When Ara Sharma Marar’s father had a stroke in India in early April, she got on the first flight she could from her home in Melbourne, Australia to New Delhi.
She had planned to return to Australia, where she works in risk management at a bank, on May 14. But then her government banned her from coming home. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on April 27 that travelers from India—including citizens—were barred from the country. The government emphasized that anyone who tried to come home would face up to five years in jail and a $50,000 fine.
“It’s immoral, unjustifiable and completely un-Australian because, you know, Australia prides itself saying that we are multicultural, we embrace all cultures, we welcome everyone,” she says.
Morrison faced a furious backlash from many corners from the country—especially from Australians of South Asian ethnicity, many of whom said the ban was racist—and quickly backed down. On May 15 the first repatriation flight from India landed in Darwin. But around 9,000 Australians remain stranded in India and the saga has revived the debate about what it means to be Australian—a longstanding, at times acrimonious, national conversation driven by the country’s ever-changing demographics.
Today, there are more foreign-born Australians than at any time since 1893, when Australia was still a British colony. Migrants make up 30% of all Australians, and Indian-born Australians are the second-largest group. (British immigrants remain the largest foreign-born population, with people from China in third place). Immigration is now the main driver of population growth in several states and migrants are a significant driver of economic growth. But some immigrants say they aren’t always accepted in a country that once closed its doors to non-Europeans.
“Many Anglo-Celtic Australians still believe that we are but guests in this country and that to acknowledge us as equals they will somehow lose their Australianism,” says Molina Asthana, co-founder of advocacy group Asian Australian Alliance. “Does being Australian mean you have to be light skinned, blond, love your barbies, brekkies and beers?” she asks.
‘Fortress Australia’ strands citizens overseas
Several countries, including the U.S., restricted flights from India or tightened quarantine rules on travelers coming from the country as a devastating second wave hit it. But Australia’s total ban on arrivals from India follows a pandemic policy of imposing of some of the strictest COVID-19 border controls in the world.
Australia bans nearly all non-residents from traveling to the country, and those who are able to enter must quarantine for 14 days in a hotel. Caps on international arrivals have prevented tens of thousands of Australians from returning from overseas during the pandemic. The hashtag #strandedaussies has been used hundreds of times on social media, and some have started referring to the country as “Fortress Australia.” One group of Australians is taking a complaint against the Australian government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee for not allowing its citizens to return home.
Nevertheless, the controls are very popular. A poll in conservative newspaper The Australian found that 73% of voters supported international borders remaining closed until at least mid-2022. That’s likely because the policies—along with swift, strict lockdowns when cases pop up—mean that the country has had remarkable success against COVID-19. With a population of 26 million, it has recorded fewer than than 30,000 coronavirus cases and just 910 deaths. Life appears normal. Employees have returned to their offices. Thousands of mostly maskless fans packed into a Melbourne stadium to watch the Australian Open in February and the following month saw tens of thousands of not-so-socially-distanced revelers attend the LGBT+ celebration Sydney Mardi Gras.
Authorities justified the blanket ban on arrivals from India as necessary to protect public health; India is facing a devastating second wave of COVID-19 and a variant first identified there—which scientists say is likely more infectious and better at evading human immune systems—is being detected across the Asia-Pacific. Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said on May 7 that the ban was explicitly linked to Australia’s limited quarantine capacity.
But many Australians of Indian descent feel singled out because the Australian government has not barred citizens returning home from other countries with large outbreaks. “Why weren’t these steps taken when it was America or U.K.?” asks Sharma Marar, who believes that the government has failed all of its nationals stuck overseas. She says that she is suffering from panic attacks and having trouble sleeping as the result of the stress of not being able to return home.
Kim Soans-Sharma, who remains stuck in Mumbai, India after she traveled there in January following her father’s death, says the ban has made her feel “unwanted.” That’s something she has never felt in Perth, Australia, which she’s called home since 2013. She adds that vitriolic comments from some Australians on social media showing no sympathy for other citizens like her stuck in India have been hard to bear.
“At this stage, I’m not proud to call myself an Australian,” she says.
How Australia became an ‘immigration nation’
Australia’s rising diversity in recent decades follows the expressly racist White Australia Policy that prevented migration by non-Europeans for much of the 20th century. When it became clear that immigration from Britain couldn’t provide the necessary population growth, more migrants from continental Europe were allowed, and the policy was slowly eased after World War II. The first step towards dismantling it was made in 1966, when the government allowed migration based on what skills people could offer Australia, instead of race or nationality. The White Australia Policy was then formally renounced in the early 1970s, and the government officially embraced multiculturalism.
However, the topic of immigration has been used as a political football for decades, with some successive governments unsupportive of migration. Many who arrive in Australia are skilled migrants, and some economists say that the country’s 27-year recession-free streak would not have been possible without immigration. A report by the research institute the McKell Institute calls the country “the world’s most successful” multicultural society. “Australia has truly embraced multiculturalism following an approach of integration between the different ethnicities and cultural groups where the dominant and minority groups are expected to respect each other’s cultures,” it says.
There are some tensions, however. Concerns over immigration have sparked a nativist movement, including a right-wing populist political party with an anti-immigration platform that has had minor success at the polls. A 2020 report on social cohesion released by the Scanlon Foundation, a foundation focused on fostering social cohesion in Australia, found that a large majority of Australians think that having a multicultural society makes Australia better, but 60% of people agreed with the statement that “too many immigrants are not adopting Australian values.” The report also noted substantial negative sentiment towards immigrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
In one 2019 survey, more than two-thirds said that Australia did not need more people. The same year, Morrison announced a cap on permanent migration at 160,000, a cut of 30,000 a year, to address crowding in cities that has increased real estate prices and caused congestion. “This plan is about protecting the quality of life of Australians right across our country,” he said.
Like in many places in the world, immigrants in Australia have faced racism as the result of the pandemic. The Asian Australian Alliance has received 530 reports of COVID-19-related racism since April 2020. When a COVID-19 surge hit Melbourne in mid-2020, representatives from a Muslim migrant community spoke out about being unfairly blamed. In March, Australia’s race discrimination commissioner Chin Tan called for a new national anti-racism framework to address prejudice against Asian-Australians related to the coronavirus pandemic and the legacy of “hatred” towards Muslims.
Asthana, of the Asian Australian Alliance, says the India travel ban is emblematic of the racism that migrants can face in Australia. “Whether it is overt racism or unconscious bias, most migrants have been at the receiving end of discriminatory treatment,” she says. “Only the communities change over time, from Greek and Italian to Chinese, then the Vietnamese, Indian and African and now back to the wider Asian Community during COVID.”
Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s former race discrimination commissioner, says that Australia’s multicultural diversity is not represented yet in its major institutions. “It’s not yet there among our leaders of politics, government, and business. Nor is it there among the faces you see in the national media,” he says. “So that can feed into a sense within our elite political, business and media circles that being Australian is still essentially being Anglo-Celtic or European.”
Other experts say that what it means to be Australian is shifting along with its demographics. “Australia is a settler country,” says Catherine Gomes, an ethnographer at RMIT University in Australia, with a “social and cultural identity, that keeps on changing. Those identities start to adapt, according to how demographics are also changing.”
But for some Australians, those changes aren’t coming quickly enough. Despite the lifting of the ban, Sharma Marar says she won’t forget being barred from coming home.
“I think the scars of these policies and what has been done in last few weeks,” she says, “will live with us forever.”