PUBLIC STATEMENT BY PAULINE WRIGHT
The federal Government’s move to criminalise Australians travelling home from India, including massive fines and penalties of up to 5 years’ imprisonment is an extraordinary move and likely to infringe international human rights law. This will abandon Australian citizens to their fate in an utterly overburdened health care system in India. It is inhumane and unconscionable.
It is certainly not the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health. A less restrictive and intrusive way of protecting Australians would be to improve quarantine systems instead of criminalising our citizens who are doing nothing more than wishing to come home.
The Government’s move also looks discriminatory. While there can be no denying that the situation in India is critical, no such measures were taken for Australians returning from the United States, the United Kingdom or Europe during the height of their dire pandemic crises.
This action and Australia’s restrictive travel bans underscore the urgency of a federal charter of rights to better protect human rights and freedoms in Australia. Australia is unique in the western world for lacking federal legislative or constitutional human rights protections. So, when an extreme measure of this kind comes along, there are few legal grounds to contest it.
The travel bans imposed over a year ago have caused immense suffering. People requesting exemptions to travel in both directions are being rejected with boilerplate responses without reasons or recourse, and decision-making appears to be arbitrary with some people being rejected several times then approved on subsequent attempts, while others face little if any difficulty. There is a Facebook group of people sharing travel exemption stories that has over 34,000 members, many heart-breaking.
What is most galling is the ease with which rich and well-connected people seem to come and go as they please while ordinary people who have endured separation from loved ones, are denied the right to be with dying parents or with children, and with no hope in sight.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was allowed to travel to London to give a speech. Zac Efron, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Idris Elba, Natalie Portman, Ed Sheeran, Melissa McCarthy and Julia Roberts were allowed to enter Australia. Some of these stars were permitted to quarantine at a location of their choosing rather than a cramped quarantine hotel.
The exit ban in particular lacks any logical justification. This Thursday will see the commencement of the Federal Court in Sydney hearing a significant legal challenge to the travel bans. The lives of tens of thousands of anguished people hang in the balance of the decision of the Full Court.
No other country has imposed exit bans, including the stars of COVID management, New Zealand and Taiwan. Prior to the move to criminalise Australians returning from India, the Minster imposed fines that in theory apply to people who take advantage of the New Zealand ‘travel bubble’ to travel on to other countries.
It is not acceptable for the Government to point to the need to keep numbers in hotel quarantine under control. Nor is it defensible to blame returning travellers for the shortcomings in Australia’s hotel quarantine system.
For decades during the Cold War, this country campaigned against the communist bloc that prevented its people from leaving. Our Government should not be preventing Australians from leaving our shores and should not be imprisoning Australian citizens for returning home.
Instead, procedures can be and should be put in place to enable people who are fully vaccinated to travel abroad and to be placed in effective quarantine upon their return. If hotel quarantine is ineffective, then it is time for the Government to provide purpose-built facilities.
Pauline Wright is the President of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties.