Australia international borders opening, but travellers and expats should not forget how they were treated

OPINION

Finally. Finally, this could be the beginning of the end for Australians trapped overseas. Our "stranded Aussies" might be set to come home.

We discovered that there are two tiers of Australian citizenship: "us", who are here, and "them", who aren't.

That's certainly the idea behind Prime Minister Scott Morrison's announcement last week that Australia's outbound travel ban will be lifted in mid-November, with hotel quarantine set to be scrapped for vaccinated arrivals, replaced by seven days at home. That, we assume, would mean the tight arrivals caps would also be ditched, paving the way for those tens of thousands of Australians who are still trying to get back into the country to begin arriving in earnest, so closing one of the more shameful chapters in our history.

There's scepticism among the #strandedaussies communities online, as you would expect. They've been burned too many times. Too many government announcements that are spare on details and lead to nothing. Too many exciting new Qantas flights that just never take off. And it's true that there's nothing concrete in this latest declaration.

Still, this does feel like the beginning of the end. Vaccination rates here are soaring, particularly in NSW and Victoria (Australia has now overtaken the US on the percentage of the population that has had at least one dose). At the same time, COVID-19 is settling in our communities, its spread unaffected by international travel. There's also a hunger among Australians based here to leave, to reconnect with the world, and the knock-on effect of that is more will be able to return.

It may not happen in mid-November, but it will happen before the year is out.

So where does that leave us? How will we look back on this episode once it's finished, how will we judge this time in history? I think there are elements of this pandemic that Australians will look back on with justifiable pride: the work of Melburnians fighting off the first wave; the collective will across the country to follow rules and care for communities and generally just do the right thing for the greater good.

I also think, however, that there are some elements we'll look back on and acknowledge that fear got the best of us, that things went too far: the rabid state-based parochialism; the acceptance of draconian laws that took so long to be removed; and the cold rejection of stranded Aussies.

One thing I'll never forget about this pandemic is how a supposed nation of travellers turned on anyone who had the gall to actually be travelling, that fear won over any duty of care to our fellow citizens, our fellow Australian travellers. We discovered that there are two tiers of Australian citizenship: "us", who are here, and "them", who aren't.

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This episode changed everything for travellers, even those of us who weren't stranded. The story we all liked to tell ourselves, that if everything went wrong we could always just go home, was shown to be a lie. When the going gets tough, you're on your own out there. And you'll get no sympathy for it.

Australians have been and continue to be locked out of their own country. People here will shrug and say, well, they should have come home when they were told to – but the truth is they were never told to. Back in March of last year, Australians based overseas were advised to shelter in place if they felt safe, to wait in their adopted homes while Australia flattened the curve and readied itself for their safe arrival.

As we know, that never happened. And so you had these awful situations, people in danger, people in distress, just hung out to dry by their own country. People whose relatives were dying, people whose families were growing up without them, people whose relationships were drifting apart, left with no right of return or reconnection. "We're keeping you safe," the government repeated. (That's the "you" living in Australia, you understand, not the "you" based anywhere else.)

And yet through all of this, certain elements of society were allowed to continue on their travels essentially unaffected. Business travel has still been a possibility. Film stars and TV "personalities" have come and gone.

Sport, too, has rolled on. Queensland citizens have been living in tents on the NSW border because they aren't allowed to return to their homes, but rugby league players have been more than welcome up north. Tennis Australia slipped more than 1200 players and support staff into Melbourne for the Australian Open this year but assured the public, don't worry, they don't fall under the quarantine cap. As if that wasn't just the perfect illustration of the problem.

This is usually the point where Australians say: if you don't like it, leave. Ha! You weren't even allowed to do that. We still aren't. Australia, nation of travellers, has prevented its citizens from leaving the country for more than 18 months now. We'll remember the indifference – sometimes even hostility – some Australians have shown towards those with family overseas they've wanted to spend time with or care for or say goodbye to.

We'll remember, too, that certain rights we always felt were inherent actually are not. And that the reaction to the loss of those rights was a collective shrug of the shoulders.

Keeping you safe.

I can't wait to see stranded Aussies begin to return, and for those desperate to leave Australia to go, for the floodgates to open and for families, friends and even partners to be reunited, whenever that may actually take place. What joy, what relief.

But I'll never forget how quickly this nation of travellers turned on its own. And that, in a similar situation, it would again.

Do you think Australia's treatment of "stranded Aussies" has been justifiable? How will we look back on this in years to come? Are you currently waiting to be reunited with family?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

See also: Get ready: 12 signs travel is about to make a comeback

See also: Holiday here? No thanks, I've had enough of Australia

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