As the COVID-19 crisis continues, 40,000 displaced Australians are still trying to return home from abroad.
They can be forgiven for feeling treated like refugees by their own country.
Like millions of genuine refugees around the world, they experienced first-hand the harsh reality of strictly enforced international borders.
Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews’ recent remarks will only reinforce the impression that their country has abandoned them.
Just as we assess the claim of refugees to enter our territory on the basis of need, Prime Minister Andrews does suggested a similar approach to stranded Australians.
But this suggestion is based on a fundamental misconception about the nature of citizenship.
Citizenship rights, including the right to live in a person’s territory, are unconditional. Humans cannot lead autonomous lives if they do not have safe access to certain areas.
Why citizenship is so important
Being able to return to your home country is one of the basics of citizenship. This allows people to make plans for themselves and their families.
The stranded Australians may not be in Australia at this time, but their nationality gives them a legitimate hope that they can pursue their life plans in Australia at any time of their life.
In the same way it is legal for me, an Australian citizen based in the South of Sydney, to expect that this year I will send my daughter to an Australian school, and take my young son for weekend walks on Australian beaches, it is legal for any stranded Australian parent anywhere in the world to have that hope.
That is what makes citizenship valuable.
In announcing the recent five-day lockdown in Victoria, Prime Minister Andrews said there needed to be “cold and hard discussion” about whether there should be a much smaller arrival program based on compassionate grounds.
We cannot have a cold and loud discussion about who has more right to the core rights of citizenship if citizenship means anything.
A person who is stateless has no place where he can develop long-term projects and relationships. He cannot lead an autonomous life.
When displaced citizens are unable to return to their citizenship status, their autonomy is severely violated precisely because they cannot pursue the projects and relationships they have developed over the years.
A troubling scenario
Consider the following scenario.
Suppose the Morrison government cancels its next federal election and extends its term of office by three more years.
They do this on the basis of expert health advice: elections are very pervasive events.
If the advice itself made sense, would it be legal for the government to cancel the election?
The answer here is “no”.
Why? Some of the fundamental rights inherent in citizenship, such as the right to vote, are rights that cannot be violated by governments in liberal democracies. And they must not be violated even if the government does act to advance the common good.
The fundamental rights of citizens are just that – fundamental. People don’t have to argue that they need those rights, they should have them because they are citizens.
Imagine again, to reduce the risk of new strains, the government decided that we should stick to the next election, but limit the number of people allowed to vote.
Suppose it is decided that only people suffering from injustice are allowed to vote because their reason for bringing about change is very strong.
Or imagine that the government decides that only people who want to vote for altruistic reasons should go to the voting booth, and everyone has to stay at home.
These examples show that the core right of citizenship is not based on need or reason.
They are not like Job Seekers, childcare subsidies, or rental assistance. This is a fundamental right that is at the heart of the value of citizenship.
Once you violate a citizen’s right to vote or return to Australia, you lose the value that carries them.
That is, you throw away the value of dividing the world between groups of people who have the fundamental right to reside in a particular territory, and making political decisions about what kind of future to produce.
Once you violate the core rights of citizenship, you make the pursuit of social justice impossible. A just society recognizes that the basic rights of citizenship apply to all citizens equally, regardless of their personal situation or the reasons for exercising those rights.
Unrestricted citizenship rights vs freedom of movement
Some media outlets have compared restrictions on the number of Australians re-entering the country with similar restrictions on people traveling from one state to another.
But the analogy doesn’t fit. The right to travel between states is not like the right to reside in a person’s territory.
The claimable right of citizenship is more fundamental than the right to travel wherever he likes within a territory, as any true refugee can very well prove.
We must take care to ensure that conversations around citizenship, and returning Australians, are not hijacked by concerns around freedom of travel within Australia.
The debate we have to do is how to bring all Australians home in a way that minimizes risks to the community, and productively share responsibility for quarantine between states and the Commonwealth.
The debate we have to have is how we can make citizenship rights, which all Australians have, meaningful.
Dr Luara Ferracioli is a senior lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Sydney specializing in civic ethics, and ABC Top 5 undergraduate humanities for 2021.