Australia, in a controversial move, is amending its border policy this week to close a loophole allowing expats to visit their home nation and leave again without applying for an exemption from the ban. Under the new rules, taking effect on 11 August, those hoping to return to their residences abroad will have to demonstrate to the Australian Border Force Commissioner a “compelling reason for needing to leave Australian territory.” This will mean that many expats will be forced to cancel their much anticipated visits home to see family and friends, It could also leave immediate families separated if not all members travelled to Australia at the same time.
What the Australian government says
The government says exemptions can be applied before an expat leaves their home country to travel to Australia. But the officials are coming out strong on this issue. “We’ve seen too many instances where people have left the country only for in relatively short order to put their names on the request list to come back,” Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told reporters in Canberra. “That just puts additional pressure and additional difficulties in terms of managing the finite number of places that can safely be administered for returning Australians.” He added: “It’s important that people who are seeking to leave are either doing so because they’re returning to another place of residence for a long period of time, or that they have a very strong, credible reason for doing so.”
The law changes, which affect Australian expats, and which were approved with no open public debate or scrutiny, have been heavily criticised by many commentators. The country’s biggest and most-read newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, led with the headline: ‘Hard to see the reasoning behind new rules for Australian expats.’ The article claims that there appears to be no clear public health purpose behind this decision, given that return travel overseas does not pose a burden on the quarantine system. “The federal government’s latest blanket decree casts into doubt its insistence that the exit restrictions are aimed at reducing pressure on limited quarantine places upon return,” reads the piece. It goes on to say that the amendment further highlights the need “for transparency and checks on decisions that arbitrarily interfere with people’s rights and fundamental dignity, and which serve no clear public health purpose.”
The Australian government’s new regulations could be facing a constitutional legal challenge. The law practice Marque Lawyers has said it is mulling a potential legal battle. No decision has yet been made, but Marque is attempting to collate stories and information from expats who will be affected by the change. “We have been engaged to look into the potential for a challenge to the legal validity of the new measures. No decision has been made as yet,” Marque managing partner Michael Bradley said. “It is a significant additional restriction on the generally assumed freedoms of Australian citizens, including the right of return.”
Australia’s latest Covid situation
Australia’s most populous state is reporting a new daily high of 356 coronavirus infections (Tuesday 10 August). More than 80% of the state’s 8.2 million people are in lockdown, including the greater Sydney region. The Sydney lockdown began on 26 June, and hopes are fading that restrictions will be lifted on 28 August as planned. Only 22% of Australian adults had been fully vaccinated up until 9 August. Officials hope that by getting the number above 70% will allow restrictions to be eased even if the virus is continuing to spread.
In short, it remains a very fluid situation in Oz and one that is perhaps having a disproportionate effect on Aussie expats. No-one knows for sure what will happen next, but once the vaccine rollout is ramped up, there should be far more clarity. Iconic Australian musician Peter Allen once sang “I still call Australia home.” Unfortunately, it is something that many expats will now perhaps be questioning.