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HomeWorldForgetting Citizenship: Australia Suspends Flights From India

Forgetting Citizenship: Australia Suspends Flights From India


As India is being devastated by COVID-19 cases that have
now passed a daily rate of 400,000, affluent and callous
Australia has taken the decision to suspend all flights
coming into the country till mid-month. The decision was
reached by the Morrison government with the blessing of the
State Premiers and the Labor opposition.

Not happy
with banning flights from India, the Morrison government
promises to be savage in punishing returnees who find ways
to circumvent the ban (for instance, by travelling via a
third country). Citizens who breach the travel ban can face
up to five years’ imprisonment and fines up to AU$66,000.
“We have taken drastic action to keep Australians safe,”
explained
the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg. The situation in India was
“serious”; the decision had only been reached after
considering the medical advice.

According to a statement
from Health Minister Greg Hunt, it was “critical the
integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine
systems is protected and the number of COVID-19 cases in
quarantine is reduced to a manageable level.”

The
decision fails to carry any weight. It did not take long for
more alert medical practitioners to wonder why the approach
to India was being so selectively severe. Health commentator
and GP Vyom Sharma thought the decision
“incredibly disproportionate to the threat that it
posed”. Sharma is certainly correct on this score in terms
of international law, which requires the least restrictive
or least intrusive way of protecting citizens.

Then
there was the issue about the previous policies Canberra had
adopted to countries suffering from galloping COVID-19
figures. A baffled Sharma wondered, “Why is it that India
has copped this ban and no people who have come from
America?” Former race discrimination commissioner Tim
Soutphommasane seconds
the suspicions
. “We didn’t see differential
treatment being extended to countries such as the United
States, the UK, and any other European country even though
the rates of infection were very high and the danger of its
arrivals from those countries was very high.”

The
Australian Human Rights Commission has
also asked
the federal government to justify its
actions. “The government must show that these measures are
not discriminatory and the only suitable way of dealing with
the threat to public health.”

In the face of such
behaviour, aggrieved citizens are left with few legal
measures. Australia, among liberal democratic states, is
idiosyncratic in
refusing to adopt a charter of rights
. Down Under,
parliamentarians are supposedly wise and keen to uphold
human rights till they think otherwise. (Human rights, the
argument goes, would become the fodder of lawyers and
judges, interfering with the absolute will of Parliament and
the electors.) The Australian Constitution is hopelessly
silent on the issue of citizenship. Left at the mercy of
legislative regulation, Parliament and the executive can be
disdainful towards their citizens without
consequences.

One avenue remains the Geneva-based UN
Human Rights Committee. On April 15, the UNHRC ruled on the
case of two petitioners of FreeAndOpenAustralia.org
(formerly StrandedAussies.org) that the Morrison government
had to “facilitate and ensure their prompt return to
Australia.”

Represented by the notable sage of
international law Geoffrey Robertson QC, the petitioners
argued that Australia was in breach of Articles 12(4) and
2(3) of the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
. The first
article provides that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived
of the right to enter his own country; the second provides
for “effective” remedies to be granted to those whose
rights and freedoms have breached under the ICCPR. The
petitioners also freely admitted that they had no issue with
quarantining for 14 days on returning to Australia.

In
the words
of Free and Open Australia spokesperson Deb Tellis, the
Commonwealth should “use its power to expand quarantine
facilities, and end travel caps that are being dictated by
the states. There are thousands of our fellow citizens
suffering loss of their relatives and loss of their
jobs.”

The government has preferred a meaner, penny
pinching approach in coping with quarantine, reducing
flights when needed rather than expanding facilities to
accommodate a greater number of infected arrivals. The hotel
quarantine system continues to receive effusive praise
from the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as being
99.99 percent effective. But it is impossible for him, and
his ministers, to conceal the fact that they do not trust,
and are unwilling, to use other facilities and expand
existing ones.

Since last November, there have been 16
COVID-19 leaks
across the cities of Melbourne, Sydney,
Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth from quarantine hotels. At this
writing, another
quarantine leak
is being reported in Western Australia,
involving the now customarily infected hotel security guard
and the inevitable seepage into the community. The problem
of airborne transmission
continues to plague, as does
the uneven provision of Personal Protective Equipment. No
national standard of quarantine has been formulated through
the country, with each state adopting its own approach.
Audits of the ventilation systems in many such hotels remain
sketchy.

Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan, who
recently imposed a lockdown of the Perth and Peel areas and
may well do the same thing over the next few days, suggested
that the Commonwealth be generous with some of its
facilities. Why not use the RAAF Curtin Air Base, or the
immigration detention centres of Yongah Hill and Christmas
Island? “It’s kind of staring us in the face and there
are things that could assist, it’s just that the
Commonwealth doesn’t want to do it.”

The evidence
so far is that facilities such as Howard Springs in the
Northern Territory tend
to work
. It features single-storey cabins, segregated
air conditioning systems, outdoor veranda space and, in the
vicinity, a fully functioning hospital. No leaks have been
recorded. And location is everything: distant from densely
populated areas. This government, however, is miserly on the
issue of quarantine, an obligation it has transferred
without constitutional justification to State premiers who
fear both the virus and its electoral
consequences.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth
Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT
University, Melbourne. Email:
bkampmark@gmail.com

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