Citizens and residents now returning to Australia will find themselves, after clearing the vacant halls and PPE-clad checkpoints of its airport terminals, served with a formal detention notice and greeted with a convoy of police escorts. An armed officer may explain to them that under the current state of emergency, they are obliged to complete a fortnight of quarantine “detention” in a government-designated hotel — or be penalized with up to $50,000 or a year behind bars. Having entered, they cannot leave the country unless permitted to do so on exceptional legal grounds.
What may appear to be a revival of the penal colony of old is in fact the light end of a COVID-19 border “protection” policy that in 2020 saw Australia seal its frontiers against all but citizens and permanent residents and enforce a ban on departing the country. Australia stands alone among democratic nations in imposing such a restriction. The extremity and duration of its border closure — which shows no signs of easing before mid-2022 — have paid off, as Australia has weathered the pandemic with a death toll still in the hundreds.
In contrast to the “business as usual” approach of the leaders in the UK and United States, Australia’s policy on COVID-19 — comprehensive lockdowns in Victoria last year coupled with widespread testing and relatively generous wage subsidy programs — has been humane and effective. But success at home has meant ultra-hard borders, sometimes in worrying ways.
Most recently, when COVID cases on the subcontinent spiked in April, the Australian government responded by imposing a ban on all entries from India, even for those nine thousand Australian citizens who happened to find themselves there at the time. The ban came with threats of up to five years imprisonment — a measure which lead to a flurry of expressions of concern from health and human rights bodies all the way up to the UN.
Australia stood absolutely alone among democratic nations with its ban on citizens returning from India. It is notable, too, that at the time of Australia’s ban, India had fewer COVID-19 cases per capita than either the United States or UK at their peaks — countries against which travel bans were never implemented. Prime Minister Scott Morrison for his part rebuffed accusations that the policy, which was lifted in mid-May following the backlash, was racist, claiming that “it’s got nothing to do with politics, this is a virus” and that “there’s no politics or ideology in a pandemic.”
Amid all this, Australian elites like Nicole Kidman and Lachlan Murdoch, as well noncitizens like Natalie Portman and Viggo Mortensen, have reentered the country at whim, bypassing quarantine altogether. This at a time when tens of thousands of Australians remain stranded abroad due to strict quotas on reentry, which have in turn produced a hyperinflated market for the scarce commodity of airfare, with tickets prices often soaring into five-digit figures.
As scholars have recently noted, Australia started its life as a quarantine nation. From the 1830s, all new arrivals to its shores were confined to their ships or other purpose-built stations for the same period of fourteen days in what became the longest-running quarantine program in history. (The system also took on a distinctly racialized tone with the advent of smallpox, as Australian authorities erroneously designated the Chinese the most potent vectors of disease and penalized them accordingly.) Quarantine restrictions continued until the 1950s with similarly xenophobic and classist dynamics, reproduced in the quality of accommodation, food, and rights (or lack thereof) afforded to various groups.
The logic that Australia could engineer itself into a “clean” nation through demographic control of its population was enshrined as one of the nation’s first legislative acts in the form of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, otherwise known as the “White Australia policy.” The legislation aimed to curtail non-British migration to Australia through “the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration and … the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst’, as the act described — twin pillars of ‘the policy of securing a white Australia.”
Domestically, this prescription was coupled with a state-officiated campaign to realize de facto genocide against the so-called “dying race” of Australia’s indigenous inhabitants through breeding out, incarcerating, or otherwise containing their populations. Such policies were driven by a prevailing view of Australia as a utopic and forward-thinking land, whose abundant opportunities only “desirable” citizens should be afforded access to. Those who were not white, able-bodied, or often even male, where seen as a direct threat to this ideal.
Though the explicit xenophobia of the White Australia policy was renounced in the 1970s, echoes of its logic have been carried through in political discourse and border security practices into the twenty-first century. The institutional memory of Australia’s former migration regime has been replicated since the 1980s in policies which have seen asylum seekers forcibly detained in remote facilities for the duration of their claims processing — often a period of years.
This punitive trajectory was realized in full with the turn of the millennium in the instating of an offshore detention system that sought the prevent asylum seekers from reaching the Australian mainland at any cost (including human life) on the platform of “Operation Sovereign Borders.” Most recently, asylum seekers that have been evacuated on medical grounds from their pacific island prisons to Australia have found themselves detained in hotels and other facilities for as long as a year in equally nightmarish conditions. And amid the diversions of the global pandemic, in May, parliament passed a new bill allowing refugees and asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely.
These containment-driven border policies have been justified in political discourse on the grounds that migrants are variously illegal, criminal, or threats to national security and public health. And it is through a similar prism that Australia’s latest hard-line border policy should be scrutinized. Indeed, the current zero-tolerance COVID-19 border policy seems redolent with echoes of former prime minister John Howard’s infamous claim that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Australia may be a multicultural migrant nation — around one out of four Australians were born overseas — yet this reality has rarely stopped its citizens wanting to close the gate behind them to other would-be Australians. Studies in recent years suggest a continuing decline in popular support for immigration, with the advent of the pandemic giving fresh currency to anti-immigration sentiments.
What’s unique about this moment, however, is the way in which hostility toward outsiders seems to have been turned against those Australians who have found themselves overseas since lockdowns began. Not only are many in this category unable to return due to exceptional financial, logistical, or legal obstacles, they have also now been slandered as “elitist” and “un-Australian.” A national poll in May showed that only one-third of Australians believe the government should do more to assist citizens stranded abroad.
Australia’s apparent comfort with this Noah’s Ark model for weathering the pandemic replicates a more general trend of global retreat on the nation’s part. As political commentators have noted, Australian spending on foreign aid has declined over recent years, alongside a growing disinclination for involvement in overseas humanitarian crises or conflicts. Even including additional COVID-19 assistance, Australia’s spending on foreign aid in the 2020 budget as a proportion of GNI was the lowest ever — less than half the rate of the 1970s.
Australia’s commitment to protecting its residents from COVID should be commended, particularly when viewed beside other rich nations around the globe that emphatically privileged the health of the economy at the expense of its public. Yet coupled with its questionably laid-back approach to a national vaccination campaign, the federal government’s ongoing, hyper-strict travel restrictions that still show no sign of easing risk sliding into more troubling terrain, particularly in the hands of a government already known for its right-wing nationalism and border cruelty.
The country’s historical and continuing record of institutional violence around border protection alone should provide a cautionary note against the wholesale acceptance of the current measures. Morrison in early May stated that Australia’s borders would remain closed into 2022, if not “indefinitely.”
Noting that there were still too many “uncertainties ahead” to consider easing border security, he said, “Australians want to ensure that the way we’re living at the moment is maintained.” So whatever tumult Australian and global citizens are confronting abroad, the carefully policed and COVID-free Hermit Kingdom for now looks as relaxed and comfortable as ever.