- Frances mao
- BBC News, Sydney
1 hour ago
It all started with actor Zac Efron. Then Mark Wahlberg boarded, Matt Damon did too, and dozens of other celebrities followed – all established temporary residences in Australia.
More recently, Julia Roberts landed on Australian soil. She is scheduled to record a film here this year with George Clooney, with a very appropriate title, by the way: Ticket to Paradise (“Passage to Paradise”, in free translation).
In the midst of the pandemic, it seems that half of Hollywood has fled to Australia after an idyllic haven free from covid-19.
Life is good in a country that has practically eliminated the virus – people are enjoying the beaches, bars and clubs at will.
Most of the celebrities who come here are for work. The Australian government has attracted productions as the next sequel to the film Thor with tax incentives.
As a result, it is not uncommon to see celebrities, especially in Sydney.
Idris Elba performing on a concert stage; Natalie Portman buying supplies at Bondi; Chris Pratt partying at a hotel; and Efron having lunch at a Korean steakhouse in Chinatown.
The visitor list also includes Awkwafina, Ed Sheeran, Jane Seymour, Melissa McCarthy, Michelle Ye, Paul Mescal, Rita Ora, Ron Howard, Taika Waititi, Tessa Thompson, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hanks and Lord Alan Sugar.
There are also Australian stars who have returned home: Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, Kylie and Danni Minogue, Rose Byrne, Isla Fisher and her British husband Sacha Baron Cohen.
“They are calling it Aussiewood“, a local entertainment reporter told the BBC.
But not everyone is happy. A year after Australia closed its borders, there are still at least 40,000 Australians imprisoned abroad.
Many say they have been prevented from returning home. One group filed a complaint of human rights violations with the United Nations (UN).
“No other country has prevented the return of its citizens in this way,” says Sabrina Tiasha, who returned from the UK last month.
Why is this happening?
Restrictions imposed on the Australian border effectively prevented many citizens from flying home.
The government last year established a “travel limit” for international flight arrivals, with the aim of reducing the risk of covid-19 outbreaks.
This means that flights to Australia, in many cases, carry only 40 passengers. The limit increased the cost of flights and caused airlines to prioritize business class and first class passengers.
Flights from the UK to Australia can cost between 3,000 and 15,000 Australian dollars, forcing many to resort to savings and even pension funds. There is also the hotel’s mandatory quarantine fee on arrival: A $ 3,000 per person.
Finding a pre-pandemic airfare is rare. And even with a ticket, you can end up staying out of the flight in the event of overbooking (when the airline sells more tickets than the number of seats available).
“What can I say conclusively after six months: there is no system,” says Tiasha.
The government, in turn, claims to have organized more than 100 repatriation flights, including 20 this year.
But with tens of thousands of Australians still unable to return home, anger over the lack of government support has increased.
More than a dozen citizens stranded abroad told the BBC that they received little assistance from Australian authorities.
Margaret and David Sparks are a 70 year old couple who were on vacation in the UK when the pandemic started. They were stuck there for almost a year.
“People are so stressed and fearful that they will pay any amount to return home. But as retirees, we really have to think a lot about the cost,” Sparks told the BBC earlier this year.
They had three flights canceled until they finally managed to get back on a repatriation flight last month.
In Facebook groups, Australians trapped in other countries advise each other to keep their bags ready. The lucky ones remember in detail how they overcame obstacles to get home.
“Take your phone out of silent mode at night to get calls anytime about a last-minute flight,” wrote one. “Be ready to leave 24-48 hours in advance.”
Hundreds of people post asking for help. Many are desperate to return home: either to care for sick or dying relatives; because they lost their job or home; or because the price of being away from loved ones has become unbearable.
Human rights debate
Some believe that government policy is violating human rights. International law dictates that citizens have the right to return – it is one of the most frequently invoked principles in refugee cases.
A group called Stranded Australians Abroad filed a petition with the UN Human Rights Committee, asking for an intervention.
But experts warn that not much can be done without a similar guarantee under Australian law.
Professor Ben Saul of the University of Sydney says that an extreme case – of “an Australian who ends up in poverty” – could argue that the travel limit is unnecessarily punitive. Other experts say that prolonged family separations can violate the rights of the child.
Australia could pass a law to make things fairer, such as making airlines prioritize access for vulnerable citizens, says Saul.
But the government maintains that the price to return home is borne by the airlines.
“[Nossa] The highest priority at this point is to help Australians abroad, “a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told the BBC, adding that they have helped more than 39,000 Australians to return since the pandemic began.
‘Different treatment for the rich’
Still, critics argue that officials have adopted more flexible policies for celebrities.
The government cut the travel limit in half in January, citing the threat of the UK variant. But days later, it allowed more than 1,700 tennis players, officials and other people connected to the Australian Open to enter.
“They prioritized a tennis tournament over their own citizens,” says Tiasha.
The controversies do not stop there. Quarantine at the hotel is a requirement for everyone, but many stars have been exempt.
Julia Roberts and Ed Sheeran have isolated themselves on a luxurious ranch outside Sydney. Damon, Kidman and Dannii Minogue were also allowed to make private quarantines.
“Celebrities are in their private mansions,” says Andrew Hornery, a gossip reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.
“It’s a very different scenario from being cramped in a four-star hotel overlooking a highway.”
British billionaire Lord Sugar went to Australia last July in first class to record a TV show. It was an excellent experience, he tweeted, having traveled only in private jets previously.
That same week, there were reports of Australians camping at London’s Heathrow airport after being taken off flights.
A woman posted a photo of her children sleeping on the floor of the terminal; they had nowhere to go, she wrote in the post that went viral. Later, it was reported that she got a flight home.
“There is a 100% different treatment for the rich or famous compared to ordinary people,” says Kanisha Batty, an Australian who has been granted a visa extension to the UK. She joked that deportation is perhaps the fastest way back home.
Damien Eisenach, who is imprisoned in Peru, agrees that it looks like “a dualistic system”.
“There is a lot of support for tennis players and celebrities – and zero support for people on the other side,” he says.
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