A key pillar of Australia’s success in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has been its closure of international borders. On 20 March 2020 Australia sealed its borders to everyone except its citizens, residents and temporary visa holders in a confined number of circumstances. Those who return from abroad are also required to quarantine in dedicated hotels for 14 days and undergo a rigorous testing regime. This quarantine system substantially reduces the number of COVID-19 cases that can be imported into Australia.
This briefing addresses the principal issues concerning repatriation policy and sets out recommendations to address deficiencies.
- Australian citizens stranded abroad have brought a complaint against Australia before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Although this avenue of recourse faces obstacles, it has raised questions about current Australian policy on border closures and repatriation.
- Australia’s quarantine program is largely administered by the states. Caps on the number of arrivals have been consistently lower than demand and notoriously volatile, reduced in response to repeated system failures in hotel quarantine programs.
- In the absence of an express bill of rights, Australia largely relies on political mechanisms to hold the government to account, including with regard to the proportionality of COVID-19 related international border restrictions. Political mechanisms have failed to prioritise the right of citizens to return ahead of other political and economic concerns relevant to government business. Repatriation policy has also operated in a vacuum of political accountability: border closures have been the government’s most popular restriction.