Australia quickly walks back blanket ban on travel from India

(Mick Tsikas/AAP Image via AP)

As you’ve probably heard by now, India is in the midst of one of the worst COVID outbreaks seen on the planet thus far. This has led many countries to add India to their travel ban lists, assuming they weren’t already on it. But the Australian government moved on Saturday evening to put its own travel ban restrictions on steroids. Without any prior consultation or public comment, the country’s Health Minister announced that no one coming from India would be allowed into the country, including the roughly nine thousand Australians who are currently on the subcontinent. And if any of them do attempt to return home, they will be met at the port of entry, arrested, imprisoned for up to five years and fined more than $50,000. To say that the shocking news didn’t go over well with the public is something of an understatement. (Politico)

Five years jail and a $51,000 fine: that’s the price Australian citizens can expect to pay if they’ve been in India and try to board a flight home to Australia in coming weeks. The new border policy, announced under the country’s Biosecurity Act without public consultation at midnight Saturday, may have ramifications for what it means to be a citizen in a democracy.

A democratic government’s fundamental allegiance is to protect its citizens: but if your country won’t allow you to return home when you’re in danger, what then?

Critics of the new policy say that instead of rescuing stranded Australians their government is abandoning them, in breach of its obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his [or her] own country.”

I’m sure that the citizens of Australia want to avoid another major COVID outbreak in their own country, but the heavy-handed nature of this order immediately caused a backlash. One factor that the government may have failed to take into account was the fact that many popular Australian sports stars are in India, along with some influential business operators. The sports stars in particular have a lot of fans back home and are active on social media. Some of their responses immediately generated a wave of criticism.

One commentator and former cricket star who is in the nation covering the Indian Premier League went on Twitter to accuse Prime Minister Scott Morrison of leaving his countrymen to die. “Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this? If our Government cared for the safety of Aussies they would allow us to get home.”

The Prime Minister managed to last all of 48 hours before the pressure from the public apparently became too much. This morning he did a round of media appearances where he said that nobody was going to be locked up for flying back home.

Australia’s prime minister fended off accusations of racism and having blood on his hands Tuesday, as he retreated from a threat to jail Australians trying to escape Covid-wracked India.

Scott Morrison’s government moved to ban travellers from India from entering Australia until May 15, threatening rule-breakers — including Australian citizens — with prison time.

Amid a widespread backlash, Morrison on Tuesday said it was “highly unlikely” that Australians who skirted a ban would be jailed.

“I think the likelihood of any of that occurring is pretty much zero,” Morrison said in a breakfast-time media blitz on Tuesday.

That’s a pretty significant walk-back. The Australians went from five years in jail and a massive fine to “well, just try to be careful” in a matter of two days. It has to be something of an embarrassment for the Prime Minister.

That doesn’t mean he’s just flinging the doors open. Any Aussies who want to return home will need to wait until May 15 so all of the arrangements can be put in place. Upon arrival, they will almost certainly need to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks. The problem is that Australia has kept its infection rates fairly low mostly through isolation. They have still only administered a little more than 2 million vaccination doses in a population of more than 25 million. And they’re using one of the vaccines that require two doses each. The pace has been described as “glacial.” Let’s keep our fingers crossed for our Aussie allies. There could be some hard times ahead.