Last week Australia suddenly imposed a travel ban on people coming back from India. Flights scheduled to fly from India bound for Sydney and Darwin were cancelled. When, despite the travel ban, some people managed to arrive in Australia by first flying from India to another country, the Morrison government quickly invoked its powers under the Biosecurity Act and announced that people could be Jailed for up to five years or fined for up to $66,000 or both if they were to breach the travel ban in any way including arriving from India via another country if they have been in India in the 14 days preceding to their arrival in Australia.
Critics of the government say the ban is inhumane and the government has a duty of care to its citizens stuck in India. They also point out that the government did not impose any such ban last year on Australians people coming back from the US, the UK and Italy when similar situations prevailed in those countries.
The government it seems did not envisage the response from various stakeholders – the Labor Opposition, the Greens, Australian Medical Association, Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia and many more.
From the Labor party, Peter Khalil, member for Wills in Victoria, electorate of former Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke – took up the fight for the Indian Australians stuck in India. His heartfelt message to those stuck in India that they were ‘not forgotten’ and he was ‘fighting for them’, (see his interview with Bharat Times here) was very reassuring to the Indian Australians both here in Australia and in India.
In just a week of announcing the travel ban, on Tuesday morning (4 May), the Prime Minister Scott Morrison seemed to be moving away from the description of punishment announced for people breaching the travel ban. Mr Morrison had said it was unlikely anyone would be charged for breaching the ban, and that he expected it to be implemented “proportionately”.
It seemed evident to the observers the Opposition’s attack on the government’s unfair and inappropriate travel ban leaving Australia citizens exposed was having an effect. Peter Khalil argued the sole purpose of the travel ban was to distract Australians’ attention away from Scott Morrison’s failure to organize appropriate quarantine for Australians.
Today, speaking on ABC TV, the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said “nobody’s going to be jailed,” on Wednesday.
Despite the shift in the narrative, the intent of the government’s dialogue still seems to inappropriately unfair to Australian Indians.
“We made that decision based on medical advice. We didn’t want plane loads of people coming back and swamping our quarantine system” the Deputy PM said.
The use of the word “our” quarantine system speaks volumes of how the script writers view Australians citizens stuck in India.
The government is insisting they are continuously assessing the situation in India and flights could resume as early as 15 May.
For many, it is not good enough.
Peter Khalil says the government could have set up federal quarantine facilities and should have been done a year ago.
“Never before in our Federation has a government, a Commonwealth Government, made it illegal for Australian citizens to come home. At the height of the spikes in the US, the UK, Italy, this decision was not made to put a $66,000 fine or up to five years jail term for Australians wanting to come home” Peter Khalil argued.
“We should be all treated equally by our government”, Mr Khalil added. “I don’t want to see a precedent set where citizens of a country or another country are treated differently although we are all Australian citizens”.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews says the government is reviewing the temporary travel ban to India “every single day”.
“How we’re going to know who has been vaccinated, which vaccination they have had, which countries they have come from, whether it will be hotel quarantine when they get here, whether it will be home quarantine — those are all the issues that are being discussed across government,” she added.
With what Mr Khalil argues, this anxiety over vaccination of Australian Indians arriving home would not be a thing to worry about as all of them would simply go through the quarantine.
Some community leaders believe the Australian government was treating Indian Australians as second class citizens.
Speaking to Bharat Times and addressing the issue of different treatment for those Australian citizens stuck in India, Mr Khalil said, “they are not forgotten, I am fighting for them, their friends and family that are here and their families back in India to make sure that this government is held to account… that they do their job to provide repatriation and pathways to Australian citizens stuck in India to be quarantined safely here in Australia.”
Visibly under pressure, the government is looking at measure to ensure the health and safety of Australian citizens in India, possibly vaccinating them in India, to get them ready for travel as and when that becomes possible.