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