Some interests can be treated as entitlements and thus become a right; if these entitlements are to do with security, then they are security rights. It would seem that (a) interests that pertain to foundational goods or processes, (b) are necessary to have reliably for future planning and risk mitigation, and (c) require assistance from others to guarantee that interest’s fruition seem to be likely candidates for security rights. The ultimate guarantor of security rights are states and their governments since they are imbued with the legitimate power of coercing citizens toward cooperative ends that everyone can enjoy as individuals or groups.
The right of citizens and residents to enter one’s own country should be upheld as a security right. As noted in section three, the ability or interest persons have in leaving and entering one’s country can be defended on the basis of the need to travel in modern life, plus the coherence of leaving and entering being part of what it means for states with boarders to exist and for people to belong to a state, i.e., not be stateless as a result of not being allowed back in when they leave. The right to enter one’s own country is a foundational good that requires a correlative process to ensure the obtainment of it as a good and a right, i.e., it requires rules that ensure that leaving and returning are done in an orderly manner. Moreover, knowing that one can enter one’s own country after leaving it would be crucial to all aspects of life planning. The duty to ensure that citizens and residents can use their right of entry would belong to the government given its legitimate use of coercive powers on behalf of the state and its people.Footnote 4
To return to the case of the Australians in India who were denied re-entry in May 2021: not only were they abandoned in the strict and descriptive sense of the term, as outlined in section two, but they were morally wronged in doing so beyond being denied support as necessitated by reciprocity. At the very least, the lack of support they received while stranded in India was another failure by the government that violated a security right they were owed. I will take each of these points in turn.
First, the abandonment of Australians in India was wrong because it transgressed their moral right of entry but moreover, because their right of entry was derogated as a security right. The abandonment was acute in this instance not only because it meant that the plans they made and relied upon were uprooted, but also because they were uprooted when they most needed something to rely on given the uncertainty that surrounds a pandemic. Pandemics and other emergencies are precisely those moments when so much of one’s life is uncertain and subject to unanticipated change. If foundational goods and processes ought to be ensured, it is even more important that they are during emergencies, i.e., security rights, like entry into one’s own country, ought to be robust enough to withstand practically any foreseeable and unforeseeable situation since it’s foundational or basic. Barring the fall of a state itself, the right to move, including the right to exit and entre one’s country of residence should be absolute; too many other goods and plans are grounded on this right being assured absolutely.
One might object that security cannot demand that goods are ensured absolutely. As Herington argues: “…reliability likely comes in degrees, rather than as a binary state. The idea that security is a binary state seems to be recommended by the “secure/insecure” dichotomy, but upon reflection it seems obvious that security must come in degrees. Total security seems impossible… (2012: 18)” To guarantee a right of entry as an absolute, even if it were possible, comes at too high a cost. In the case of Australians in India, the cost of ensuring their return might have been the public’s health. A first response would be that perhaps there are certain goods that could be ensured absolutely, at least in abstraction; negative rights or negative liberty, for example, are at least conceptually easier to secure since they require the duty-holder to not interfere. It might be that the right of entry should be thought of as a negative right and as such, ought not to be interfered with despite being regulated by the state. So there seems to be some sense in which it is possible to secure some rights totally or absolutely.
The second aspect of the objection is more important, namely, that security rights, such as entry, cannot be absolute because sometimes, in some extreme situations, we need to trade it off against another right or good we want secured. Health security would appear to be one such candidate. Much like the concept of ‘security’, the concept of ‘health security’ is equally difficult to define concretely and, as noted by McInnes, the definitions that exist are themselves value-laden (or “promoting a certain agenda and privileging certain interests over others” (2014: 7)). For Herington, “‘health security’ involves distributing security (i.e. cumulative probability) towards initial increments of population health; thereby reducing, ceteris paribus, the probability of public health catastrophes (2016: 480).” Herington’s definition captures the desire of security to reduce risk, in this case to population health. One challenge in defining health security has to do with the slipperiness of the concept of ‘health’ in the first place. It seems difficult to speak of securing health, but rather we mean that aspects of health, such as healthcare resources, can perhaps be secured (Wolff 2012). Regardless, the second aspect of the above objection would be that health-related goods (in some sense and capacity) ought to be secured, too, and thus, should be balanced against other things we need secured. Stated differently, health (again, more precisely health care) is the kind of thing that we want secured in the first place given its role in helping people secure other interests and goods, as well as its role in future risk mitigation. Entry into one’s country isn’t the only interest that should be secured, so it requires articulating why it ought to always trump other secured interests, like health.
This objection could be furthered by arguing that health security should be understood as a right to health security, and that this security right should be grounded in a right to public health. Health security could be defined as a right in the form of (a) x has an interest y, where x is a person or population and y is health and (b) a person or population is assured, or ought to be assured, of health at some point in the future. It then follows that the normative reasons presented in defence of security apply to health, too. The content of a right to health security could be filled by reference to a right to public health, which must be balanced against securing the right of entry in extreme circumstances like pandemics. The right to public health, as Wilson notes, exists because there are social factors that impact on people’s health (i.e., the social determinants of health) and they are controllable (2016). These factors can be controlled by a government and doing so would greatly improve the health of persons, at least as it relates to removing risk factors that are detrimental to health. Moreover, a government’s ability to shape the social determinants would also improve residents’ chances of exercising their autonomy. Pandemics on the scale of COVID-19 are rare events and pose potentially catastrophic harm to populations if measures are not taken to stop its spread; in other words, governments do have social mechanisms to reduce the risk of transmission associated with COVID-19. The Delta variant of SARS-CoV2, when less was known about it in April and May of 2021, required governments do as much as possible to arrest its spread. In the case of Australia, the right to public health and to public health measures to arrest the spread of Delta might very well have included the obligation to close its borders on some small portion of Australians in order to protect the majority of Australians in the country itself. When two rights cannot both be protected at the same time, and there’s no other principled reason to give preference to one over the other, then protecting the health of the majority could be a sufficient justification to enact a measure that would be detrimental to a very small minority of the population.
The objection, in summary, is that the right of entry cannot be held as a security right absolutely since there’s a competing claim, often in the form of a competing right, to health and public health measures, especially during emergencies like pandemics. Securing the right of entry as an absolute would come at too high a cost, namely, health in this case. Moreover, in situations where health and the right to enter one’s country must be balanced, it seems plausible to side with doing right by the majority, all else being equal. A government cannot always protect everyone at all times, so it is reasonable that they’ll side with the majority’s good in certain extreme instances.
In the actual case of Australians in India, it’s not clear that the federal government could not have upheld its duty to protect the broader public from COVID-19 while allowing Australians to return from India during the April/May outbreak of Delta. Though ultimately an empirical claim I can’t properly defend given my lack of expertise in infection control, I would note that the Delta strain was already global by the time the government instituted an entry ban from India, yet only those Australians in India were banned from entering for two weeks, calling into question the potential futility or arbitrariness of such an entry ban. So assuming that the arguments put forth by Prime Minister Morrison’s government were sound, it is still not clear why it required treating Australians in India differently.Footnote 5
But there’s a second reason why the abandonment of Australians in India is troubling, namely, that any derogation to the right of entry for some makes it unreliable for all Australians in principle. First, the right of entering one’s country can be wholly secured by the state, whereas ensuring the effectiveness of public health measures cannot. One of the reasons we want to secure the right of entry was precisely because it can be assured even during times of great uncertainty. The fact that it can be assured and is a foundational good, seems to be a reason to do so during times of uncertainty when other foundational goods (i.e., health or public health) cannot be assured. Doing away with some category of uncertainty during emergencies, when planning for the future becomes difficult, should be prioritized against those foundational goods we may want to secure but cannot with any certainty. This reasoning applies not just in the particular instance Australians in India, but for all Australians as it relates to entering their own country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, if one person’s right of entry is not secured absolutely, then it signals to everyone that in emergencies, being part of a minority group can lead to being abandoned by your state. No one knows whether at some point in the future they will be part of a (numerically, not socially or politically, speaking) minority group. It’s likely that most people at some point in their lives will be part of a minority. It seems reasonable that people will want a certain set of rights and interests assured absolutely, even if they should happen to be part of a minority group at some point in the future. Given that abandonment in the form of being barred from entering one’s country makes you even temporarily stateless, even the risk of this occurring would severely alter everyone’s behaviour and planning, while also being severely traumatic. If faced with the hardships that come from not being allowed to enter your home country or risks associated with an infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19, it seems the risks of being barred are greater than the risk from infectious diseases. Likewise, seeing other Australians abandoned for the purported-health of the majority should make all Australians question what it means to be a citizen or resident of Australia. In short, some foundational goods should be lexically prior to other foundational goods because many more other goods are built upon it (to extend the metaphor) and as such, should never be sacrificed even at the cost of a minority of individuals.
The above is what I’d call the stronger argument for how the abandonment of Australians in India was a morally inappropriate derogation of a security right; however, there is a second weaker argument. You may still may think that reliability can only ever be a matter of degrees and cannot be assured absolutely, i.e., you find the argument above unpersuasive. Still, if it’s true that the Australian Federal Government did not support Australians stranded in India, this too is a form of abandonment and violation of their security right. I argued in section three that the government had a reciprocal responsibility to support Australians abroad if they were to be denied entry to protect the public’s health in Australia. If it’s true that the right of entry is a security right, then any permitted derogation would be only to the extent necessary to protect the public’s health and no more. A right is still being curtailed and, thus, some responsibility exists to lessen the ill effects of even justified curtailments. This responsibility follows from the claim that reliability is a matter of degree and not a binary; if a good cannot be secured completely, then it should be secured to the extent possible given the circumstances.
In short, the Australian government’s abandonment of Australians in India was wrong on at least one of two grounds, if not both: first, because the abandonment of citizens and residents should not have occurred given the right of entry as a security right should be absolute. But second, and at the very least, if there are exceptions to the reliability of a security right in exceptional circumstances – like pandemics – then the government still had a duty, based on reciprocity, to support those Australians stranded in India.