The Morrison government's move to threaten Australians trying to return home from coronavirus-ravaged India with fines and jail time has been labelled "outrageous" and "absolutely shocking" by human rights groups and Canberra's Indian community leaders.
But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has defended the "very drastic" step, saying his government was acting on medical advice to keep Australians safe.
From Monday, anyone who had been in India within two weeks of their intended arrival in Australia would be banned from entering the country, in a extraordinary measure designed to shield the country's hotel quarantine system from a surge in imported COVID-19 cases.
Travellers who breached the ban would face fines of up to $66,600, five years in prison, or both, under an emergency declaration signed off by Health Minister Greg Hunt on Friday.
The ban will be reviewed on May 15.
The government has suspended flights from India until that date, while other transit routes have been shut off, meaning it was already almost impossible for the approximately 9000 Australians stranded on the sub-continent to return home.
The threat of criminal sanctions for people who attempt to escape the worsening crisis in India has been met with fierce condemnation.
Federation of Indian Associations of the ACT president Sunita Dhindsa thought she was reading "fake news" when media reports revealing the drastic step was under consideration were published late on Friday afternoon.
Describing the decision as "absolutely shocking", Dr Dhindsa said she felt "like we were going back to colonialism".
"Why just target people returning from India?" she said. "The maximum number of infections that had come in the past were from the USA - did we ever look at it [a ban] at that time?
"We didn't do that, did we? When the UK had lots of cases, we didn't do that. Europe? We didn't do that. What makes India so special?"
Dr Dhindsa reiterated she supported a temporary suspension of flights from India, where more than 400,000 cases and 3500 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours.
But she described as "illogical" the decision to threaten the stranded Australians with fines and prison time.
"We are all kind of flabbergasted," she said. "Where is the logic for this? How are people getting into Australia, anyway? Isn't it just an overreaction?"
Human Rights Watch's Australia director Elaine Pearson called the government's response "outrageous".
"Australians have a right of return to their own country," she said.
"The government should be looking for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments for people who are facing desperate conditions and simply trying to return home."
Mr Frydenderg defended the government's decision during a media conference in Canberra on Saturday morning.
"This is a very drastic action, but [it's] designed to keep Australians safe, it's temporary, [it's] based on medical advice and will be reviewed on 15 May," he said.
In a statement announcing the ban at 12.25am on Saturday, Mr Hunt said the government did not take the decision lightly.
"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," he said.
He said chief medical officer Paul Kelly would consider the spread of the virus in India and what it meant for Australia's hotel quarantine system when he reviewed the ban on May 15.
Labor's health spokesman Mark Butler said the ban was a "desperate grab for a headline".
"The idea of just putting citizens in jail for five years instead of doing the hard work on ensuring that our fellow citizens and permanent residents can return from a country that is currently being ravaged by COVID-19 is just not the right," Mr Butler said.
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