Expats to be locked in on return as Australia tightens borders to curb Covid-19

Australia's amendment of its border policy could end up forcing some expats planning visits home to rethink their plans.
Australia's amendment of its border policy could end up forcing some expats planning visits home to rethink their plans.PHOTO: REUTERS

CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG) - Australia is making some of the world's toughest pandemic border curbs even tougher, by barring non-resident citizens who enter the country from leaving again to reduce pressure on a quarantine system that is being tested by the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

The federal government amended an existing border policy on Thursday (Aug 5) to close a loophole allowing Australian expats to visit home and leave the country again without applying for an exemption.

Now those hoping to return to their residences abroad will have to demonstrate to the Australian Border Force Commissioner a "compelling reason for needing to leave Australian territory".

The amendment takes effect on Aug 11. It could end up forcing some expats planning long-awaited visits home to rethink their plans, or leave immediate families separated if not all members travelled to Australia at the same time.

"We've seen too many instances where people have left the country only to, in relatively short order, put their names on the request list to come back," Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told reporters in Canberra.

"That just puts additional pressure and additional difficulties in terms of managing the finite number of places that can safely be administered for returning Australians."

Australians residing in the country are already prohibited from going overseas without government exemptions, which can be granted on compassionate grounds or for reasons including travelling to receive urgent medical treatment not available in Australia.

Australia's international borders have been mostly closed since early last year in a bid to stem Covid-19's spread, and this has been restricted largely to citizens, residents and their immediate families. The measures, some of the toughest in the world, have left thousands of Australians effectively stranded abroad and earned the country the nickname "Fortress Australia".

The government in May temporarily banned its citizens from entering if they had been in India, where the Delta variant first emerged, within two weeks of their arrival in Australia. Health Minister Greg Hunt said breaches could lead to a fine of A$66,600 (S$66,500), five years in jail, or both.

Australian Broadcasting Corp reported at the time that there were some 9,000 Australians living in India who wanted to come home.

Measures are being tightened further as the highly contagious Delta variant fuels outbreaks from Sydney to Brisbane, with some two-thirds of the country's population forced into lockdown.

Australia last month cut international arrivals by 50 per cent to take the pressure off its mandatory quarantine system as the Delta variant slipped through. The quarantine system requires any arrival to spend two weeks under guard in an assigned hotel.

An air-travel bubble with New Zealand that opened in April has since been paused amid the surge in cases.

"It's important that people who are seeking to leave are doing so either because they're returning to another place of residence for a long period of time, or (because) they have a very strong, credible reason for doing so," Mr Birmingham said.