Human rights concerns over India decision

·3-min read

The Australian Human Rights Commission is calling on the federal government to prove that its decision to fine or jail Australians attempting to return from India is "not discriminatory".

The commission says it holds deep concerns about the "extraordinary" new restrictions.

Travellers from India have been blocked from entering Australia until at least May 15, when the decision will be re-assessed.

Indirect routes via Doha, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have also been closed off as the daily tally of COVID-19 cases in India nears 400,000.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has said anyone attempting to defy the rules will be hit with fines of up to $66,600, five years in prison or both.

More than 9000 Australians in India are registered as wanting to return, including 650 considered vulnerable.

"The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified," the Human Rights Commission said in a statement on Saturday.

"The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health."

Human Rights Watch's Australia director Elaine Pearson has called the government's response "outrageous".

"Australians have a right of return to their own country," she said.

The government's decision is based on the number of positive cases from India detected in the country's quarantine facilities, Mr Hunt said. More than 150 overseas-acquired infections have been reported Australia-wide in the past week, many from India.

"The government does not make these decisions lightly," he said in a statement.

"However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of COVID-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level."

Greens leader Adam Bandt compared the government's measures on travel from India to other countries which have also experienced rampant coronavirus surges.

"There weren't these threats of jail time when dealing with predominantly white countries," he said.

His colleague Sarah Hanson-Young said on Twitter she was "horrified" that the government would think its decision was acceptable in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

Labor has backed the flight ban as the "right call" but questioned the decision to criminalise citizens for trying to return home.

"It'd be a big call to make it a crime for Australians trying to get home," senior MP Jason Clare said.

"We charted a flight to Wuhan (in China) to get Aussies out and took them to Christmas Island. Why aren't we doing that now?"

Tanya Plibersek said the situation showed Prime Minister Scott Morrison should have set up federal quarantine facilities a year ago.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Saturday defended the move, saying the situation in India was dire and escalating.

More than 200,000 people have died and the country has been setting records each day with the tally of new cases. Hospitals are overwhelmed and oxygen supplies are low.

Asked if it was irresponsible then to leave Australians there and effectively lock them out of their own country, Mr Frydenberg said the measure was drastic but temporary.

"The best thing we can do is get supplies into India, which is what we're doing - ventilators, masks, other PPE equipment," he told reporters.

"We're doing everything we can to support India at this very difficult time (but) we've also got to protect Australians."

More countries may soon receive similar treatment, with Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly and foreign affairs officials working to compile a list of high-risk countries for consideration.