Australian residents and citizens who have been in India will be banned from entering Australia as of Monday and those who disobey will face fines and jail.
The temporary “emergency determination”, issued late on Friday, is the first time Australia has made it a criminal offence for its citizens to return home.
The move is part of strict measures to stop travellers to Australia from the world’s second most populous nation as it contends with a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced that anyone attempting to defy the new rules would be hit with fines of up to 66,600 Australian dollars ($51,800), five years in prison, or both, the Australian Associated Press reported.
“The government does not make these decisions lightly,” Hunt said in a statement. “However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of COVID-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level.”
The government will reconsider the restrictions on May 15.
Some 9,000 Australians in India are registered as wanting to return, including 650 listed as “vulnerable”, according to the Australian Associated Press.
India’s coronavirus death toll passed 200,000 this week, and cases passed 19.1 million as virulent new strains have combined with “super-spreader” events such as political rallies and religious festivals.
Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian surgeon with family in India, said the decision to “criminalise” Australians returning from India was disproportionate and overly punitive.
“Indian-Australians are seeing this as a racist policy because we are being treated different than people from other countries who have had similar waves of infection like the US, the UK and Europe. It is very hard to feel anything other than targeted as an ethnic group.”
A spokesman for the health minister “deeply” rejected the view that stopping arrivals from India temporarily was a biased measure, saying it was a difficult but necessary decision that applied “to all people no matter their nationality, race or religion”.
Human rights groups voiced indignation at the ban, suggesting the government’s focus should be on improving its quarantine system, not on punishment.
“This is an outrageous response. Australians have a right of return to their own country,” Human Rights Watch’s Australia Director Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
“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.”
“Jail time and fines for Australians wanting to come home? Seriously? I’m horrified that the Morrison government thinks this is an acceptable response to the humanitarian crisis in India,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted.
“This is a terrible and dangerous precedent. And needs to be called out,” the senator added.
Australia, which has no community transmissions, on Tuesday introduced a temporary suspension of direct flights from India until mid-May. However, some Australians, including cricketers Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, returned via Qatar.
Australia has all but stamped out the coronavirus after closing its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020, recording just 29,800 cases and 910 deaths.