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Australia bans its citizens in India from returning amid the Covid crisis

SYDNEY, Australia – Before the coronavirus pandemic escalated, Driss Dylin left her daughter with her parents in India, expecting to bring her to Australia a month later. That was more than a year ago.

Now, any attempt to take the 5-year-old to Australia, where she is a permanent resident, carries the risk of imprisonment or large fines.

She is one of about 8,000 Australians affected by the unprecedented travel ban, which began on Monday, caused by the record explosion of the Indian Covid. It is believed that for the first time Australia is a crime for its own citizens and permanent residents to enter the country.

“I never expected this to happen,” said Ms. Dilin, a hospital administrator who has repeatedly tried to repatriate her daughter to Australia, including with a charter flight that was canceled this month.

“We miss her badly,” she said of her daughter. “She’s still counting the days, thinking she’s coming.”

Much of the world has decided to interrupt travel to and from India as it struggles with an uncontrolled outbreak that kills thousands of people every day. But Australia, a continent with a strong preference for hard borders, has pushed isolation to a new extreme. No other democracy has issued such a ban on all arrivals. Britain, Germany and the United States, for example, have restricted travel from India but freed citizens and permanent residents, many of whom are in a hurry to return home.

Australia’s decision – announced quietly late Friday night by officials who said it was necessary to keep the country safe – turned into a medical and moral crisis.

The Indo-Australians are outraged. Human rights organizations have condemned the move as unnecessarily rude and a violation of citizenship principles. Other critics have suggested that the policy is motivated by racism, or at least a cultural double standard.

“This criminalizes the situation when intensive empathy is required. This is a very difficult situation, “said Sheba Nandkeolar, Chief Marketing Officer and National Chair of Women in Business, for the Australian Business Council in India.

Australia’s latest move is in line with the model. The island has maintained some of the strictest border measures in the world since the beginning of the pandemic. No one can leave the country without the official permission of the government. Returning home, even from a country with a declining infection rate, often seems to require government connections, celebrity status or luck, along with $ 30,000 for a one-way plane ticket.

There are about 35,000 Australians abroad who have failed to travel because they have not been able to get seats on repatriation flights, or because they have not been able to afford tickets.

In the case of India, Australia’s already opaque, uneven and selective policy – based in part on how many people can be relocated for a 14-day hotel quarantine – has become absolute. This means keeping thousands of Australians in a place where the number of coronavirus cases has jumped sharply; where hospitals are left without beds, ventilators and medical oxygen; and where crematoria burn day and night amid a flood of bodies.

Australian authorities have said the new restrictions – with fines of up to five years in prison and nearly 60,000 Australian dollars ($ 46,300) in fines under Australian biosafety law – will prevent the quarantine system in hotels.

“Fifty-seven percent of positive quarantine cases are from India,” Foreign Minister Maris Payne said Sunday. “This placed a very, very significant burden on health and medical services in countries and territories.”

But for Australians in India, politics is a staggering lack of concern.

“I thought our passports would take care of us,” said Emily McBurney, an Australian wellness coach who has been stuck in New Delhi since March 2020 and has been suffering from Covid-19 for more than a month. She said the Australian government owed more to its citizens, adding that if her health deteriorated, she feared she would not have access to oxygen or an intensive care bed.

Ms. McBurney described the situation in India as similar to being in a war zone. Every morning he wakes up from the suffocating mist of cremation smoke and picks fruit and collects eggs from a local farm because it is almost impossible to buy groceries due to the declining supply of fresh produce.

In Australia, a country of 25 million that has less than 300 active Covid cases and where everyday life has been almost normal for months, most people support a strict border policy. In a recent poll by the Lowy Institute, which surveyed Australians before the outbreak of India intensified, the vast majority said they were pleased with the way Australia handled the pandemic. Only one in three respondents said the government needed to do more to help Australians return home during the pandemic.

Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowee Institute’s Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program, said many Australians have been led to believe that those abroad must have returned by now or have chosen to stay where they are more personal. or professional reasons.

The apparent lack of sympathy is partly due to a lack of understanding, Ms Qassam said. “More than a third of Australians were born abroad,” she said. “Closed borders mean separated families.”

Human Rights Watch called Australia’s ban a “scandalous response” that undermines the concept of citizenship by denying people the right to return to their country.

The Australian Commission on Human Rights said the travel ban “raises serious human rights concerns” and called on the government to show that the move was not discriminatory.

While India has the largest number of new infections in the world, it also has a huge population. The infection rate per capita is still lower than in the United States and many parts of Europe during their last peaks.

Ms Dilin, who lives in Sydney, where she works in the hospital’s response department at Kovid, said Australia’s treatment of people in India was clearly unfair.

“When the United States had the same problems, when Britain had many cases, they never stopped anyone coming back,” she said.

Aviram Vijh, a Sydney-based Indian designer and Australian citizen, said the government’s actions were deadly.

“Obviously this is a disproportionate move,” Mr Vijh said. His cousin, also an Australian citizen, is stuck in India with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, he added. Both his cousin and his wife have Covid-19.

“He’s in a lot of trouble,” he said of his cousin. “And there’s no way forward.”

Neha Sandhu, an Australian citizen who managed to return home from India in June, said that along with Ms. Dilin’s daughter, there were several other unaccompanied minors affected by the ban, many of whom had visited a family in India and now could not return home.

“It’s completely inhumane,” said Ms. Sandhu, who runs a Facebook group with more than 17,000 followers for the rest of India.

However, Australian officials say the move is based solely on a public health risk assessment. Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said the ban was temporary and should be lifted on May 15, although it could be extended.

Ms Qassam of the Lowey Institute said the denial of the right to return for Australians in India was the first major policy test that most Australians quietly accepted. She wondered if Australians would be more empathetic once they understood the details.

“Australians have historically supported strict border restrictions, although these questions have never been asked of their own citizens,” she said. “The idea of ​​a fortress in Australia is politically popular, but it has not been tested in terms of criminalizing citizens for simply returning.”

Damien Cave reported from Sydney, Australia and Livia Albeck-Ripka from Melbourne, Australia.

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