SYDNEY—The wave of Covid-19 sweeping India is leading some nations that have largely contained the virus to threaten their own citizens with jail time or heavy fines if they try to get home from the South Asian country.
Australia has banned travel from India because it fears positive cases would overwhelm its quarantine system, which has largely kept the country free of coronavirus until now. New Zealand last month temporarily prohibited all travelers from India before modifying the policy to allow its citizens to return.
Australia’s ban on travel from India is temporary and is due to expire on May 15, at which time the government could decide to extend it. The ban doesn’t apply to people who have been outside of India for 14 days. But those flouting the rules could face up to five years in jail or a fine of roughly $50,000.
Violators of New Zealand’s ban could also have faced fines and a jail sentence, though officials in the South Pacific country said no one breached the order.
Some legal experts and academics have said that such moves raise serious human-rights concerns and that the willingness of policy makers to restrict individual freedoms when the pandemic is largely under control domestically could set a troubling precedent.
The Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent government organization, said officials must publicly justify the new policy and show it isn’t discriminatory.
“They have taken it to the extreme—not only closing the door, but adding the potential fines and jail,” said
a law professor and the director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at the University of New South Wales. “I think we’re not acting consistently with our international human-rights obligations.”
On Monday, Prime Minister
said the travel ban was solely aimed at safeguarding Australia’s public health.
Australia has used its island geography to effectively contain the coronavirus by largely shutting its international border and restricting the number of inbound flights. For much of the pandemic, citizens and permanent residents have been allowed to return if they quarantine in government-run hotels or other housing facilities, allowing authorities to monitor the new arrivals for the virus. Tourists haven’t generally been allowed into the country.
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As India battled the coronavirus surge, New Zealand said in early April that it would suspend all travel from the country, including its own citizens for the first time. Prime Minister
said the move would be temporary as officials determined how to handle the rising number of cases. Two weeks later, when officials modified the policy to again allow citizens to return, they said banning all other travelers from India would reduce the number of positive cases coming to New Zealand by 75%.
Australian authorities said a more stringent ban on travelers from India was required to keep the quarantine system from being overwhelmed with positive cases. On Monday, Chief Medical Officer
said officials have aimed to keep the number of positive cases at 2% of people in the quarantine system throughout the pandemic, but that number had spiked in recent weeks.
At one facility, Mr. Kelly said more than 15% of people have tested positive for the virus, and that more than 70% of those cases came from travellers who recently returned from India.
“They have reached a point where they could not, literally could not take any more positive cases,” Mr. Kelly said. “It’s not only what’s happening in India, but it’s also what that was bringing into the country in terms of the stress on our hotel quarantine system.”
Government officials have said that they have worked hard to get Australians home and that 500,000 have returned home since the pandemic began, many on flights that were arranged specially by the government to repatriate them. Still, around 9,000 Australians in India are currently registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return. This includes permanent residents.
Despite assurances from officials that the India ban wasn’t arbitrary, some Indian-Australians felt the move was discriminatory, noting that Australian citizens traveling from other nations like the U.S. and the U.K.—which also struggled with severe outbreaks earlier in the pandemic—weren’t barred from returning or threatened with jail time and fines.
husband was booked on a flight to return to Australia from India at the end of May, but Ms. Ayengar is now worried that her husband, an Australian permanent resident, won’t be able to return as planned. Ms. Ayengar is concerned he is in danger of catching the coronavirus if he stays in India.
Ms. Ayengar said she understands that Australia’s leaders are trying to keep the country safe and that they have done a good job controlling the pandemic at home. But she said the recent India travel ban is bothering her.
“On the day we booked our ticket, we were so happy, and the children were like, ’Finally, dad is coming,’” said Ms. Ayengar, 47 years old, who lives in Melbourne. “And then this totally shattered us.”
Although thousands of Australians are still stuck overseas, many Australians support the government’s coronavirus policy. One recent poll from the Lowy Institute, a think tank, found that 59% believe the federal government has done enough to help Australians return home from overseas. The poll found that 95% of Australians believe the government has handled the pandemic well or fairly well.
Some Australians have complained to the U.N. Human Rights Committee that Australia’s restrictive border measures violate an international treaty that guarantees citizens’ right of return to their own country. In test cases, the committee has said the Australian government should facilitate the return of the stranded citizens, according to a group advocating for Australian citizens abroad.
“It certainly challenges our basic conception of citizenship,”
managing partner at Marque Lawyers, a commercial law firm in Sydney that also handles refugee cases, said of the recent India travel ban. “If it stands, then certainly there’s nothing to stop them doing it again in a different context, which I think should concern all of us.”
Write to Mike Cherney at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
The New Zealand prime minister’s name is Jacinda Ardern. An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled her first name Jacindra. (Corrected on May 3.)
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