Australian residents and citizens who have been in India within 14 days of the date they plan to return will be banned from entering Australia from Monday and those who do not obey will be fined and jailed, said officials.
The temporary emergency provision, issued late on Friday, is the first time Australia has made it a criminal act for its citizens to return home.
The move is part of strict measures to stop travelers to Australia from India as it goes against an increase in Covid-19 cases and deaths.
The restrictions will take effect from May 3, and violating the ban risks civil sanctions and up to five years in prison, Health Secretary Greg Hunt said in a statement.
“The government does not take these decisions lightly,”
“However, it is crucial that the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of Covid-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level.”
The government will reconsider the restrictions on 15 May.
India’s coronavirus death toll passed 200,000 this week, and cases have peaked at 19 million as new virulent strains have combined with “super-spreading” events such as political gatherings and religious festivals.
The rise in cases prompted President Joe Biden to impose new travel restrictions on India on Friday, preventing most non-US citizens from traveling into the United States.
Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian surgeon with family in India, said the decision to “criminalize” Australians returning from India was disproportionate and far too punitive.
“Indian-Australians see this as a racist policy because we are treated differently from people from other countries who have had similar waves of infections as the US, UK and Europe. It is very difficult to feel anything but targeted as an ethnic group.”
Human rights groups also expressed outrage over the ban, suggesting that the government’s focus should be on improving its quarantine system and not on punishment.
“This is an outrageous response. Australians have the right to return to their own country,” Human Rights Watch Australia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
“The government should look for ways to quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments.”
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Australia, which has no community transmission, on Tuesday imposed 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 move had left more than 9,000 Australians stranded in India, 650 of whom are registered as vulnerable, officials said.
Australia has almost exempted the coronavirus after closing its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020 and registering only 910 deaths.