It all started with actor Zac Efron. Then Mark Wahlberg got on board, Matt Damon did too, and dozens of other celebrities followed – all temporary residences established in Australia.
Most recently, Julia Roberts landed on Australian soil. She is due to record a film in the country with George Clooney later this year, with a very apt title incidentally: “Ticket to Paradise”.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, it appears half of Hollywood has fled to Australia after an idyllic Covid-19-free haven. Life is good in a country that has all but wiped out the virus – people are enjoying beaches, bars and clubs at will. Most of the celebrities who arrive in the country are for work. The Australian government has attracted productions like the upcoming sequel to the movie “Thor” with tax breaks. Thus, it is not uncommon to see celebrities, especially in Sydney.
Idris Elba performs on a concert stage; Natalie Portman buys groceries from Bondi; Chris Pratt has a hotel party; and Efron has 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 call 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.
A group has filed a complaint for human rights violations with the United Nations (UN). “No other country has prevented the return of its citizens in this way,” said Sabrina Tiasha, who returned from the UK last month.
Why is this happening?
Restrictions on the Australian border have effectively prevented many citizens from returning home. The government set a ‘travel limit’ on international flight arrivals last year, in a bid to reduce the risk of Covid-19 outbreaks.
This means that flights to Australia, in many cases, only carry 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 (R $ 13,000 to 65,000), forcing many people to resort to savings and even pension funds. There is also the mandatory hotel quarantine fee on arrival: AU $ 3,000 per person.
Finding a pre-pandemic plane ticket is rare. And even with a ticket, you can end up staying off the flight due to 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, for its part, has 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 government’s lack of support has grown. More than a dozen citizens stranded abroad told the BBC they had received little help from Australian authorities.
Margaret and David Sparks are a 70-year-old couple who were on vacation in the UK when the pandemic began. They stayed there for almost a year. “People are so stressed and fearful that they won’t pay any money to go 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 could come 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 can remember in detail how they overcame the obstacles to get home.
“Take your phone out of silent mode at night to receive calls anytime about a last minute theft,” one wrote. “Be ready to go 24 to 48 hours in advance.”
Hundreds of people are posting asking for help. Many are desperate to return home: either to care for sick or dying relatives; because they lost their job or their home; or because the cost of being away from loved ones has become unbearable.
Human rights debate
Some argue that government policy violates human rights. International law dictates that citizens have the right of return – this is one of the principles most frequently invoked in refugee cases.
A group called Stranded Australians Abroad has filed a petition with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, asking for intervention. But experts warn that nothing can be done without a similar guarantee under Australian law.
According to Professor Ben Saul of the University of Sydney, an extreme case – “of an Australian who finds himself in poverty” – could argue that the travel limit is unnecessarily punitive. Other experts say prolonged family separations can violate children’s rights.
Australia could pass legislation to make things fairer, such as making airlines prioritize access for vulnerable citizens, Saul says. But the government maintains that the cost of returning home is borne by the airlines.
“[Nossa] The highest priority at this stage is to help Australians abroad, ”a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office told the BBC, adding that they had helped more than 39,000 Australians return since the start. of the pandemic.
“ Different treatment for the rich ”
Still, critics say officials have adopted more flexible policies for celebrities. The government cut the travel limit in half in January, citing the threat of the British variant. But, days later, he allowed more than 1,700 tennis players, officials and others related to the Australian Open to enter.
“They prioritized a tennis tournament over their own citizens,” says Tiasha.
The controversies do not end there. Quarantine at the hotel is a requirement for everyone, but many stars have been exempted from it. Julia Roberts and Ed Sheeran have isolated themselves on a luxury ranch outside of Sydney. Damon, Kidman and Dannii Minogue have also been allowed to do private quarantines.
“Celebrities are in their mansions,” says Andrew Hornery of the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s a very different scenario to be cramped in a four-star hotel facing a highway.”
British billionaire Lord Sugar traveled to Australia last July in first class to record a TV show. It was a great experience, he tweeted, having only traveled in private jets before. That same week, there were reports of Australians camping out at London’s Heathrow Airport after being taken off from their flights.
A woman posted a photo of her children sleeping on the terminal floor; they had nowhere to go, she wrote in the post which went viral. It was later reported that she had taken a flight home.
“There is a 100% different treatment for the rich and famous compared to ordinary people,” says Kanisha Batty, an Australian who has been granted a visa extension for the UK. She joked that eviction was perhaps the fastest way to get home.
Damien Eisenach, imprisoned in Peru, agrees that it sounds like “a dualistic system”. “There is a lot of support for the tennis players and the celebrities – and no support for the people on the other side,” he says.