The Australian Government is facing flak on the internet and from the Indian community in particular for changes to the Biosecurity Act that would mean Australians could face up to five years in jail and heavy fines if they flee India to return home.
Many people have spoken against this decision which has left over 9,000 Australians, stranded in India due to the pandemic, in limbo.
Social activist Neha Sandhu has helped several Australians to return home from India. She said that, in the history of humanity and its human rights, Australia will stand out as having written the dark chapters of punishing its own citizens and residents by depriving them of their basic right of returning home.
“Ironically, Australia has been known to be very vocal in standing for human rights, and when it comes to its own citizens, they have quashed those very values. Instead of helping those who are already suffering in high risked covid infected environments, the Australian Government had made their return as a culpable crime,” Ms Sandhu told NRI Affairs.
Some Australian citizens or permanent residents have not returned home for over a year due to the shortage of flights available from India and the cap on arrival in Australia.
Earlier last week, the Federal Government decided to pause all flights coming from India as the south Asian nation is in the grip of a deadly wave of COVID-19.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed that changes to the Biosecurity Act would take effect from Monday.
“The pause will come into effect at 12.01 am on Monday, May 3, 2021,” he said.
“The risk assessment that informed the decision was based on the proportion of overseas travellers in quarantine in Australia who has acquired a COVID-19 infection in India.”
“Failure to comply with an emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act 2015 may incur a civil penalty of 300 penalty units, five years’ imprisonment, or both.”
Australian Human Rights Commission has expressed its concern over the travel ban accompanied by criminal sanctions.
In a statement, the AHRC said, “The Commission supports the continuation of aid to the Indian government as it copes with the current COVID-19 crisis, but the Commission holds deep concerns about these extraordinary new restrictions on Australians returning from India.”
Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 30% of the Australian population was born overseas, a vast majority of whom have family spread across the globe.
Outraged author and senior media commentator Mike Carlton said in a tweet, “Outrageous. It’ll be a crime to come home. All because this rotten, corrupt, incompetent Morrison “government” has abandoned its responsibility to run quarantine. How low can these bastards go?”
Australian cricket writer and commentator Melinda Farrell tweeted, “This is horrendous and surely disproportionate. What if the ban is extended by weeks or months? Can we improve Australia’s quarantine rather than abandon people?”
Many members of the Australian-Indian community are deeply concerned over these restrictions.
Editor of the South Asia Times Neeraj Nanda says criminalisation of returning to Australia is not how to deal with those Australians stuck in India.
“Strict quarantine facilities can be set up and implemented. Australian’s from other countries came back home this way,” Mr Nanda told NRI Affairs.
Dr Vikrant Kishore, Course Director for the Bachelor of Film, Television and Animation course, appreciates Australia’s efforts to help India in a time of crisis but says the recent decision by the Australian Government regarding flight bans and hefty fines on anyone circumventing the rules to come back to Australia from India looks pretty harsh.
“Yes, Australia should be careful and protective and should take all precautions to keep its people safe. But suppose the Australians who are stranded in India during this precarious moment are left without any support and no option to come back home. In that case, it is a problematic decision and needs to be rethought and reworked. Australian citizens, no matter in whichever part of the world, should be supported and not punished for looking at taking refuge in their own country. Blocking them out is not the way. But, finding the solution, better checks, both from the country where they come from and in Australia when they arrive,” suggests Dr Kishore.
The Federal Government’s move was prompted after two people circumvented travel bans from India and returned to Australia via Doha.
Many have supported this decision by the Government.
Sydney-based Baljinder Singh says the Government is trying it’s best to keep Australians safe from Coronavirus.
“23 people from India on a flight from Amritsar/Delhi arrived in Rome and brought the infection with them. Now Italy has put a similar ban in place. I totally agree with the Australian Government’s decision in this regard. India itself had put similar restrictions in place last year. The Australian Government will bring back all the Australian Citizen whenever it is safe and possible,” Mr Singh told NRI Affairs.
However, many don’t agree with the decision. Adelaide-based social activist Manav Jaggi says it’s the Government’s responsibility to safely return Australian citizens and their families while building suitable quarantine facilities and getting people in home, not threatening them with jail fines.
“We are horrified that Government thinks that this is an acceptable response to the humanitarian crisis in India. This is a terrible and dangerous precedent. And needs to be called out. We feel that now it is a crime to travel back to our own country where we lived most. The only country in the world that finds it’s citizens and their families for coming home,” said Mr Jaggi.
Neha Sandhu, whose efforts to bring stranded Australians back home from India have come to a halt, is disappointed. She says the Australian Government has turned a blind eye to the suffering of the stranded Australians facing psychological trauma and a financial crisis, as well as risking their lives with little reprieve in sight.
“Unfortunately, this will lead to a new mental issue with these future returnees suffering from Post Traumatic Disorder. What history our Government is going to write? Will these people will love to say Australia their home?
Australian Human Rights Commission says it is approaching the Australian Government directly with its concerns.