SYDNEY, Australia – Before the coronavirus pandemic escalated, Drisya Dilin dropped her daughter off with her parents in India and expected to bring her to Australia a month later. That was more than a year ago.
Now, any attempt to get the 5-year-old to Australia, where she is a permanent resident, poses a threat of imprisonment or large fines.
She is one of around 8,000 Australians affected by an unprecedented travel ban that began on Monday, prompted by India’s record-breaking Covid eruption. It is believed to be the first time that Australia is making it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents to enter the country.
“She misses us badly,” she said of her daughter. “She still counts days and thinks she’s coming.”
A large part of the world has decided to interrupt travel to and from India as it struggles with an uncontrolled outbreak that kills thousands of people every day. But Australia, a continent with a strong preference for hard borders, has pushed isolation to a new extreme. No other democratic nation has issued a similar ban on all arrivals. Britain, Germany and the United States, for example, have restricted travel from India, but have exempted citizens and permanent residents, many of whom rush home.
Australia’s decision – quietly announced Friday night by officials who said it was necessary to keep the country safe – has built into a medical and moral crisis.
Indian-Australians are furious. Human rights groups have condemned the move as unnecessarily harsh and a violation of the principles of citizenship. Other critics have suggested that the policy was motivated by racism or at least a double cultural standard.
“It criminalizes the situation when intense empathy is required. It is a very tough situation, ”said Sheba Nandkeolyar, Marketing Manager and National President of Women in Business for the Australia India Business Council.
Australia’s latest move fits a pattern. The island has maintained some of the strictest border measures in the world since the pandemic began. No one can leave the country without official government permission. Coming home, even from a country with declining infection rates, often seems to require public relations, celebrity status, or luck along with $ 30,000 for a one-way ticket.
There are around 35,000 Australians abroad who have not been able to take the journey, either because they have not been able to get a seat on repatriation flights or because they have not been able to afford the tickets.
In the case of India, Australia’s already opaque, unequal and selective policies – partly based on how many people can be moved through to a 14-day hotel quarantine – have become absolute. That means keeping thousands of Australians in a place where the number of coronavirus cases has risen in the air; where hospitals have run out of beds, fans and medical oxygen and where crematoria burn day and night in the middle of a stream of corpses.
Australian officials said the new restrictions – with penalties of up to five years in prison and nearly 60,000 Australian dollars ($ 46,300) in fines under Australia’s biosecurity law – would prevent its hotel quarantine system from being overwhelmed.
“Fifty-seven percent of the positive cases in quarantine had been arrivals from India,” Secretary of State Marise Payne said Sunday. “It placed a very, very significant burden on health and medical services in states and territories.”
But for Australians in India, the policy poses an astonishing lack of concern.
“I thought our passports would suit us,” said Emily McBurnie, an Australian wellness coach who has been stranded in New Delhi since March 2020 and has been ill with Covid-19 for more than a month. She said the Australian government owed its citizens more, adding that if her health deteriorated, she feared she would not have access to oxygen or an intensive care unit.
Ms McBurnie described the situation in India as similar to being in a war zone. She wakes up to the suffocating fog of cremation smoke every morning and she picks fruit and gathers eggs from a local farm because it is almost impossible to buy groceries due to the dwindling stock of fresh things.
In Australia, a country of 25 million, with fewer than 300 active Covid cases and where everyday life has been almost normal for several months, most support the strict border policy. In a recent poll by the Lowy Institute, which examined Australians before the Indian outbreak intensified, an overwhelming majority reported that they were satisfied with how Australia has tackled the pandemic. Only one in three respondents said the government should do more to help Australians return home during the pandemic.
Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute’s Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program, said many Australians had been led to believe that they should have gone home abroad now or had chosen to stay where they were for personal or professional reasons.
The apparent lack of sympathy is partly linked to a lack of understanding, Ms Kassam said. “More than a third of Australians were born abroad,” she said. “Closed borders mean separate families.”
Human Rights Watch called Australia’s ban a “scandalous response” that undermined the concept of citizenship by denying people their right to return to their country.
The Australian Commission on Human Rights said the travel ban “raises serious human rights issues” and the agency called on the government to show that the movement was not discriminatory.
While India has the world’s highest number of new infections, it also has a huge population. Its infection rate per Population is still lower than what it was in the United States and in many parts of Europe below their recent peaks.
Mrs Dilin, who lives in Sydney where she works in the Covid Response Unit at a hospital, said Australia’s treatment of people from India was clearly unfair.
“Since the United States had the same problems, as Britain had many cases, they never prevented anyone from returning,” she said.
Aviram Vijh, a Sydney-based designer from India and an Australian citizen, said the government’s actions shattered prejudice.
“It is clear that this is a disproportionate step,” said Mr. Vijh. His cousin, also an Australian citizen, is stranded in India with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, he added. Both his cousin and his wife have Covid-19.
“He is very unhappy,” he said of his cousin. “And there is no way forward.”
Neha Sandhu, an Australian citizen who managed to return home from India in June, said that along with Mrs Dilin’s daughter were several other unaccompanied minors affected by the ban, many of whom had visited family in India and now could not return home.
“It’s totally inhuman,” said Ms Sandhu, who runs a Facebook group with more than 17,000 followers for those stuck in India.
Australian officials, however, have argued that the move was based solely on an assessment of the risk to public health. Australia chief executive Paul Kelly said the ban was temporary and is expected to be lifted on May 15, although it could also be extended.
Mrs Kassam of the Lowy Institute said the denial of the right of return for Australians in India was the first major test of a policy that most Australians have quietly accepted. She wondered if Australians would be more sympathetic once they knew the details.
“Australians have historically supported tough border restrictions, although these questions have never been asked of their own citizens,” she said. “The idea of Fortress Australia is politically popular, but is untested in terms of criminalizing citizens to simply return home.”
Damien Cave reported from Sydney, Australia and Livia Albeck-Ripka from Melbourne, Australia.