SYDNEY – Carrying their infant son, David and Kate Jeffries traveled from their home in Perth, Western Australia, to a small town in central Canada on Feb. 26 to care for Kate’s 76-year-old mother, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
They had heard of a mysterious coronavirus emerging from China but weren’t too worried. Canada had reported only 12 cases, and the family was scheduled to fly home four weeks later.
Today, the Jeffries are stuck in a rented house near Winnipeg, unable to return to Perth because of draconian Australian entry restrictions that have stranded tens of thousands of Australian citizens and residents overseas.
As a group, they form part of an unexpected phenomenon of the pandemic: displaced people of the developed world. And for Australians overseas or with loved ones abroad, the tyranny of distance – a largely bygone concern conquered by jet travel – is once again very real.
“We don’t want to bring covid back to our country, but we have a right to return,” David Jeffries said in a Zoom call from his living room in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. “Where it has really started to affect us is the insecurity. We are always leaving, but we have never left.”
There is no authoritative figure on how many people have been stranded as a result of restrictions that countries have imposed during the pandemic. In late March, more than 50,000 Americans were stuck overseas when cross-border travel almost ceased, U.S. officials said at the time.
Australia’s situation is extreme, though. The island continent has one of the strictest border closures – residents need special permission to leave, and only citizens, residents and a few other select groups have been allowed in since March 20. Arrivals are limited to about 8,000 a week and they must isolate in a hotel for 14 days at their own expense.
Besides allowing entry to travelers from New Zealand, the country has largely sealed itself off. In January, about 2.3 million people came to Australia. By September, the figure was 16,720.
A similar collapse in travel has occurred across Asia, where restrictions are tougher than in the United States and Europe, though without Australia’s tight quarantine caps. Visitors to Japan fell to 13,700 in September from 2.7 million in January; to 64,000 from 1.3 million in South Korea over the same period; and to 13,800 from 2 million in Vietnam, according to CEIC Data, a research company.
This week Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, allowed sports stadiums to operate at full capacity and gyms and nightclubs to reopen. On Saturday, the last internal state border closure is scheduled to end.
Scientists say allowing people to flood home from overseas would risk one of the world’s most successful pandemic responses.
“There is no justification for rushing it and having an inferior quarantine system,” said John Kaldor, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales. “It is the quarantine system that has allowed us to go back to a semi-normal state.”
The reluctance to risk those gains means there aren’t anywhere near enough quarantine spots to meet demand. But some actors, wealthy business people and professional sports teams have received preferential treatment, while others have been forced to wait.
With some Australia-bound planes near-empty because of quarantine caps, passengers have said that airlines have encouraged them to buy first- or business-class seats, which can cost $15,000 from North America or Europe, to maximize chances of repatriation.
When they arrive, travelers are escorted under police or military guard to sealed hotels, where they are not allowed to leave their rooms.
“I really do think that the situation is getting pretty dire and there is a case to be made that individuals’ rights have been violated,” said Laura A. Dickinson, a professor at George Washington University Law School who specializes in human rights and national security.
“We’ve seen it’s possible for people to come in through quarantine. If the state is not providing adequate facilities for people to do that, instead of closing the border, that is getting close to unreasonable.”
In theory, stranded Australians could appeal to the United Nations for help. In 1980, Australia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees citizens the right to enter their own countries.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee, which is chaired by an Egyptian diplomat, can decide on complaints brought under the treaty. The process is slow, and there is no sign that anyone intends to use it against the Australian government, which has shifted blame to state governments, which have to agree on the number of quarantine slots available.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in October that he wanted to get the stranded Australians home by Christmas.
Barring a dramatic change, that is extremely unlikely. On Nov. 26, officials told a Parliamentary committee that the number of people waiting to return had doubled to 36,875 since September.
“It is a cup that keeps filling up every time we get someone home,” Morrison said on Nov. 12.
The restrictions are particularly painful for families separated by the pandemic.
In February, Madhu Jaggi, a single 61-year-old who has two adult children in Adelaide, flew to India for three weeks to renew her visa, which had been issued to her as the parent of an Australian citizen and resident.
Waiting in India, her visa expired. She then got a visitor visa, which also expired. She said she had applied 20 times on compassionate grounds for permission to enter Australia and was denied every time.In Ahmedabad, she regularly pleads with Australia’s diplomatic representatives in India for help, fruitlessly.
“I am alone here and you can understand my emotional and mental stress,” Jaggi said in an email.
In Canada, the Jeffries family watched closely as the pandemic began to spread. The couple and their son, Mitchell, were booked to fly home March 29. But on March 17, Australia’s government advised residents to return immediately. A day later, Canada’s border with the United States closed. The Jeffries’ Air Canada flights were canceled. They tried, and failed, to get on flights in April.
Accepting they could be stuck for a while, they moved out of Kate’s mother’s house into a rented accommodation and tried to enjoy the brief Canadian summer.
On Nov. 12, the provincial government imposed what it calls “code red” restrictions. Now, the Jeffries are not allowed to leave the house to see Kate’s mother, who lives a couple of blocks away.
Although they are legally allowed to return home, the risks are considerable – and exacerbated by the suspension of nonstop Canada-Australia flights. David Jeffries remains a Canadian citizen, though he has been a permanent resident of Australia for 20 years. But his Australian wife and son’s Canadian tourist visas have expired.
If they try to reach Australia via the United States or Middle East, and aren’t allowed to board a connecting flight to Sydney or Perth, the Jeffries fear they could become trapped in limbo in the United Arab Emirates, or a pandemic hot spot like Los Angeles.
Kate Jeffries needs to get home before her maternity leave runs out in February, or she will lose her job at a mining company, according to her husband, who is working remotely for a Perth software firm.
“Getting stuck days or weeks at an airport would be our worst nightmare,” he said.
What has hurt more than almost anything else is the response of some Australians, according to David Jeffries. “Social media is filled with comments from Australians telling us to ‘stay away,’ that ‘it’s your fault you’re stuck,'” he said.
Victoria state resumed accepting international arrivals on Monday, bolstering quarantine capacity. Yet other states are reluctant to take more people, fearing they will be blamed for any outbreak.
Despite the plight of those caught overseas, there is little domestic pressure to relax the borders.
The last coronavirus case diagnosed in the community in Australia was a cleaner, on Dec. 3, who works in a hotel where travelers from overseas are locked in their rooms. Among those in quarantine, 62 cases were identified over the past week – cases that policymakers say illustrate the danger of repatriating more citizens and residents.
“We’re considered lepers,” Jeffries said. “They don’t want us back.”