almost always guarantees them to be able to travel. To this must be added the 3,000 dollars (1,900 euros) compulsory for quarantine at the hotel.

Australians stranded abroad can sometimes count on help from compatriots who have made it back, such as Lucy Morrell. This member of the Stranded Aussies group (“Australians stranded abroad”) was repatriated on April 1 from Japan with her husband and 12-year-old daughter. If she had to do it three times and spend the equivalent of more than 14,000 euros, she nevertheless considers herself lucky. She now accompanies several people who are candidates for return.

stranded abroad for over a year, Australians feel “stateless”
Lucy, her daughter and her husband on March 31, 2021. © Lucy Morrell

Among them is a humanitarian worker in her twenties who was unable to return from Africa in time before the borders were closed.

Without a job allowing her to pay rent, and having exhausted her savings, the young woman found refuge with a local family. Her mother was forced to borrow money by mortgaging her house to buy her a “reliable” note, with the hope that she would be able to return soon.

“Citizenship stops at the border”

For Lucy Morrell, desperation is growing among expats. “People are getting more fragile. They are worn out after all these months of unsuccessful attempts. ”

“We have been contacted by people expressing suicidal thoughts. They are unable to return: not being considered a priority because without resources, they do not receive any help from the Australian government. Many of them have no not the citizenship of the countries where they are located and therefore do not have access to local aid.It is as if they were stateless, ”emphasizes Lucy Morrell.

Lucy Morrell hopes the petition to the UN will push the government to act. “It seems that citizenship stops at the border and that when we leave the territory our rights are not the same. This time, it is the expatriates who wish to return who drink. But the next time the government takes drastic action against its citizens, another group could pay the price ”.

Article adapted from English by David Rich.