Australian residents and citizens who have stayed in India within 14 days of their planning to return home will be barred from entering Australia from Monday and those who disobey will face fines and prison terms, government officials said.
The emergency interim decision, released late Friday, marks the first time Australia has made it a criminal offense to return its citizens to their homes.
The move is part of stringent measures to stop travelers to Australia from India as it faces an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths.
The restrictions go into effect on May 3 and violating the ban risks civil penalties and up to five years in prison, Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement.
“The government does not take these decisions lightly,” said Hunt.
“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 government will review the restrictions on May 15.
India’s coronavirus death toll topped 200,000 this week, and cases topped 19 million, as new virulent strains have combined with “super-spread” events such as political rallies and religious festivals.
The surge in cases led President Joe Biden to impose new travel restrictions on India on Friday, preventing most non-U.S. Citizens from entering the United States.
Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian surgeon with family in India, said the decision to “criminalize” Australians returning from India was disproportionate and excessively punitive.
“Indo-Australians see this as a racist policy because we are treated differently from people in other countries who have had similar waves of infection like the US, UK and Europe. He is very hard to feel anything other than being targeted as an ethnic group. “
Human rights groups have also expressed outrage at the ban, suggesting the government should focus on improving its quarantine system, not punishment.
“It is a scandalous response. Australians have the right to return to their own country,” Australian director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
“The government should look for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on jail terms and harsh sentences.”
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Australia, which has no community transmissions, on Tuesday introduced a temporary suspension of direct flights from India until mid-May. However, some Australians, including cricketers Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, returned via Qatar.
Tuesday’s decision left more than 9,000 Australians stranded in India, 650 of whom are registered as vulnerable, officials said.
Australia has all but eradicated the coronavirus after closing its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020, recording just 910 deaths.