Australia implements freeze on visas from West African countries affected by Ebola
Move criticized by parliamentary opposition
PM Abbott defends decision, saying the country has been active in fight against deadly disease
In the fight against Ebola, Australia has said: No thanks.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison announced “strong controls” on arrivals from West African countries affected by cases of the deadly disease.
Telling Australia’s parliament during a question time session Monday that his ministry was currently “not processing any application from these (Ebola) affected countries,” he said that the government was also suspending its humanitarian program.
He added that holders of permanent Australian visas based in these countries would be subject to a mandatory, three-week quarantine process prior to their departure. Visitors approved to travel to Australia will also face further screening and followup checks upon arrival.
The announcement came as a “surprise,” the Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Brian Owler told CNN, who said that the chance of the disease entering the country through a migrant from the region was very low.
“It’s not necessarily a very well-focused decision. The bigger picture needs to be on our preparedness at home but more importantly our involvement in West Africa itself, putting doctors and nurses and other logistical elements in place and trying to combat the crisis there.”
He added that the government had sought the advice of “very few people,” and had excluded the AMA.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: “I not always agree with the Australian Medical Association, but I take them seriously and I think that the AMA invariably has the national interest at heart.”
The announcement that no refugees will be accepted from West Africa must be overturned, the Australian Greens have said.
“While the government drags its feet in responding to the Ebola crisis, Scott Morrison has slammed the door on West African refugees,” the Greens’ immigration spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.
“The immigration minister’s crusade against those in need has spread to West Africa and is simply unacceptable.
“This miserly, selfish and cruel announcement from the government is not a reflection of our nation’s character.”
’Make advice public’
The main opposition party called on the government to make the advice that informed its policy public.
“We want the government to release the advice on which this decision has been made,” Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman Matt Thistlethwaite said.
“We need to be absolutely certain that this government isn’t being tough but dumb when it comes to protecting Australians from the risk of Ebola infection at home,” Thistlethwaite was quoted by the ABC as saying.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told CNN’s Richard Quest that isolationism was not the answer to the current health crisis.
“The doctors from (the) WHO, to the CDC here and other countries have indicated that the worst thing you want to do is close off the borders and come up with this sort of restrictions and scare away potential help,” he said.
“Our concern should be with the public safety and public health but we have to accept that the only way we can deal with it in the medium to long term is to stop the epidemic.”
Concerns are being raised that the Australian response is largely engineered to create political capital, particularly given the country’s well-documented hard line on immigration.
“There have been people here in Australia that have been asking for this kind of approach and I think the main drive is political,” Owler said. “Of course it will always be dressed up as a solution to keeping Australians safe but in actual fact the people who are coming from West Africa, a number of them are coming on humanitarian grounds so there are concerns about why their visas are being denied, and for what period of time they’ll be denied for.”
The nonprofit Medicines Sans Frontiers, also known as Doctors Without Borders, echoed the sentiment, saying that “developed countries’ prevention strategies … seem to have more political than medical implications.”
Abbott defended the government’s decision, pointing to an AUS $18 million ($15.9 million) investment to combat the spread of the disease in West Africa, saying his “government are taking very serious steps to address the Ebola crisis.”
He added that the Australian authorities “are continuing to talk to our friends and partners about what more might be done to address the situation in West Africa,” and that he did “not rule out Australia doing more.”
The Australian move follows North Korea’s tourist ban, also instigated over fears of the spread of the disease.