To prevent a new wave of infections in Australia, about 8,000 Australia citizens and residents are banned from returning home from India as of Monday.
The travel ban is believed to represent the first time Australia has made it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents to enter the country.
“I never expected this to happen,” said Drisya Dilin, an Australian hospital administrator whose 5-year-old daughter has been in India for over a year because of strict border policies, despite many attempts to bring her home.
Much of the world has decided to cut off travel to and from India as it grapples with an uncontrolled outbreak that is killing thousands of people every day. But Australia, a continent with a strong preference for hard borders, has pushed isolation to a new extreme. No other democratic nation has issued a similar ban on all arrivals. Britain, Germany and the United States, for example, have restricted travel from India, but have exempted citizens and permanent residents, many of whom are rushing home.
Australia’s decision — announced quietly late Friday night by officials who said it was necessary to keep the country safe — has built into a medical and moral crisis.
Indian-Australians are outraged. Human rights groups have condemned the move as unnecessarily harsh and a violation of citizenship principles. Other critics have suggested that the policy was motivated by racism or, at the very least, a cultural double standard.
“It’s criminalizing the situation when intense empathy is required,” said Sheba Nandkeolyar, a marketing executive and national chair of Women in Business for Australia India Business Council. “It’s a very tough situation.”
Australia’s latest move fits a pattern. The island has maintained some of the strictest border measures in the world since the pandemic began. No one can leave the country without official government permission. Coming home, even from a country with declining infection rates, often seems to require government connections, celebrity status or luck, along with $30,000 for a one-way plane ticket.
There are about 35,000 Australians overseas who have been unable to make the journey either because they have been unable to obtain seats on repatriation flights or because they have been unable to afford the tickets.
In the case of India, Australia’s already opaque, unequal and selective policy — based in part on how many people can be moved through for 14-day hotel quarantine — has become absolute. It means keeping thousands of Australians in a place where coronavirus case numbers have skyrocketed; where hospitals have run out of beds, ventilators and medical oxygen; and where crematories are burning day and night amid a deluge of bodies.
Australian officials said the new restrictions, with penalties of up to five years in prison and nearly 60,000 Australian dollars ($46,300) in fines, would keep its hotel quarantine system from being overwhelmed.