Editor's note: On the same day this story aired, April 15, the UN Human Rights Committee notified petitioners associated with FreeandOpenAustralia.org that it had taken initial steps in response to their complaint. Under rare emergency measures, the committee formally requested that the Australian government "facilitate and ensure" the petitioners "prompt" return to Australia.
Pieter den Heten left Australia for work in Germany before the pandemic shut things down and was then unable to return. That was in September of 2019.
Den Heten became the face of an Amnesty International campaign on behalf of stranded Australians. He testified as a witness for an Australian Senate Committee hearing. Lawmakers said they’d have everyone back by Christmas, but that didn’t happen.
“There's a lot of media attention when you count the number of articles, the number of times that people are on the radio or on TV. But for some reason, it doesn't resonate.”
“There's a lot of media attention when you count the number of articles, the number of times that people are on the radio or on TV,” said den Heten, who does digital work and has created a website where 3,000 Australians shared their stories about not being able to get home. “But for some reason, it doesn't resonate.”
For a year, tens of thousands of Australian citizens left stranded outside their country by the COVID-19 pandemic — amid strict border closures and flight caps — have been trying to raise awareness about their situation, with little impact. Now, a group of them have gone to the United Nations for help, arguing that Australia has failed to uphold their human rights.
Although celebrities and sports stars have successfully entered Australia, many of the scores of Australians still stuck abroad have expired visas, or are running low on cash; others are separated from their children or dying parents.
“We've spoken, of course, with lawyers and nobody really wants to take this on because there's basically no chance of success,” den Heten said.
That’s because Australia doesn’t have anything like a human rights act or the US Bill of Rights, so there’s no legal basis to bring a suit. A group of those stranded abroad went to Geoffrey Robertson, a high-profile Australian lawyer based in London.
“If we had a bill of rights, we'd be able to start an action in Australia to force the government to comply,” Robertson said. “But we don't, so there is no remedy other than going to a United Nations tribunal.”
Robertson is taking the case to the UN Human Rights Committee. It’s an independent panel of human rights law experts. Anyone can submit a complaint about their government.
“It's basic to international law that you have a right to return home, which you can't be arbitrarily deprived of,” he said. “That's in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which the Australian government has — with most other democratic governments — ratified.”
The Human Rights Committee, though, is not a court. And it usually doesn’t act quickly — although Roberston has asked for it to take faster emergency measures. It also can’t issue binding decisions. Australia would have to voluntarily comply. And the Australian government doesn’t have a good track record of doing that, said Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“Australia seems to take a more defiant stance in some cases,” McAdam said. “Indeed, Australia has been taken to task over that in the past when it's rejected the Human Rights Committee's assessments of Australia's refugee policy approach to detention and the like.”
For example, Australia has been criticized for human rights violations in the way it treats asylum-seekers. McAdam said there’s little chance of Roberston’s petition to the UN Human Rights Committee succeeding, but she applauds the effort because it will send a powerful political message about human rights.
“The fact that we don't have a human rights act is a bar to so many rights violations,” she said. “It's what in some respects enables a lot of Australia's refugee policy to persist.”
Kym Bramley was on vacation in Mexico when her flight back home to Australia was canceled last year. She had planned to fly home in October 2020.
“You think that you're a citizen, and you're always going to be able to go back to your own country. It's a horrible feeling to be left stateless.”
“You think that you're a citizen, and you're always going to be able to go back to your own country,” Bramley said. “It's a horrible feeling to be left stateless.”
For Bramley, cost became the main barrier for her returning to Australia. Flight prices skyrocketed in 2020 and remained high because Australian states have capped the number of people coming in, and there are limited spots in the mandatory two-week quarantine. Bramley connected with other stranded Australians online to raise awareness about their situation.
“I just can't imagine this happening in the US,” she said. “I think that people in most other countries would take to the streets.”
Bramley finally cashed in her pension to pay for a plane ticket home that cost more than $10,000.
Bramley was released two weeks ago from quarantine, where she said she felt like she was treated like a leper. But she said it's important to tell her story because so many others still stuck abroad think that if they speak up, it’ll hurt their chances to get back home.
“Australia doesn't really care about what the UN thinks. Its treatment of refugees is evidence of that.”
“Australia doesn't really care about what the UN thinks,” she said. “Its treatment of refugees is evidence of that.”
“That's what I think what it comes down to,” said den Heten, who was also able to return after scrounging money to pay for a business class ticket. “People are extremely scared.”
He said despite Australia’s traditional culture of travel, now, Australians don’t seem to care about those outside the country. Den Heten said people tell him the government’s pandemic measures have kept them safe.
“I would have expected that they would feel more empathy,” he said. “This really is an issue right now: are you really Australian?”
Den Heten said Aussies are proud to help each other out in a disaster situation, such as a fire or a flood. But when it comes to the pandemic, he said, it seems like Australians think that it's everyone for themselves.