Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday insisted that a ban on travellers, including Australian citizens, entering from India is not racist but backed away from a threat to jail those who return.
The new rules, which took effect this week, bar entry to anyone who has visited India within the previous 14 days. Rule-breakers face jail terms up to five years and fines of up to A$66,000 (S$68,000).
The move has left thousands stranded and been condemned as racist, immoral and possibly illegal.
Mr Morrison said the ban is temporary and would be applied "compassionately and fairly". He told Channel Nine it is "highly unlikely" that any travellers would be jailed for returning to Australia.
"The likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero," he said. "The sanctions are there, they exist, but they will be exercised proportionately and responsibly."
Critics say the rules are unfair and treat India differently from other places that had heavy outbreaks such as the United States, Italy and Britain.
Dr Andrew Miller from the Australian Medical Association apologised on live television to the country's sizeable Indian-Australian community for the harsh punishments.
"It is not Australian to trap people overseas, and to suggest that a particular segment of the community should get fined for this is absolutely unacceptable and outrageous," he told Channel Nine.
Leaders of the Indian-Australian community have also condemned the ban.
Dr Jagvinder Singh Virk, chairman of the India Australia Strategic Alliance, said 90 per cent of community members believed the federal government would have sent rescue flights if people deemed as "real" Australians were trapped overseas.
"If there were 10,000 Australians with white skin, would they have done the same thing they are doing right now? No," he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "People are feeling it's racist. What is happening to Australia?"
However, not all community leaders think the move is racist, pointing out that it also affects expatriates in India who are not of Indian heritage.
India is one of Australia's largest source of migrants and has overtaken China to become the second-largest source of foreign-born residents. Last year, there were 721,000 Indian-born people in Australia, compared with 650,600 from China. In 2018-19, India was the largest source of permanent migrants to Australia, ahead of China, the United Kingdom, Philippines and New Zealand.
About 9,000 Australians are now in India, including some who went there to visit sick family members or attend funerals but are now barred from returning home.
The government has defended the ban, saying that arrivals from India have led to a surge in cases among those in quarantine.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the ban was made with "a heavy heart but without hesitation".
"Those decisions are made to protect Australians, to protect against a third wave, to protect against a massive risk to Australia," he said.
The opposition Labor Party said the government should not abandon Australians abroad and questioned why the ban had been imposed only on people in India.
Australia currently has no cases of locally-transmitted Covid-19. But minor outbreaks involving quarantine breaches - such as a recent cluster of five cases in Western Australia - can lead to sudden lockdowns of entire cities.
Some legal experts say the ban appears to be unlawful because it breaches the right of citizens to return home. Some say the government should build safer quarantine facilities or assist Australians abroad to be vaccinated so that they can return.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has expressed concern about the ban, saying the government must show it is not discriminatory. It called for a Parliamentary inquiry into the measures.
The ban applies until May 15 and will then be reconsidered.