Providing the federal government’s rationale behind Australia’s decision to penalise those returning from India, the immigration minister said his government intends to bring back more than 8,000 Australians stranded in coronavirus-ravaged India, albeit in a phased manner.
Reflecting on the stalled repatriation flights from India before its COVID-19 spiral, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said that the Australian government is preparing for their resumption soon.
“The intentions are to make these announcements on May 15. We had eight repatriation flights scheduled from India in May. So, we are looking to resume those as soon as possible,” Minister Hawke told SBS Hindi in an interview.
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Mr Hawke said the Australian High Commission in India and others are working on logistics to bring back Australians stranded in India.
He said the government is working with third-party airports, airlines and other countries.
“We are now going to require two negative tests. That’s the health advice. We are expanding the Howard Springs facility (in the Northern Territory) by a thousand places a fortnight,” Mr Hawke said detailing Australia’s quarantine plans.
“We would like the charter planes from India directly to go to Howard Springs and have people safely in quarantine with increased capacity,” he added.
Mr Hawke said the government will review the arrangements on May 15.
“Some people in India are safe at the moment. Some people can remain safe. Some people have the means to be safe. Others are vulnerable, elderly, sick and frail,” Mr Hawke added.
“There's work to do in preparing the list as well so that we are giving every vulnerable the maximum chance to get on the plane and come back when we resume those flights,” he said.
On 27 April, Australia had announced a temporary ban on flights from India following a record rise in its coronavirus cases and deaths.
The second coronavirus wave continues to ravage India, which recorded 357,229 new cases on 4 May. India's coronavirus cases tally has crossed the 20 million mark, while the death toll stands at 222,408.
Hospitals in India are currently struggling with acute shortages of oxygen and medical supplies.
On 1 May, the Australian government made it further difficult for those returning from India by penalising their entry it with a hefty fine of $66,600 and five-year jail term.
The federal opposition – headed by the Labor Party – and the Indian community criticised the government’s decision, with many calling it a “racist and draconian move”.
The Indian community is upset that the Australian government didn't announce similar punishments during coronavirus outbreaks in other countries such as the US, the UK and China.
“We are surprised by the government's decision. Initially, I thought it was fake news,” Sunita Dhindsa, president of Federation of Indian Associations of ACT, told SBS Hindi.
Mr Hawke said his government's decision was based on medical advice.
"These are not new penalties. These were changed at the beginning of the pandemic in March last year, and apply to everyone under the Biosecurity Act,” Minister Hawke said.
“People are being reminded that they (penalties) will be used if somebody deliberately tries to flout the returning travel ban for the 14 days until May 15.
“It’s not about targeting anyone in particular. If someone from the UK went to India and left India, and within 14 days, tries to come to Australia, they would be subject to this penalty.
“We have applied this across the board. It's not a new power. The power existed since March last year. Some people have misunderstood that,” Mr Hawke elaborated.
Mr Hawke said this was the first time health advisers suggested the Australian government to take note of a high-risk country.
“(It’s the) First time a country has been rated ‘high-risk’. We haven't had that before in the whole course of the pandemic. That takes into account everything - the situation on the ground in the country,” Mr Hawke said.
“It's a bit out of control in terms of the Indian health system,” he commented.
Mr Hawke said a country's rating depends on its logistics, the nature of the outbreak, quality of the health system and the number of patients.
The immigration minister also said that Australia had closed its borders to China when the coronavirus outbreak first took place there.
“It was a tough decision and had a lot of consequences. At that time, we didn't have these biosecurity powers,” he said.
Mr Hawke admitted Australians are stranded in India without their fault.
“We have taken a very tough decision, and we had to do that to get this right. I know people in India also, when they want to come home, don't want to be infecting other people on the planes. They don't want to cause an outbreak in Australia,” the minister said.
“We want to make sure we can safely repatriate them here as soon as we possibly can. Everybody here is working on that. We want people to stay safe and listen to the government’s advice,” Mr Hawke added.
About 8,000 Australians are currently stranded in India.
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