Scott Morrison’s government has been condemned for its “outrageous” decision to introduce fines of up to $66,600 or five years in prison, or both, for anyone defying a travel ban preventing Australians returning home from India.
The travel ban begins on Monday, in what is believed to be the first time Australia has banned its own citizens from returning home.
Elaine Pearson, the Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said Australians have a “right to return to their own country”.
“Any such limitations on that right due to public health grounds should be necessary and proportionate,” she said. “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 for people who are facing desperate conditions and simply trying to return home.
“This is an outrageous response.”
Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibsersek blamed the number of Australians stranded in India on the failure to establish federal quarantine facilities.
“It is inexplicable we have not opened up federal quarantine facilities a year ago,” she said. “Senior public servants were telling Scott Morrison he could open up federal quarantine facilities, he has done absolutely nothing to make it happen.”
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young said that she was “horrified” by the government’s decision.
“Jail time and fines for Australians wanting to come home? Seriously?” she wrote on Twitter. “I’m horrified that the Morrison government thinks this is an acceptable response to the humanitarian crisis in India.”
Labor MP Jason Clare backed the decision to introduce a travel ban, but said the federal government should be making it easier for Australians to get home.
“I think it would be [a] big mistake to make it a crime for Australians to get home,” Clare told the ABC.
He urged the government to instead quarantine returning travellers on Christmas Island.
The changes to the border rules were introduced under the Biosecurity Act, with the government saying the decision was reached following Friday’s national cabinet meeting.
The treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, admitted the measures were “drastic” on Saturday morning but rejected suggestions it was “irresponsible” to leave Australians stranded in India when the country was running out of oxygen.
“We have taken drastic action to keep Australians safe, and what we face in India is a very serious situation where the medical advice provided to the federal government has been to put in place these strict measures,” he said.
“When national cabinet met, they received the most up to date briefing from our chief medical officers and their advice is that we need to put in place these secure measures with respect to people coming from India to Australia.”
Government MP Katie Allen also defended the introduction of fines and jail time for returning Australians, telling the ABC the risk posed by India was too great.
“We know that quarantining can’t be perfect because, one, there can be human error, but also one in 100 cases become positive after the first two weeks,” she said. “That is why the system is quite careful and considered. Backed in by excellent contact tracing.”
India continues to set global records for the number of daily coronavirus cases, averaging nearly 350,000 infections a day last week. The death toll has continued to skyrocket, surging past 200,000, with experts believing figures for both cases and deaths are undercounted.
Australia has agreed to supply ventilators and personal protective equipment to India to help its stretched and desperate health system.
But after a pair of cricketers circumvented the travel ban by returning via Doha, the government moved to prevent any further breaches.
Neha Madhok, co-director of Democracy in Colour, accused the government of an inconsistent approach to repatriations.
“We need consistent, evidence-based policy that ensures all Australians are able to return home safely. We don’t need one rule for people of colour and another for everyone else.”
In his announcement of the measures, health minister Greg Hunt said the changes were due to an “unmanageable” number of arrivals from the country that have tested positive.
The “temporary pause” on travel from India is due to be reviewed on 15 May.