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Australian citizens returning home from India could face up to five years in prison and fines after the government made travel temporarily illegal.
The health ministry said the decision was made “on the basis of the proportion of people in quarantine who contracted Covid-19 infection in India.”
Earlier this week, Australia banned all flights from India.
There are approximately 9,000 Australians in India, 600 of whom are classified as vulnerable.
It will be the first time that Australians have been criminalized for returning to their country, Australian media report.
A doctor told ABC the government’s decision was out of proportion to the threat posed by those returning from India.
“Our families are literally dying in India overseas … for having absolutely no way of getting them out – that’s abandonment,” said GP and health commentator Dr Vyom Sharmer .
As of Monday, anyone who has been in India within 14 days of their expected date of arrival in Australia will be banned from entering the country.
Failure to comply with the new ruling could result in a five-year prison sentence, a fine of A $ 66,000 (£ 37,000), or both. The decision will be reviewed on May 15, the health ministry said.
“The government does not take these decisions lightly,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said in the statement.
“However, it is essential that the integrity of Australia’s public health and quarantine systems are protected and that the number of Covid-19 cases in quarantine facilities be reduced to a manageable level.”
Erosion of rights
Frances Mao, BBC News Sydney
There is an inscription on the inside of the jacket before each Australian passport. It calls for the protection and assistance of citizens when they are in conflict abroad.
“The Commonwealth of Australia … calls on all whom it may concern to allow the bearer, an Australian citizen, to pass freely without leaving or hindering and to offer him or her all the assistance and protection he or she could. need.”
Who would have thought that Australians are now struggling to “return freely” to their own country? Reintegrating and living in your country is a fundamental aspect of citizenship. A right of return is recognized in international law, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But the problem for stranded Australians is that you can’t argue a UN treaty in Australian court. Citizenship rights – and many other freedoms – are not guaranteed by their law. Australia does not have a human rights charter or explicit protections in its constitution.
So in an emergency situation the government can do something like a criminal offense overnight. At the height of the pandemic last year, the government tightened its biosafety law to give the Minister of Health near unconditional powers bypassing Parliament.
This is why citizens who now attempt to flee a danger zone may face jail for attempting to return home. A legal challenge to this two-week ban will be time consuming and expensive – public outrage and pressure may be the only effective remedy.
The ministry said it had agreed with India to send emergency medical supplies, including ventilators and personal protective equipment.
“Our hearts are with the Indian people – and our Indo-Australian community,” the statement added.
India has seen cases climb to 19 million and total deaths 200,000. Last week, more than 300,000 new cases were reported every day.
Australia has implemented a series of strict measures to prevent the virus from entering the country since the pandemic began in February 2020. While the country is experiencing near zero infection rates and has had much less of deaths than most countries, strict lockdown policies have left many Australians stranded abroad.
The ban on Indian arrivals this week marked an escalation – the first time the country has stopped evacuations and blocked citizens from returning home. He has stepped up calls to do more to bring Australians home.