Australia’s threat to jail citizens returning home from India has drawn condemnation, with critics calling the Covid measure “racist” and a violation of human rights.
As of Monday, any Australian arriving in the country from India faces fines and up to five years in prison.
It comes after Canberra banned all flights from the viral hotspot until May 15.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has dismissed accusations of racism.
“The same accusations were made against the government over a year ago when we closed the borders with mainland China,” he told 2GB radio station in Sydney.
“There is no politics or ideology in a pandemic … It has nothing to do with politics, it’s a virus.”
The policy marks the first time that Australians have been criminalized for returning to their country, local media reported.
There are approximately 9,000 Australians in India, 600 of whom are classified as vulnerable.
The government said the measures, which were announced on Saturday, are based on medical advice aimed at protecting the community. The virus is on the rise in India, with daily cases in the country surpassing 300,000 for 10 consecutive days.
Officials said an increase in infection rates seen among Indian arrivals over the past fifteen weeks has raised concerns. Australia has pursued a strategy of eliminating Covid – in part through strict border controls and mandatory quarantine – which has recorded 910 deaths, far fewer than in many other countries.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said arrivals to India accounted for 57% of positive cases in quarantine, up from 10% in March.
She said it places a “very, very heavy burden on health and medical services.”
However, critics – including medical experts and legal groups – argue that the government’s decision to criminalize Indian arrivals was extreme and disproportionate to the health risks.
Federal Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi wrote on Twitter that the measures were “absolutely horrible and racist”.
Prominent conservative media commentator Andrew Bolt said the politics were “so mean and irrational that I too must blame racism”.
“I can’t believe we would impose such a travel ban on white Australians fleeing, say England.”
Former Australian racial discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane highlighted the “inconsistency” in government policy, noting that criminal bans and penalties were not imposed on Australians returning from other countries during the height of the crisis. their waves of Covid.
“We did not see any difference in treatment spread to … the United States, the United Kingdom and any European country, even though the infection rates were very high and the danger of arrivals from those countries. was very high, ”he told The Sydney Morning Herald Journal.
“There are different standards at play here depending on what part of the world you are from.”
Members of the Indo-Australian community, which represents around 2.6% of the population, have expressed anger at the sudden ban. Some told the BBC they felt they were being treated like criminals and “second-class citizens” for wanting to flee from danger.
Legal experts have also raised concerns that the temporary ban violates international law. This includes the right of citizens not to be arbitrarily denied entry to their country – recognized in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory.
The Australian Human Rights Commission said in a statement: “The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and are the only appropriate way to deal with the threat to public health.”
The situation in India has also put the spotlight on Australia’s quarantine system, which has seen more than a dozen leaks of infection since November.
The country has successfully implemented a mandatory 14-day quarantine policy for all international arrivals – primarily at hotels.
But the government said the surge in positive cases from India now threatens to overwhelm its quarantine system, which has the capacity to handle a maximum limit of 2% of infected arrivals.
The Australian Medical Association, the country’s leading medical group, said the need to suspend Indian arrivals was an indication of the “fragility” of the quarantine system.
“We would rather our governments focus on fixing the quarantine system and bringing Australians home, rather than extending this ban longer than necessary.”