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Some countries threaten citizens with imprisonment if they return from India

SYDNEY – The wave of sweeping India Covid-19 is causing some countries that contain much of the virus to threaten their own citizens with imprisonment or large fines if they try to return home from the South Asian country.

Australia has banned travel from India because it fears that positive cases will overwhelm its quarantine system, which has largely kept the country free of coronavirus. Last month, New Zealand temporarily banned all travelers from India before changing its policy to allow its citizens to return.

Australia’s travel ban from India is temporary and must expire on May 15, at which time the government may decide to extend it. The ban does not apply to people who have been outside India for 14 days. But those who break the rules could face up to five years in prison or a fine of about $ 50,000.

Violators of the New Zealand ban could also face fines and prison sentences, although officials in the South Pacific say no one has broken the law.

Some legal experts and scholars have said such moves raise serious human rights concerns and that politicians̵

7; willingness to restrict individual freedoms when the pandemic is largely internally controlled could set a disturbing precedent.

The Australian Commission on Human Rights, an independent government organization, said staff should publicly justify the new policy and show that it is not discriminatory.

The United States and other countries are intervening to help as new cases of coronavirus in India continue to set daily records. The crisis there underscores how a country’s tide could have ripple effects in the global fight against the pandemic. Photo: Adnan Abidi / Reuters

“They have gone to extremes – not only closing the door, but adding potential fines and imprisonment,” said Justin Nolan, a law professor and director of the Australian Institute of Human Rights at the University of New South Wales. “I do not think we are acting consistently with our international human rights obligations.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the travel ban was only aimed at protecting Australia’s public health.

Australia is using its geography to effectively control the coronavirus, largely closing its international border and limiting incoming flights. For most of the pandemic, citizens and permanent residents are allowed to return if they are quarantined in government hotels or other housing, allowing authorities to monitor new virus arrivals. Tourists are usually not allowed in the country.

More on the Covid-19 pandemic

As India struggles with the coronavirus wave, New Zealand said in early April that it would suspend all travel from the country, including its own citizens for the first time. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the relocation would be temporary as officials determine how to deal with the growing number of cases. Two weeks later, when officials modified the policy to allow citizens to return, they said the ban on all other travelers from India would reduce the number of positive cases coming to New Zealand by 75%.

Australian authorities have said a stricter ban on Indian travelers is needed so as not to overwhelm the quarantine system with positive cases. On Monday, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said staff had sought to maintain the number of positive cases in 2% of people in the quarantine system throughout the pandemic, but that number has risen in recent weeks.

At one facility, Mr Kelly said that more than 15% of people had tested positive for the virus and that more than 70% of these cases were from passengers who had recently returned from India.

“They reached a point where they couldn’t, literally couldn’t take more positive cases,” Mr Kelly said. “Not only what is happening in India, but also what was bringing into the country in terms of the stress on our hotel quarantine.”

Government officials said they had worked hard to bring Australians home and that 500,000 had returned home since the start of the pandemic, many of whom had been specially organized by the government to repatriate them. There are still around 9,000 Australians in India currently registered with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return. This includes permanent residents.

Despite assurances from officials that the ban in India is not arbitrary, some Indo-Australians consider the move discriminatory, noting that Australian citizens traveling from other countries such as the United States and Britain – who have also struggled with serious outbreaks. early in the pandemic – he was not barred from returning or threatened with imprisonment and fines.

Roja Iyengar’s husband has been booked on a return flight to Australia from India in late May, but Ms Iyengar is already worried that her husband, an Australian permanent resident, will not be able to return as planned. Ms. Iyengar is concerned that she is at risk of catching a coronavirus if she stays in India.

Ms Iyengar said she understood that Australian leaders were trying to keep the country safe and that they had done a good job controlling the pandemic at home. But she said the recent travel ban in India worries her.

“The day we booked our ticket, we were so happy and the kids were like, ‘Daddy’s finally here,'” said Ms. Iyengar, 47, who lives in Melbourne. “And then it completely shattered us.”

Although thousands of Australians are still stuck abroad, many Australians support the government’s coronavirus policy. A recent study by the Lowy Institute think tank found that 59% believe the federal government has done enough to help Australians return home from abroad. The poll found that 95% of Australians believe the government has done well or quite well with the pandemic.

Some Australians have complained to the UN Human Rights Committee that Australia’s restrictive measures at the border violate an international treaty that guarantees citizens the right to return to their own country. In test cases, the commission said the Australian government should facilitate the return of sedentary citizens, according to a group advocating for Australian citizens abroad.

“This certainly challenges our basic concept of citizenship,” said Michael Bradley, a managing partner at Marque Lawyers, a Sydney-based commercial law firm that also handles refugee cases, about the recent travel ban in India. “If so, then there is certainly nothing to stop them from doing it again in a different context, which I think should affect us all.”

Write to Mike Black at mike.cherney@wsj.com

Corrections and amplifications
The name of the Prime Minister of New Zealand is Jacinda Ardern. In an earlier version of this article, her first name, Jacindra, was misspelled. (Corrected May 3)

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