Coronavirus

Indian-Australians are feeling betrayed and targeted by the government's 'racist' new travel measures

Australian Mandeep Sharma, pictured here wearing a blue and black jacket, says he feels betrayed and abandoned by the Australian government. Source: Supplied

A move to ban nationals from returning home to Australia from India with a threat of jail time has been condemned by the Indian diaspora, with the government "absolutely" rejecting any accusations of racism.

Indian-Australians are feeling betrayed and unfairly targeted by the federal government's controversial decision to impose fines and jail terms on returning nationals.

On Saturday morning, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced a "temporary pause" on travellers who have visited India within 14 days of their intended arrival date in Australia.

The penalty for failing to comply with the emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act, coming into effect at 12.01am Monday, could attract a $66,600 fine or a five-year jail term.

No such measure has been applied by the government to any other international COVID-19 hotspot so far.

Australian citizen Mandeep Sharma is currently stuck in the Indian city of Kapurthala. He left Australia on 2 April to bury his father.

Mr Sharma had his return flight to Australia scheduled for 7 May cancelled after a ban on flights from India was announced earlier in the week, and says the additional criminalisation measures are insulting. 

"In our hour of need, [the Australian government] has abandoned and betrayed us," he told SBS News. 

"That was a really heartbreaking moment because, my two daughters and my wife, they are alone in Adelaide." 

There have also been suggestions the move is racist, which the government denies.

The Council of Indian Australians said there is a feeling in the Indian-Australian community they have been unfairly targeted.

"It's a kick in the guts. It's un-Australian and it's unacceptable," the council's public officer Mohit Kumar said.

Federation of Indian Associations of NSW president Yadu Singh said some members of the diaspora have said they hoped the announcement wasn't part of any “racist dog-whistling”.

'An inconsistency'

Former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane told SBS News there has been "an inconsistency" with how the federal government has treated arrivals from different countries during the pandemic.

"When COVID-19 was raging last year in the United States, the UK and in countries across Europe, we didn't see a ban on arrivals of people from Europe, let alone criminal penalties being threatened to Australian citizens seeking to return home.

"This is a deeply concerning development and the government has some serious questions to answer."

Mr Soutphommasane said the Australian Constitution offers few guarantees when it comes to the rights of citizens.

"We don't have an explicit guarantee that all Australian citizens can exercise their basic right to return home in a time of need."

The government had "broad powers" under the Biosecurity Act, he said.

"Our rights and liberties are very weakly protected," he added, but said it was also the government's "responsibility to protect citizens who are vulnerable".

"It certainly shouldn't be the job of government to pull up the drawbridge of citizens seeking to return home right now."

Australian barrister, human rights and refugee advocate Julian Burnside says he was "horrified" by the government's move to ban arrivals from India and says Australia could easily accomodate returning nationals.

"We could have them in home detention, with ankle bracelets if necessary to make sure they stay home where they're supposed to be," he told SBS News.

"We could use places like Christmas Island. The government is very good at establishing large places for people from overseas that they do not want here. These are Australian citizens, they're entitled to be here."

Mr Burnside said it would be "very difficult" to overturn the government's mandate in this instance.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne on Sunday "absolutely" rejected any suggestions of racism, saying the temporary measure was “entirely founded” on health advice, and in response to the burden placed on the hotel quarantine system. 

"The experience we have had in the month preceding this decision that was 57 per cent of positive cases in quarantine had been arrivals from India - up 10 per cent from the previous month," she told reporters in Canberra.

Senator Payne said she recognised the “very, very difficult circumstances” occurring in India and that Indian-Australians were worried about their families overseas.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has also defended the policy change, saying on Saturday while it was "drastic" it would ultimately "keep Australians safe".

Meanwhile, Professor Michael Toole, an epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute, said the move amounts to an admission the government has "no confidence" in the hotel quarantine system. 

"Epidemiology is only a justification if you accept the quarantine system is not working," he said.

Since November, there has been 16 incidents of leaks in hotel quarantine across five mainland cities in Australia. 

There have been calls from Labor and a number of state leaders for the federal government to invest in more purpose-built quarantine facilities, arguing the hotels are increasing public health risk because they are not designed to prevent infected people from passing on the virus to others in the same hotel.

Mr Sharma said he wholeheartedly supports calls for more purpose-built quarantine facilities that would allow more stranded Australians like him to come home. 

"We are your citizens. You have that duty towards us all - so do not disown us," he said.

More than 200,000 people have died from COVID-19 in India and it has been setting records each day with the tally of new cases.

There are about 9,000 Australians in India, including 650 who are listed as "vulnerable".

Around 20,000 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have returned from India since March last year.

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