The Morrison government has defended its international travel restrictions, maintaining they are consistent with international human rights law, despite strong criticism from the national watchdog.
The Human Rights Commission revealed it had “serious concerns” about threats to jail or fine Australian citizens returning from India under a new travel ban.
From Monday, people who have been in India within the previous fortnight before their intended arrival in Australia will face a $66,600 fine, as well as five years imprisonment for entering the country.
The government has staunchly defended the tough move saying it was necessary to protect Australia’s public health and the quarantine systems, as India records more than 300,000 new COVID-19 cases a day.
The subcontinent nation reported more than 400,000 new cases on Saturday, the highest ever daily count globally, after 10 straight days of more than 300,000 new daily cases.
But the human rights watchdog said the shock move “raises serious human rights concerns”.
“The commission holds deep concerns about these extraordinary new restrictions on Australians returning to Australia from India,” it said in a statement.
“The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified.
“The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only suitable way of dealing with the threat to public health.
“The commission is approaching the Australian government directly with its concerns.”
The watchdog has also urged a Senate COVID-19 committee to immediately review the restrictions.
A government spokeswoman said it took its obligations under international human rights law “seriously”.
“Australia’s inward and outward travel restrictions are consistent with international human rights law,” she said.
“The right not to be arbitrarily deprived of entering one’s own country can be subject to restrictions.
“Delaying or imposing restrictions to enable government to appropriately manage returns to Australia is not arbitrary.
“Restrictions necessary for the protection of public health are a valid reason for delaying or restricting return in the context of a global pandemic.”
The government will reconsider the travel ban on May 15 following advice from Australia’s chief medical officer.
But opposition defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor said flight bans alone would have been sufficient.
“I don’t believe the government should be focusing on how to criminalise or jail Australians for wanting to return,” Mr O’Connor said.
“I think that is a deliberate political strategy to distract from their failure to build quarantine facilities that would have enabled Australians returning home more effectively.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said 57 per cent of positive cases in quarantine were people returning from India, up from 10 per cent the previous month.
Senator Payne said the high infection rate had placed a “significant burden” on health and medical services in states and territories, and the quarantine program.
“It absolutely does not prove that we are not confident about the hotel quarantine arrangements,” she said in defence of the system.
“Pausing the returns process allows the system to manage those infections.”
Senator Payne said eight repatriation flights were booked to return Australians from India in May.
“When the review occurs, we will plan what the resumption of those flight will be and if we are able to increase them,” she said.
Senator Payne also ruled out Christmas Island being used to quarantine returning traveller as it was not suitable and was being used for other purposes.
Labor has called on the government to do more to assist India, as thousands of people are dying daily with COVID-19.
Australia has agreed to provide emergency medical supplies, including more than 1000 non-invasive ventilators, and has offered to supply personal protective equipment.
text by Jade Gailberger, NCA NewsWire