Australia abandons citizens in India, making it illegal to return.

Australia has abandoned thousands of its citizens in India, with government outlawing their return, with the threat of 5-years jail time – criminalising flying home.

Some 9,000 Australians are stuck in India, with many trying to get home and have been since last year, as the virus crisis grows in the sub-continent. Around 600 of those are classified as “vulnerable”.

In the early hours, Canberra released a statement saying any Australian who returns will face jail time, un unprecedented step in Australian history.

Health minister Greg Hunt, using the powers of the Biosecurity Act, said that anyone who attempted to defy the rules would be hit with fines of up to $66,600 or five years in prison, or both.

Australia had already banned direct flights from India to Australia. Some citizens, including Australian cricketers, had flown back to Australia via hubs like Dubai in recent days.

The move appears to be in response to in-direct travel back from India.

According to statements, Australia’s ‘national cabinet’ – a co-opeartive decision making body of State Premiers, Territory Leaders and the Prime Minister and some key cabinet members – said “further measures to mitigate risks of high-risk travellers entering Australia”.

The criminalisation of returning from India to Australia was a sudden and shocking decision for many.

“The government does not make these decisions lightly,” Hunt 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.”

Human Rights Watch’s Australia Director Elaine Pearson said the response “outrageous” according to The Canberra Times.

“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.”

“Our families are quite literally dying in India….. to have absolutely no way of getting them out – this is abandonment,” GP and health commentator Dr Vyom Sharmer told BBC World.

The analysis from the BBC Australia correspondent sums the situation up:

There’s an inscription inside the front jacket of every Australian passport. It calls for protection and assistance for citizens when they’re in strife abroad.

“The Commonwealth of Australia… requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer, an Australian citizen, to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need.”

Who would have thought that Australians are now struggling to “pass freely” back into their own country? Re-entering and living in your nation is a basic aspect of citizenship. A right of return is recognised in international law, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.