Australia’s immigration agency has ceased processing new visa applications from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, over concerns about the possible spread of the deadly Ebola virus. The country has also shut down an aid program in West Africa, Australia’s immigration chief says. The move is drawing criticism.
Speaking in Parliament on Monday, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said that Australia’s steps to prevent the disease from crossing its borders include “temporarily suspending our immigration program, including our humanitarian program, from EBV-affected countries, and this means we are not processing any application from these affected countries.”
For travelers who already have a permanent visa, Morrison said, the new policy requires them to spend 21 days in quarantine before they leave for Australia.
The announcement of the travel ban surprised many in Australia, from medical experts to Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s political opponents, who called for the government to release the data that informed the policy.
Australian Medical Association President Brian Owler tells CNN that his group wasn’t consulted:
“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.”
The government has gone too far with the travel ban, a leader in Australia’s African community says.
“I believe strongly it’s not only an issue of Ebola,” Edward Solo, chairman of the National Campaign for Ebola, tells the Australian Broadcasting Corp., “but it also impedes on the right of people to move — freedom of movement.”
He added that he was disheartened by the international community’s response to the Ebola outbreak.
“I call it a weapon of mass destruction, in the form of the Ebola virus, that has been unleashed on our people,” Solo said. “It’s killing our people — it’s a war that’s declared on our people there.”
Prime Minister Abbott said Australia will continue to discuss ways to fight Ebola in West Africa.
“I certainly do not rule out Australia doing more,” Abbott said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Other countries have already restricted travel from the affected West African countries — including many other African nations, which in recent months have barred people from crossing their borders if they’ve been in the three hardest-hit nations in the past 21 days.
The International SOS website has a full list of the more than 30 countries that have imposed some form of restrictions. It includes both the U.S., which is requiring travelers to arrive in one of five airports where screening is in place, and North Korea, which closed its borders to all tourists last week.
Australia’s move comes as the U.N. is calling for the international community to send more medical teams to help fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. After meeting with the presidents of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, Anthony Banbury, who heads the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, said he has developed a framework for global partners to help the countries quash the outbreak.
Banbury said that while current efforts are on the right track, “Time is of the essence and we need international support to be ramped up, from more medical supplies to more health care workers in all three countries. Only then, when Ebola is stopped, can the people of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone return to a life free from the fear of this deadly virus.”
He also criticized policies that require quarantines for health workers who have served in the fight against Ebola.
“We depend on them to fight this battle,” Banbury said. “Please do not quarantine them because they have volunteered to serve in the affected countries.”