(CNN) — The Australian government has been accused of racism after threatening five-year prison sentences for citizens who breach a temporary ban on travel between India and Australia.
From Monday, May 3, people who have been to India in the past 14 days will be banned from entering Australia due to the concerns over India's growing coronavirus epidemic, which saw almost 400,000 cases in a single day on Sunday. In a statement Saturday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said anyone who ignored the new restrictions would face five years' imprisonment, a fine of $66,600 or both. The ban expires on May 15, but could be renewed.
"The Government does not make these decisions lightly," Hunt said in the 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 new restrictions came after two Australian cricket players traveled to Melbourne via Doha to get around a ban on direct passenger flights between India and Australia put in place by the government last week. Local media said it was the first time any Australians have been criminalized for trying to return to their home country. No similar measures were put in place at the height of the Covid-19 epidemics in the UK and the US. The ban on arrivals from India has faced strong opposition from Australia's Indian community, human rights advocates and even members of the government itself.
"We should be helping Aussies in India return, not jailing them," he said. Around 9,000 Australians in India are registered with the government as wanting to return to Australia.
Conservative newspaper columnist Andrew Bolt said the ban "stinks of racism" in an article published Monday, adding the decision was "driven by fear, ignorance and incompetence."
"I can't believe we would impose such a travel ban on white Australians fleeing from, say, England," he said.
In a statement Saturday, the Australian Human Rights Commission said the travel ban and criminal sanctions raised "serious human rights concerns," and called for the Senate to review the new measures immediately.
"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," the statement said.
Speaking on local radio on Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the decision had been taken "in the best health interests of Australia."
He said the powers would be "used responsibly" to enforce the block on arrivals from India, to ease pressure on the hotel quarantine system.
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday, April 27.
At a press conference Sunday, Foreign Minister Marise Payne denied the new measures were racist and said the ban was based on advice from Australia's Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly.
However, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday, Kelly said that there was "no advice given" to impose fines and jail terms.
"That's just how the Biosecurity Act works. If there is a breach of what is seen as an use of the emergency powers, then that's what transpires," Kelly said.
Kelly added that he had told the government something needed to be done about the number of positive cases coming into Australia's hotel quarantine system.
Foreign Minister Payne said Sunday 57% of coronavirus infections detected in quarantine were from India at present.