Australia defends ban on citizens returning from coronavirus-hit India

There are fears Australia's quarantine system will buckle with more returning travellers testing positive. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended banning Australian citizens from returning from India, amid criticism by human rights groups that the government's threat to punish breaches with fines of roughly US$50,000 (S$66,600) and five years imprisonment is heavy-handed.

"We're all just working to do what's right for the health interests of Australians," Mr Morrison said in a radio interview on Monday (May 3), adding that he implemented the ban on the basis of advice from his health officials. "We're deeply, deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis in India."

As infections surge in countries such as India, where daily cases topped 400,000 for the first time on Saturday, there are fears Australia's quarantine system will buckle with more returning travellers testing positive.

While the nation has come close to eliminating local transmission of the virus by closing its international border to non-residents - other than a new travel bubble with New Zealand - occasional cases leak into the community from quarantine hotels, triggering localised lockdowns.

While Australia last Tuesday joined nations including the US, UK, France and Canada in blocking flights from India, on Saturday it went further.

Amid reports people in India were using flights from other countries to enter Australia, Mr Morrison's government banned citizens currently in India from entering.

The block, to last until at least May 15, still allowed people to fly in through a third country until Saturday, when the new measure announcing a full ban closed that loophole.

As of late March, there were 36,000 Australian citizens stranded overseas and seeking to come home.

Australia's Indian diaspora is one of its most rapidly growing ethnic groups. The 1996 Census reported 77,551 India-born people in the country - by the latest survey in 2016, that had grown to 455,385 people.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the "extraordinary" ban and threat of criminal sanctions raise serious concerns.

"The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified," it said in a statement on Saturday. "The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health."

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne on Sunday denied the decision was motivated by racism.

"The decision which has been made under the Biosecurity Act on the basis of the advice of the chief medical officer is a temporary pause on returns," Ms Payne said, according to the Guardian. "The burden that has placed on the health systems in the states and territories" was significant, she said.

The hashtag #DictatorScott was trending on Twitter on Monday as Australians reacted to the strict new policy.

"We should be helping Aussies in India return home not jailing them. Let's fix our quarantine system rather than leave our fellow Australians stranded," Nationals senator Matthew Canavan tweeted.

The prime minister on Monday played down the chances of using law to punish returning Australians from India.

He pointed to Australia's humanitarian aid to its Quad security alliance partner, which includes sending more than 500 ventilators, 1 million surgical masks and other medical equipment to India.

"I understand the measures have strong sanctions," he said. "I can assure people that they will be used appropriately and responsibly in these circumstances."

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