Australia is a nation of enthusiastic travellers, it is one of our defining national characteristics.
But COVID-19 has radically changed our capacity to go and be overseas. Will we ever travel so easily and readily again?
You don’t have the ‘rights’ you probably thought you had
Travel may be of huge importance to Australians, but it is not a right or entitlement.
You don’t have a legal right to consular assistance and you shouldn’t assume assistance will be provided.
Australians don’t even have the absolute right to a passport, although in practice, it is rarely denied.
International law provides for the right to freedom of movement – both in and out of Australia. As the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says,
Australia ratified the covenant in 1980, but there is no Commonwealth legislation enshrining the right of freedom of movement.
Even if there was, this doesn’t mean it would override legitimate public health concerns.
Coming home is no longer simple
In March, when the pandemic took off, the Morrison government advised Australians overseas to return home.
But coming back is no longer a simple question of booking a ticket and getting on a flight. For one thing, the global airline industry has collapsed, making available flights scarce.
As part of Australia’s COVID response, caps have also now been placed on international arrivals. In July, the number of Australian citizens and residents allowed into the country was then reduced by a third, from about 7,000 to about 4,000 a week, to ease the pressure on the hotel quarantine system. This system will be in place until at least October.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison explained he knew this made it more difficult for people to come home, but the policy was not “surprising or unreasonable”. Rather,
[it will] ensure that we could put our focus on the resources needed to do testing and tracing.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, more than 371,000 Australians overseas have returned since March.
People have spoken about the complex logistics involved in returning – including lack of available flights, lack of affordable flights – with reports of tickets costing as much as A$20,000 – strict border controls to exit the country they are in, and the cost of quarantining when they get home.
Internal border closures in Australia have added a further level of complexity.
On Friday, The Sydney Morning Herald reported the Morrison government was drawing up new plans to evacuate Australians stuck overseas.
It is worth noting that despite people’s understandable frustrations, the Australian government has limited options to help here – and the options they do have are not simple. They can potentially charter flights or cruise ships, but this is not straightforward because it requires agreements from host countries, available planes and ships, and can be hugely expensive.
Leaving Australia is no longer simple, either
Less visible, but very concerning from a rights perspective, is the Australians who are stuck in Australia. A state generally should allow citizens to leave their own country.
There are obviously compelling reasons why people will still want to travel, given Australia’s strong international connections, especially when close relatives are ill or dying overseas.
But again, we don’t actually have a “right” under domestic law to leave Australia – with the federal government able to control our movements under the Biosecurity Determination 2020.
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Between March 25 and August 16, Australian Border Force received 104,785 travel exemption requests. Of these, 34,379 were granted a discretionary exemption. Some perhaps more discretionary than others – entrepreneur Jost Stollmann was granted an exemption to travel overseas to pick up his new luxury yacht.
The way we think about travel needs to change
Significant Australia’s diplomatic resources have been going into supporting Australians overseas during COVID-19. In July, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reported 80% of its staff took part in the response effort.
Secretary Frances Adamson has also noted her department’s approach to COVID-19 had to go “well beyond what’s written in our consular charter”.
Given the range of pressing foreign policy issues at the moment, a serious question is how much of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ time and attention should be spent on consular services? What is being lost in other diplomatic efforts trying to get Australians home?
Australians need to grapple with the idea that the government doesn’t have to “get them back” if they travel overseas (even if it wants to). And under Australian law, we don’t have a “right” to leave the country.
We don’t know how long these COVID changes will last – particularly if efforts to create a vaccine are not successful. So, the way we think of travel and our risk calculations may unfortunately need to change. This might result in the biggest shift in our travel mindset since the 1950s, when international travel opened up to ordinary Australians.
With rising awareness of climate impacts of travel, this may not be a wholly negative development. But a deeper conversation is still required about the right to freedom of movement for Australian citizens.