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Australian government accused of ‘racism’ after imposing possible 5-year prison sentence on return from India


(CNN) – The Australian government has been accused of racism after threatening five-year prison sentences for citizens who violate a temporary travel ban between India and Australia.

As of Monday, May 3, people who have traveled to India in the past 14 days will be banned from entering Australia due to concerns over the growing coronavirus outbreak in India, which has recorded nearly 400,000 cases in only one day Sunday.
In a statement on Saturday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said anyone ignoring the new restrictions could face up to five years in jail, a fine of $ 66,600 or both. The ban expires on May 15, but could be renewed.

“The government does not take these decisions lightly,” 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.”

The new restrictions came after two Australian cricketers traveled to Melbourne via Doha to bypass a ban on direct passenger flights between India and Australia put in place by the government last week.
Local media said it was the first time an Australian had been criminalized for attempting to return to his home country. No similar measure was put in place at the height of the Covid-19 outbreaks in the UK and US.
The ban on arrivals from India has met strong opposition from the Australian Indian community, human rights activists and even members of the government itself.

“We should help Australians get back to India, not jail them,” he said. About 9,000 Australians in India are registered with the government as wishing to return to Australia.

Conservative newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt said the ban “stinks of racism” in an article published on Monday, adding that the move was “driven by fear, ignorance and incompetence.”

“I can’t believe we would impose such a travel ban on white Australians fleeing from, say, England,” he said.

In a statement on Saturday, the Australian Human Rights Commission said the travel ban and criminal penalties raised “serious human rights concerns,” and called on the Senate to immediately review the new measures.

“The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified. The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and constitute the only appropriate way to deal with the threat to public health,” the statement said.

Speaking on local radio on Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the decision was made “in Australia’s best health interest”.

He said the powers would be “used responsibly” to enforce the blockade of arrivals from India, to ease pressure on the hotel quarantine system.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney, Australia on Tuesday April 27.

Rick Rycroft / AP

At a press conference on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Marise Payne denied the new measures were racist and said the ban was based on advice from Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly.

However, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday, Kelly said there was “no advice given” for imposing fines and prison terms.

“This is how the biosafety act works. If there is a violation of what is considered an emergency use of powers, then this is what happens,” Kelly said.

Kelly added that he had told the government something needs to be done regarding the number of positive cases entering Australia’s hotel quarantine system.

Foreign Minister Payne said on Sunday that 57% of coronavirus infections detected in quarantine are currently from India.

Journalist Angus Watson contributed to this article.

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