Australians living overseas could be “trapped” in Australia if they return to visit, after the federal government tightened its border rules without notice, in a move some expats have branded as “barbaric”, the BBC is reporting.
Since March last year, the country has banned its citizens from leaving as part of its Covid-19 strategy, but that restriction has not previously applied to Australians who usually live in other countries.
However, they will now need to apply for an exemption for outbound travel, in line with rules for other Australians, after claims the expat rule was a loophole.
From Aug 11, a person will have to demonstrate to the Australian Border Force Commissioner a “compelling reason for needing to leave Australian territory”.
The Sydney Morning Herald quotes the government statement saying the amendment, which cannot be disallowed, “will reduce the pressure on Australia’s quarantine capacity, reduce the risks posed to the Australian population from Covid-19, and assist in returning vulnerable Australians back home”.
Exemptions can be granted for business travel, but the government has previously said it intends to clamp down on the number of them being granted.
Australia’s tough border rules remain controversial and critics say this change will further punish families and deter citizens from returning.
Alexandra Phelan, who lives in the US, tweeted she was “waking up to news that I’m effectively exiled from my country”.
While the closed-border policy has been mostly supported in Australia, many have also criticised its impact on citizens.
The BBC has been told of cases in the past year where Australians have been unable to leave to care for sick or dying loved ones, or to retrieve their children from relatives.
Legal experts have questioned whether Australia’s rules contravene constitutional rights by effectively preventing some citizens from being able to return.
The government has said Australia will not re-open until at least 80% of its population is vaccinated, which is likely to be sometime next year. The current vaccinated total is 19%.
The SMH spoke to Australian citizen James Turbitt who recently flew back to Australia from Belgium to try and say goodbye to his seriously ill mother.
He missed out on seeing her one last time because he was told to hire a charter flight worth tens of thousands of dollars to qualify for an exemption to leave hotel quarantine.
He is currently still in the country sorting out her affairs before trying to leave and return home.
Turbitt said the government’s changes were aimed at citizens like him and that it was “barbaric and counterproductive”.
“I came back for the passing of my mother, I was locked in a hotel room while she passed away, denied an exemption to see her, and now I am subjected to proving my life overseas, in order to leave again?” the 35-year-old said.
“My life is overseas, my work is there, my partner is there, I’ve just lost my mother, and now I can be denied to go back.”
He complained that senior politicians fly in and out of the country with ease.
“The Queensland Premier goes overseas to the Olympics, the Prime Minister goes to check out his family history in England. Now someone who doesn’t even want to be in this country is potentially going to be forcibly detained,” he said.