Foreign affairs minister Marise Payne has defended the government’s decision to ban Australian citizens returning home from India, saying the move was “not in any way” motivated by racism.
On Saturday the government announced it will introduce penalties including fines and jail time for anyone who tries to return home from India, with treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying the move was “drastic” but needed.
The move has been widely criticised. The Australia Human Rights Commission issued a statement saying the decision to use the Biosecurity Act to impose a temporary ban on citizens returning home “raises serious human rights concerns”.
“The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified. The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health,” it said in a statement.
Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained for more than two years in Iran before being released last year – was also critical of the decision, labelling it “UnAustralian” on Twitter.
“I know what it means to do time for absolutely no reason whatsoever,” she tweeted.
“I also know what it means to be rescued from a Covid-riddled overseas hellhole and be brought back to Australia [yes into quarantine]. This outrageous policy is immoral, unjustifiable and completely un-Australian.”
But on Sunday Payne said the “temporary” ban came as a result of the high rate of Covid-19 infections among Australians returning from India, saying it was placing a significant burden” on health services.
“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,” she said.
“The burden that has placed on the health systems in the states and territories, including through particularly Howard Springs, is a very significant one.”
Experts have questioned why Australia has taken such drastic steps to stop arrivals from India, particularly after reporting from the Guardian revealed the country has fewer coronavirus cases per capita than either the US or the UK during their respective Covid peaks.
Asked on Sunday whether the decision was motivated by racism, Payne said: “Absolutely not in any way,” acknowledging the “very, very difficult circumstances” in India.
“For so many families. And indeed here in Australia, for Indian Australians who are so worried about their families overseas,” she said.
Labor frontbencher Brendan O’Connor said the government needed to consider immediate charter flights to repatriate Australian citizens stuck in India.
“I think every avenue should be explored to ensure that we look after Australian citizens overseas,” O’Connor told ABC’s Insiders program.
“The government made commitments that it would return Australians before Christmas, the government has abrogated its responsibility with respect to its role in terms of quarantine.”
He also said he was surprised that the government was threatening fines and jail time for people attempting to return to Australia from India.
“Frankly the focus should be returning Australians home. I have to say I’m surprised that the government is looking to go down that path,” O’Connor said.
“I believe that the ban on flights would be sufficient to prevent people coming back to Australia so I think in part that’s a political distraction from the main focus, which should be finding whatever means possible to ensure that Australians are able to return home.”
But the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, supported the ban, saying it was “clearly a mistake” to let people travel in the first place.
“It is very harsh, it is very difficult, it is very unusual but we live in unusual times so yes, I do [support the decision],” he said.
“We are obviously in a dangerous world and we want to make sure we prevent the importation and the spread of the virus within Australia.”
India is in the grips of an unprecedented volume of Covid-19 cases. On Sunday the country reported over 400,000 new cases in 24 hours, the first country to do so in the pandemic.
According to the health ministry, 401,993 new infections were registered taking the total caseload to 19.1 million. There were 3,523 deaths, bringing the toll to 211,853.