Thousands of Australians who want to return home from India face heavy fines. Critics accuse the government of failure, racism, and human rights violations.
With the threat of harsh penalties, the Australian government wants to prevent its citizens from returning to their homeland from India, which has been severely shaken by the Covid pandemic. According to a new law, anyone attempting to do so from Monday should be sentenced to imprisonment for up to five years and the equivalent of a fine of € 42,000. Finance Minister Josh Friedenberg defended the controversial rules on Saturday against harsh criticism from the opposition, human rights organizations and medical societies: “We decided to take this drastic measure to protect Australians.” The ban will initially take effect through mid-May.
Human rights activists classified the entry ban as a racist and a violation of basic human rights. Eileen Pearson, president of the Australian human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, said the threat of harsh prison sentences was a “horrific response”.
Indian-born physician and health journalist Phyum Sharma believes it is “hard to imagine” that the government would have taken “such strange measures” when it came to returnees from the US or the UK. “In your moment of greatest despair, if you take refuge, we threaten you with five years in prison, which is really disgusting,” he told the Guardian.
9,000 Australians in India
In fact, the plan to prevent its citizens from returning to their homes is a unique punishment in the world. Other countries such as the USA and Germany have also issued a blanket entry ban on travelers from India. However, these do not apply to its own citizens.
More than 400,000 new coronavirus infections and 3,523 deaths were recorded in India on Friday alone – according to official figures, which, according to experts, do not adequately reflect the extent of the epidemic. At least 9,000 Australians, most of them of Indian descent, who are currently in India according to State Department lists in Canberra, are also at risk of infection.
Australia’s conservative liberal federal government justifies the strict measures by the fact that the large number of returnees from India who tested positive for the virus was “unmanageable” for the country’s quarantine system. This initiative was launched with the return trip of two cricket professionals working in India who were able to return to their home country via the Gulf state of Qatar.
Since the outbreak of the epidemic a little more than a year ago, only its citizens have been allowed to enter, and foreigners only in exceptional cases and only in limited numbers. Every traveler is required to self-isolate for a period of 14 days in quarantine, most of which are in heavily guarded hotels. This wide isolation is partly responsible for the fact that the country has weathered the epidemic well so far. Since its inception, Australia has only recorded fewer than 30,000 cases of coronavirus – in more than a year, as Germany had a week ago in a day.
The quarantine system has loopholes
Until a few days ago, Australian ministers hailed the system as the “world leader”. But the travel ban now in place appears to be “not working,” criticized the Australian Medical Association (AMA). Its president, Omar Khorshid, said: “The decision proves the weakness of our quarantine system,” but it must be “frankly curative.” The opposition Labor Party complained that the federal government had not set up its own quarantine facilities more than a year after the outbreak.
So far, the Canberra government has left that to the states. Refugee internment camps, maintained by the federal government on sparsely populated islands or in remote areas, which are currently largely empty, are not suitable as group accommodation with shared health facilities, as the government itself justifies. However, despite pleas from the states, it has not yet started converting such facilities or similar facilities as abandoned barracks.
Quarantine in hotels always causes problems. Since November, 16 cases have been recorded that have tested positive for travelers after they left quarantine after 14 days. They appear to have contracted the infection during this time. Just last weekend, Perth, in Western Australia, imposed a multi-day lockdown due to such a case. Critics complain that in many places in these hotels the protective equipment available to the staff is still inadequate and that there are no precautions to check the ventilation systems for virus security.