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Australian government accused of ‘racism’ after imposing a possible 5-year prison sentence for returning from India

(CNN) – The Australian government has been accused of racism after threatening five years in prison for citizens violating a temporary ban on travel between India and Australia.

From Monday, May 4, people who have been in India for the last 14 days will be banned from entering Australia due to concerns over India’s growing coronavirus epidemic, which saw nearly 400,000 cases in a single day on Sunday.
In a statement Saturday, Health Secretary Greg Hunt said anyone who ignored the new restrictions would face up to five years in prison, a $ 66,600 fine or both. The ban expires on May 1
5, but could be renewed.

“The government does not make these decisions easily,” Hunt said in the statement. “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 new restrictions came after two Australian cricketers traveled to Melbourne via Doha to circumvent a ban on direct passenger flights between India and Australia introduced by the government last week.
Local media said it was the first time any Australian was criminalized for trying to return to their home country. No similar measures were introduced at the height of the Covid-19 epidemics in Britain and the United States.
The ban on arrivals from India has been the subject of strong opposition from Australia’s Indian community, human rights defenders and even members of the government itself.

“We should help the Aussies in India return, not imprison them,” he said. About 9,000 Australians in India are registered with the government wishing to return to Australia.

Conservative newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt said the ban “stinks of racism” in an article published Monday, adding that the decision was “driven by fear, ignorance and incompetence.”

“I do not think we will introduce such a travel ban for white Australians fleeing e.g. England, ”he said.

In a statement on Saturday, the Australian Commission on Human Rights said the travel ban and the criminal sanctions raised “serious human rights concerns” and called on the Senate to review the new measures immediately.

“The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified. The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only appropriate way to deal with the threat to public health,” the statement said.

In 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 block on arrivals from India to ease pressure on the hotel quarantine system.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday 27 April.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday 27 April.

Rick Rycroft / AP

At a press conference on Sunday, Foreign Secretary Marise Payne denied that the new measures were racist and said the ban was based on advice from Australia’s medical chief Paul Kelly.

However, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday, Kelly said no advice had been “given” on imposing fines and prison sentences.

“This is how the Biosecurity Act works. If there is a violation of what is seen as a use of emergency powers, then that is what turns out,” Kelly said.

Kelly added that he had told the government that something had to be done about the number of positive cases that came into Australia’s hotel quarantine system.

Secretary of State Payne said on Sunday that 57% of coronavirus infections detected in quarantine were currently from India.

Journalist Angus Watson contributed to this article.

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