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Western Australia: Covid-19 Hard Border Causing Hardship

State government should prioritize compassionate cases, family reunification

Passengers from Qantas flight QF583 are escorted to waiting Transperth buses by Police Officers after being processed following their arrival at Perth Airport from Sydney, before being driven to a CBD hotel for quarantining on October 19, 2020 in Perth, Australia. © 2020 Paul Kane/Getty Images

(Perth) – Strict restrictions imposed by the Western Australian government since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic on people entering the state are causing undue hardship for families, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should make more exceptions for compassionate cases, prioritize family reunions, provide greater transparency about the approval process, and provide clearer explanations to people who have been refused permission to return to their home state.

“Governments can restrict people’s movement for compelling public health purposes, but any restrictions on these rights should be strictly necessary and proportionate,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The process in Western Australia is opaque, confusing, and arbitrary. Western Australians who want to return home for compassionate family reasons and who are willing to abide by quarantine restrictions should not be blocked from doing so.”

Australia has done very well in managing Covid-19, with less than 28,000 confirmed infections nationwide since the start of the pandemic. According to the Acting Chief Medical Officer, as of October 23, there were just over 200 active cases across Australia, of which 19 were in hospital and none in intensive care.

In Western Australia, efforts to contain Covid-19 have been particularly successful, with no community transmission registered in the state since April. Part of the region’s strategy has been the creation of a “hard border,” where, since April, any Australians wanting to enter the state, even Western Australians who wish to return home, are required to request travel approval from police through a system called the “Good to Go process” (G2G). Police only grant permission to enter Western Australia in limited circumstances, including on compassionate grounds for “urgent and essential medical treatment, visiting a relative who has suffered a serious medical episode, or whose death is imminent, and to attend a funeral.” However, many compassionate cases do not meet these narrow criteria, or even when they do, some individuals have been rejected several times. Anyone granted permission must also undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine at a separate premise from others and provide proof of their quarantine arrangements.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 applicants who said police denied their request to enter Western Australia. Some reported being denied multiple times. A father in Queensland who has been separated from his three young children for 10 months now, and who has been refused entry twice, said: “My little three-year-old cries sometimes and the other two [children] are always asking me when I will go back. Being able to talk to someone or get help is near impossible.”

Interviewees reported confusion over exactly what information was required by police, which exemption category to apply for, or to whom to turn for advice about their application. Some say they applied for entry because of mental health hardship as a result of separation from loved ones, but this is not on the list of exemption criteria. Many applications for travel exemption reference mental health conditions but decisions are being made by police personnel, not qualified health professionals, and the rules do not specify whether a letter from a health professional is required. There is no formal review process when applications are refused.

Western Australia’s Police Minister Michelle Roberts did not respond to questions or a request for a meeting from Human Rights Watch. Western Australian police provided some explanation of the process but advised that a Freedom of Information request would be required to obtain data related to applications for the “Good to Go” process. Border restrictions are in place in most other Australian states and territories, but they have shown more flexibility in allowing entry based on active case numbers.

“Western Australia police continue to deny requests even though applicants are willing to comply with quarantine conditions,” said McNeill. “Other regions in the country have successfully cut transmission without adopting such harsh restrictions, showing that Western Australia’s tactics are neither necessary nor proportionate.”

According to public health experts, preventing the introduction of Covid-19 into regions which have eliminated local transmission is possible by carefully monitoring individuals prior to travel and upon arrival. Specific strategies can include exit and entry screening, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, and a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Western Australia has adopted these strategies successfully for those that they currently allow entry, so it is unclear why this cannot be maintained while increasing the number of people allowed in. 

The consequences of the restrictions have been significant for those affected. “I respect the hard border because it's kept loved ones safe, but it seems unjust that I can't move home even if I quarantine,” one rejected applicant told Human Rights Watch. A Western Australian woman who applied to come back from New South Wales said: “The authorities are polite on the phone but avoid giving any certainty or comfort or guidance whatsoever. The website also does not specify what sort of documentation they might want to see, or how much.”

Dr. Andrew Miller, the President of the Western Australian branch of the Australian Medical Association told reporters last week that he had concerns over the fairness of the process. “I think Western Australia needs to keep its borders under control, but it does need to adjust to keep them fair. How can this process be fairer so people can appeal if they need to and it can be more transparent?”
People who have proven employment in Western Australia appear to receive approval quicker than those who are citing mental health or compassionate reasons for their entry. One woman received an email from Western Australian police stating, “If you could acquire employment in Western Australia your chance of a successful application would be greatly strengthened.”

“Whether applicants have employment or not is not relevant to the risk they may pose in introducing the virus into the region,” said McNeill. “The government can continue to successfully control this virus while being fair, transparent, and non-discriminatory.”

Additional Examples of Rejected Applicants

The below individuals interviewed by Human Rights Watch say they are willing and able to comply with two-week quarantine orders upon entry into West Australia but were denied permission to enter the state.

  • A father from Western Australia who was temporarily living in Queensland for work, whose application has been rejected twice. He has not seen his children (2, 6, and 8) who live in Perth with his ex-wife for 10 months.
  • A father of three from Western Australia who had been living and working in New South Wales when the pandemic began, and all his work opportunities in the eastern states dried up. He has had his application to move home to Perth rejected four times, despite his three children are living there.
  • A young couple living in Melbourne, one whose mother in Perth has multiple sclerosis and the other whose mother in Perth is recovering from cancer. Their application to relocate back to Perth has been rejected twice.
  • A mother working temporarily in Victoria, separated from her teenage daughter in Perth who is suffering severe mental health issues. The mother’s application has been rejected twice.
  • A new young mother from West Australia who has been living in Melbourne for three years who is attempting to relocate back to Perth to be near her family support network. She had her application rejected twice.
  • A young teacher from Western Australia who has lived in New South Wales for three years. Police have rejected her application to move back to Western Australia three times. She is suffering undue mental hardship being separated from family and is desperate to return home.
  • A retired couple stuck at a caravan park in Darwin who have been rejected twice from returning back to their home in Western Australia.
  • A young woman living in Melbourne attempting to visit her father in Western Australia who had a stroke last year and broke his spine in March. She was refused entry four times before she was finally successful.

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