Photo: Handover of next UN World Data Forum to UAE. Credit: Stats SA - Photo: 2021

Australians Blast Government For “Racist” Indian Flight Ban

By Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY (IDN) — A controversial ban on flights from Covid-hit India landing in Australia, has blocked around 9,000 Australians from returning home. Most of them are Australians of Indian origin, while there are also a handful of Australian elite cricketers, coaches, and other officials currently taking part in the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket extravaganza.

This unprecedented move of banning its own citizens from returning home has angered many Australians, who have also branded this move by Prime Minister Scott Morrison government as “racist” because no such bans were imposed on flights from the UK and US during the peak of the pandemic there.

The ban came into effect on May 3 and will be in force at least until May 15. Those who ignore the ban and come to Australia through other routes such as via Doha, face a 5-year jail sentence or a fine of AUD 66,600 (USD 51,500).

Prime Minister Morrison said in a radio interview on May 3 that the ban is only a temporary measure, and it is to “ensure that we don’t get a third wave here in Australia and that our quarantine system could remain strong”.

While supporting the travel ban, Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly has admitted that these restrictions may result in the death of some Australians who are stranded in India. These comments have attracted fierce criticisms from Australians from both sides of the political spectrum.

Former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone from Morrison’s own Liberal Party speaking on ABC TV’s Drum on May 3 defended the government arguing it is not a racist policy. “It’s not a ban on people of Indian origin”, she argued, pointing out that Australians currently in India, went on their own accord. “Australians will not forgive them if they bring the virus back. They have no right to bring virus here.”

But, disability advocate, Nicole Lee appearing on the same program pointed out to Vanstone, “we didn’t stop our citizens from the UK and the US coming back (at the peak of the pandemic there) and spreading the virus here—and they did. Now we are blocking the lifting of patents on vaccines”. This is a reference to Australia supporting its western allies at the WTO in blocking the Indian and South African resolution to lift patents on Covid-19 vaccines.

Fellow panelist, Pawan Luthra, CEO of India Link Media Group, pointed out that when Indians like himself took up Australian citizenship they had to renounce Indian citizenship. He argued this is a morality issue and “we have no rights to live in India as citizens” and Australia is their home now. He pointed out that in the Australian passport it says in its first page to other governments “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”.

“Protection is what Australians in India need now. Health system is crumbling there,” argues Luthra. “This virus is not going to go away by May 15, it’s going to be there for a long time.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission has issued a statement saying the decision to use the Bio-security Act to impose a temporary ban on citizens returning home “raises serious human rights concerns”.  In a statement, it said, “the need for such restrictions should be publicly justified (and) the government must show that these measures are not discriminatory”.

Dr Kylie Moore Gilbert, an Australian who was held in an Iranian jail for two years and released late last year said in a Tweet: “I know what it means to be rescued from a Covid-riddled overseas hellhole and brought back to Australia (yes into quarantine). This outrageous policy is immoral, unjustified, and completely unAustralian.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne rejects such accusations. She said that the “temporary” ban was put in place because of high rates of infections among Australians returning from India, and arguing it was placing a “significant burden” on the quarantine system.

Australian Guardian has refuted this claim, pointing out that India has far fewer cases per capita than the UK and US at their peak in December last year, and the Australian government did not stop flights from there at the time. It also noted that the variant found in India is not as serious as the one that came out from the UK into Australia.

“UK and US were responsible for a greater share of the overseas acquired cases in Australia at the height of their outbreaks,” said Guardian Australia, adding, “significantly more residents returned from UK and US in the 3 months to January than from India.”

Melbourne GP and health commentator Vyom Sharma told ABC TV that the move appears inconsistent with Australia’s response to peaks of the virus in the US and Europe. “What strikes me as bizarre is that the US in January were returning to us Australians, in much higher quantities of people, who were testing positive, yet there was no talk of a plan to banning those flights then.”

Former Australian cricketer Michael Slater, who was commentating in India for the IPL savaged Morrison for banning Australians from returning to their homeland from India, saying he will have “blood on his hands”. In a social media post, Slater, who has been blocked from returning to Australia and threatened with a jail sentence said: “How dare you treat us like this? How about you sort out (your)quarantine system? I had government permission to work on the IPL but I now have government neglect. It’s a disgrace”.

Responding to Slater’s comments in a TV interview today, Morrison argued that the rapid escalation of cases arriving from India has put enormous pressure on the quarantine regime but denied it showed the system’s weakness. “Every system is going to face its stresses and I’m not going to break the system,” Morrison said. “What I’m going to do is take proportionate action to protect the system so I can bring more Australians home and keep Australians safe for the longer term.”

Slater meanwhile has gone to the Maldives, to spend time there until Australia lifts the ban on those flying back from India. He may be able to fly back to Australia in 14 days’ time, with a negative PCR test for Covid-19. Meanwhile, there are 9000 other Australians in India awaiting to return home, with about 650 of them considered vulnerable according to the government’s own estimates.

With Morrison trying to tone down his rhetoric to jail or fine returning Australians, former Labour Party leader Bill Shorten told Channel Nine TV that what Slater is saying is what a lot of people in Australia are thinking. “Mr Morrison should have created special quarantine facilities here. He’s had 16 months. Michael Slater is just telling the truth,” Shorten told Nine Network.

Meanwhile Amnesty International (AI) has slammed the Morrison government for the treatment of stranded Australians in India. “It’s not just breaching human rights, but, it is just an utter disregard and contempt for the way they are working with stranded Australians,” AI’s Australian spokesman Joel MacKay said in a media interview on the weekend. [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 May 2021]

Photo: Indian-Australians Stranded in India. Credit: The Canberra Times.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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