Australia has introduced stricter travel laws that mean citizens who live abroad will need permission to leave the country.
Anyone hoping to leave will have to demonstrate to the border force commissioner that they have a “compelling reason for needing to leave the Australian territory”.
It is part of emergency biosecurity laws to help stem the transmission of COVID-19 – but there is debate about whether it is appropriate or even legal.
Previously, Australians living abroad had been exempt from needing permission to leave.
Now, anyone who returns – even to visit relatives – will not automatically be granted permission to leave again, unless they meet the grounds for an exemption.
They will need to prove they have an “established and settled” home overseas via documents including a foreign driver’s licence, tenancy agreement and a letter from an employer – and will have to apply to the government.
Meanwhile, citizens living permanently in Australia cannot leave unless they meet a narrow set of criteria, including travel being in the national interest, for work or a business, as part of the response to COVID or to seek urgent medical treatment that is not available within the country.
Prof Kim Rubenstein, an expert in citizenship law from the University of Canberra, said the change to the travel law was “very concerning” and questioned its legality.
“This change will mean no matter where you live in the world, once you are in Australia you are formally trapped,” she told the BBC.
The changes were made last week, with no formal public announcement.
Minister for home affairs Karen Andrews said the government would approve exemptions for those living abroad.
She told the Sydney Morning Herald: “Travel exemption arrangements have been updated to improve consistency on border measures for all Australians.
“This does not stop Australians ordinarily resident outside Australia from departing, however, these people will now need to apply for an exemption.
“These restrictions provide a balanced approach between allowing Australians to travel, if essential while protecting community health.”
It comes as the country struggles to contain an outbreak of the highly transmissible Delta variant with the greater Sydney region under lockdown restrictions for more than six weeks.
Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, has reported a new daily high of 356 coronavirus infections.