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SYDNEY, Australia – Before the coronavirus pandemic escalated, Drisya Dilin dropped off her daughter with her parents in India, hoping to take her to Australia a month later. It was over a year ago.

Now, any attempt to bring the 5-year-old to Australia, where she is a permanent resident, carries the threat of imprisonment or heavy fines.

She is among some 8,000 Australians affected by an unprecedented travel ban that began on Monday, following the Covid epidemic, which broke all records in India. It is believed to be the first time that Australia has criminalized the entry of its own citizens and permanent residents into the country.

“I didn’t expect this to happen,” said Ms Dilin, a hospital administrator who has made several attempts to repatriate her daughter to Australia, including on a charter flight this month that has been canceled.

“She misses us a lot,” she said of her daughter. “She’s still counting the days, thinking she’s coming.”

Much of the world has decided to halt travel to and from India as it grapples with an uncontrolled epidemic that kills thousands of people every day. But Australia, a continent with a strong preference for hard borders, has taken isolation to a new extreme. No other democratic nation has issued a similar ban on all arrivals. Britain, Germany and the United States, for example, have restricted travel from India, but exempted citizens and permanent residents, many of whom rush home.

Australia’s move – announced quietly on Friday night by officials who said it was necessary to keep the country safe – was part of a medical and moral crisis.

Indo-Australians are outraged. Human rights groups condemned the decision as unnecessarily harsh and a violation of the principles of citizenship. Other critics have suggested that the policy was motivated by racism or, at the very least, a cultural double standard.

“It’s criminalizing the situation when intense empathy is required. It’s a very difficult situation, ”said Sheba Nandkeolyar, Marketing Director and Country Chairperson of Women in Business for Australia and the Business Council of India.

Australia’s latest movement fits a pattern. The island has maintained some of the toughest border measures in the world since the start of the pandemic. No one can leave the country without official government permission. Coming home, even from a country with declining infection rates, often seems to require government connections, celebrity status or luck, as well as $ 30,000 for a plane ticket. one way ticket.

There are approximately 35,000 Australians abroad who were unable to make the trip, either because they were unable to secure seats on the repatriation flights or because they were unable to make the trip. buy the tickets.

In India’s case, Australia’s already opaque, uneven and selective policy – based in part on how many people can be moved for a 14-day hotel quarantine – has become absolute. It means keeping thousands of Australians in a place where the number of coronavirus cases has skyrocketed; where hospitals are running out of beds, ventilators and medical oxygen; and where the crematoriums burn day and night in the midst of a deluge of bodies.

Australian officials said the new restrictions – with sentences of up to five years in prison and nearly A $ 60,000 ($ 46,300) in fines under Australia’s biosecurity law – would prevent its hotel quarantine system to be overwhelmed.

“Fifty-seven percent of the positive cases in quarantine were from India,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Sunday. “It placed a very, very significant burden on health and medical services in the states and territories.”

But for Australians in India, politics equates to a staggering lack of concern.

“I thought our passports would take care of us,” said Emily McBurnie, an Australian wellness coach stranded in New Delhi since March 2020 and living with Covid-19 for more than a month. She said the Australian government owed its citizens more and added that if her health deteriorated, she feared she would not have access to oxygen or an intensive care bed.

Ms. McBurnie described the situation in India as being in a war zone. She wakes up every morning to the suffocating haze of cremation smoke, and she picks fruit and collects eggs at a local farm as it is virtually impossible to buy groceries due to the dwindling stock of fresh items.

In Australia, a country of 25 million people with fewer than 300 active Covid cases and where daily life has been almost normal for months, most people support the strict border policy. In a recent poll by the Lowy Institute, which surveyed Australians before the Indian epidemic escalated, an overwhelming majority said they were satisfied with the way Australia has approached the pandemic. Only one in three respondents said the government should do more to help Australians return home during the pandemic.

Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute’s public opinion and foreign policy program, said many Australians have been tricked into believing that those abroad should have gone home now or have chosen to stay where they were found for personal or professional reasons.

The blatant lack of sympathy is linked, in part, to a lack of understanding, Ms. Kassam said. “More than a third of Australians were born overseas,” she said. “Closed borders mean separated families.”

Human Rights Watch called Australia’s ban a “scandalous response” that undermined the concept of citizenship by denying people their right to return to their countries.

The Australian Human Rights Commission mentionned the travel ban “raises serious human rights concerns,” and the agency called on the government to show that the move was not discriminatory.

While India has the highest number of new infections in the world, it also has a huge population. Its per capita infection rate is still lower than it was in the United States and many parts of Europe during their recent peaks.

Ms Dilin, who lives in Sydney, where she works in a hospital’s Covid response unit, said Australia’s treatment of people from India was clearly unfair.

“When the United States had the same problems, when the United Kingdom had many cases, they never stopped anyone from coming back,” she said.

Aviram Vijh, a Sydney-based Indian designer and Australian citizen, said the government’s actions smack of bias.

“Obviously, this is a disproportionate decision,” Vijh said. His cousin, also an Australian citizen, is stuck in India with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, he added. His cousin and his wife both have Covid-19.

“He is very distressed,” he said of his cousin. “And there is no way forward.”

Neha Sandhu, an Australian citizen who managed to return home from India in June, said that along with Ms Dilin’s daughter, several other unaccompanied minors were affected by the ban, many of whom had visited their home. family in India and were now unable to do so. go home.

“It’s totally inhumane,” said Ms. Sandhu, who runs a Facebook group with more than 17,000 followers for those stuck in India.

Australian officials, however, argued that the decision was purely based on an assessment of the risk to public health. Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the ban was temporary and is expected to be lifted on May 15, although it could also be extended.

Ms Kassam, of the Lowy Institute, said the denial of a right of return for Australians to India was the first major test of a policy most Australians have quietly accepted. She wonders if Australians will be more sympathetic once they know the details.

“Australians have always supported tough border restrictions, although these questions have never been asked in relation to their own citizens,” she said. “The idea of ​​an Australian fortress is politically popular, but has not been tested in terms of criminalizing citizens for simply returning home.”

Damien cave reported from Sydney, Australia, and Livia Albeck-Ripka from Melbourne, Australia.

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