During his press conference on 28 June 2021, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was asked about Australia re-opening its borders, which closed March 2020. Morrison’s reply made it clear that this is not on the cards. He highlighted Australia’s ‘advantage at this point’ when it comes to Covid-19 and spoke about Australia’s ‘success to date’.
Closed borders aren’t a partisan matter. Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews called for a cap on international arrivals to allow the Government time to deal with the latest Delta variant and until a ‘critical mass’ of Australians had been vaccinated. Andrews proposed that the cap should be in place for three months. Yet, 18 months into a deadly pandemic, Australia’s vaccination rates are the worst in the OECD at only 4% fully vaccinated; in light of this statistic, a three-month cap makes little sense. It’ll take much longer to get a significant portion of the population vaccinated, made all the more challenging by the Federal Government’s mixed messages about vaccine availability and eligibility.
I watch the news and feel numb. It’s been one and a half years since I’ve seen my mum. Since I felt her hug and embrace. Since I’ve seen my dad, who is living with a debilitating and degenerative form of MS. One and a half years since I’ve seen my sister and nieces and nephews. Their lives are sent in fragments: text messages, photos, brief videos. I sit with these fragments and try to piece together these moments I was not part of. They’re making memories without me. I spend hours awake in the small hours of the night thinking about my mum and dad and how old they’ll be when next we next see each other, I am worried about growing older without them, about them growing older without me. I count the years of my life spent being so far away from them. I am heartbroken.
I took for granted being able to fly home every year and spending weeks, or even months if I was lucky, with my family. Now I have no idea when I’ll go home again. I barely see my one sister who lives in Australia as we’re in different states. We plan trips, which we’re then forced to cancel and reschedule because state borders close. My mum once told me that there’s a thread that connects our hearts, and not to worry because this thread can stretch across continents. Every time I got on a plane back to Australia I could feel the tightening of that thread. Every year when I came home so we could be together the thread loosened and suddenly I could breathe with ease. And now, my heart beats close to my chest. There are little holes in my heart that used to hold hope, holes that tear wider with every lockdown announcement, with every border restriction.
For many Australians, ‘Fortress Australia’ is a commendable policy. The BBC reports that polling shows 75-80% approval ratings for Australia’s closed borders policy. But for the 30% of Australians that were born overseas (including 40,000 Australians currently stranded overseas) and 7.6 million migrants, closed borders are a cruel and heartless thing. We are isolated from our families without an end date in sight, each deadline pushed back as the months progress. The blasé attitude many Australians have about the country’s strict closed borders policy is gut-wrenching and makes those of us who are cut away from our networks feel all the more isolated.
Each time I’ve tweeted about Australia’s closed borders, hundreds of people shared my sentiments. Many told their own heartbreaking stories of being removed from parents, partners, siblings. How much more can we bear? I watched my beloved grandma’s funeral on Zoom, unable to visit her home for the last time, to touch her, to be with her. Every day babies are being born without their grandparents around. Right now parents are fighting to bring home more than 200 Australian children stranded in India. There are parents dying without their children near them. Fortress Australia is touted as an effective public health measure but it’s a punitive and fearful policy.
We mustn’t take Australia’s closed borders in isolation. Historically, Australian Governments have exercised extreme power in face of humanitarian crises, from sending the military into Indigenous communities, to the cruel and indefinite detention of asylum seekers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced the brunt of the Australian colony’s penchant for incarceration, with over 470 Aboriginal deaths in custody and a grossly disproportionate incarceration rate. Instead of adopting a humanitarian approach, Australia time and time again resorts to militarisation, incarceration, border control, and other extreme measures.
It should not come as surprise, then, that rather than turning attention to a comprehensive vaccination program, the Australian government falls back on ‘Fortress Australia’ as a ‘solution’. This is a gutless measure and one that affords the Government cowardly form of justification for its failure to undertake meaningful and urgent public health responses. Closed borders should not be a primary public health measure. They should be a last resort. Instead of turning to closed borders as the default solution, we need to invest in a strong and robust vaccination roll out—something the Morrison government has failed to do time and time again.
Sadly, for the tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas or those of us in the colony but with families elsewhere, there’s no solution in sight. Unless, of course, you’re connected and wealthy, like British billionaire Lord Alan Sugar, media mogul Kerry Stokes, or singer Dannii Minogue. You’ll not only be allowed into the country, but will also be exempt from otherwise mandatory hotel quarantine.
It’s clear that the Government has failed many of its citizens at home and overseas, as well as migrants living in the Australian colony. The reality is that I—like thousands of others—am already broken by the isolated island mentality that has cut us off from the rest of the world. I dread the future stretched out before me without my mum, my sisters, my niblings, my dad.
Every day I weigh up the cost of staying in Australia against going home. Many migrants have made the difficult decision to leave. The ambivalence or dismissiveness that many Australians express about our plight is distressing. With a projection that some border restrictions may possibly ease by mid-2022, we’re not talking about a short-term solution. It is time for our political class to demonstrate real leadership on border policy.
Until that happens, I’ll keep assembling fragments of my family’s life that I can only witness from afar. The thread pulling at my heart tightening evermore.