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Stranded Refugees Plead with Australia to Ease COVID-19 Border Closures

FILE - People walk in front of the Sydney Opera House, Australia, Nov. 2, 2016.
FILE - People walk in front of the Sydney Opera House, Australia, Nov. 2, 2016.

Campaigners are urging Australia to restart a refugee program that has left thousands of people stranded overseas. Australia closed its international borders in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Refugee Council of Australia has estimated that about 4,000 refugees with humanitarian visas allowing entry into Australia are currently stranded overseas. They are unable to travel because Australia’s international border was closed to foreign nationals in March to curb the spread of COVID-19.

David Odeesh is an Iraqi refugee in Australia. His sister and her family were granted humanitarian visas in January and had planned to reunite with him in March.

The family had escaped the Islamic State terror group in their home city of Mosul in northern Iraq and fled to Lebanon, where they remain.

Odeesh says his sister is struggling to survive in a small apartment in Beirut and he is pleading with the authorities in Canberra to let the family come.

“They have all the documents ready, all the approval, and, unfortunately, what happened this pandemic — COVID-19 — everything stops, the border closed. I hope [the] Australian government hear our voice and change this decision,” he said.

The family has said it has applied twice for special permission from the government in Canberra to fly to Australia. The requests have been denied. Australia’s international borders are expected to stay closed until 2021.

Campaigners believe refugees should, like citizens and permanent residents, be allowed into the country.

The Department for Home Affairs has appeared unmoved. It has said the border restrictions “have been successful in slowing the spread of coronavirus in Australia”.

12,700 refugees were resettled in Australia in 2018. The majority were from Iraq, with others escaping Myanmar, Syria and Afghanistan.

The government has said Australia has one of the world’s “most generous” resettlement programs and has given sanctuary to almost 900,000 refugees since the end of the World War II.

However, its detention of asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by sea in offshore camps in the South Pacific has drawn repeated international condemnation. In response, Canberra has insisted the policies were a deterrent, and have prevented migrants risking their lives crossing treacherous waters in unseaworthy vessels.