Australian nationals and people who have been in India will be barred from reentering the country as of Monday, and those who disobey will face fines and imprisonment.
The temporary “emergency determination,” released late Friday, is the first time Australia has made it a crime for its people to return home.
The step is part of a series of strict steps aimed at discouraging visitors to Australia from the world’s second-most populous nation, which is dealing with an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
According to the Australian Associated Press, Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed that anyone who violates the new laws will face fines of up to 66,600 Australian dollars ($51,800), five years in prison, or both.
On May 15, the government will reconsider the restrictions.
According to the Australian Associated Press, 9,000 Australians in India have registered as wanting to return, with 650 identified as “vulnerable.”
The death toll from coronavirus in India surpassed 200,000 this week, and the number of cases surpassed 19.1 million, as virulent new strains merged with “super-spreader” activities like political rallies and religious festivals.
According to Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian surgeon with family in India, the decision to “criminalise” Australians returning from India was disproportionate and unnecessarily punitive.
“Indian-Australians are seeing this as a racist policy because we are being treated different than people from other countries who have had similar waves of infection like the US, the UK and Europe. It is very hard to feel anything other than targeted as an ethnic group.”
A spokesman for the health minister “vehemently” denied that temporarily halting arrivals from India was a biased move, saying it was a difficult but appropriate decision that extended “to all citizens, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or religion.”
Human rights organizations expressed outrage at the ban, arguing that the government’s priority should be to improve its quarantine system rather than to prosecute.
“This is an outrageous response. Australians have a right of return to their own country,” Human Rights Watch’s Australia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
“The government should be looking for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments.”
“Jail time and fines for Australians wanting to come home? Seriously? I’m horrified that the Morrison government thinks this is an acceptable response to the humanitarian crisis in India,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted.
“This is a terrible and dangerous precedent. And needs to be called out,” the senator added.
Australia, which has no group transmissions, suspended direct flights from India on Tuesday until mid-May. Some Australians, including cricketers Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, did, however, return through Qatar.
After closing its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020, Australia has all but eradicated the coronavirus, with only 29,800 cases and 910 deaths reported.