The Australian government is reportedly considering fining and jailing its citizens if they return home from Covid-ravaged countries under biosecurity rules that would give authorities new powers.
If enforced, it would mark the first time a criminal offense has been committed for an Australian to enter their country.
The development comes after two Australian cricketers who had been to India arrived in the country Thursday after passing through Doha, Qatar, bypassing a government ban instituted earlier this week on all direct flights from India. until mid-May.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government is said to have been trying to criminalize such repatriation races by people who had been to a Covid-19 hotspot in the past two weeks. The punishment could result in up to A $ 66,000 (US $ 50,908) in fines or five years in prison, according to 9News Australia.
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Reports say Health Minister Greg Hunt will invoke the Biosecurity Act (2015) – previously used to close borders in March 2020 – as soon as Saturday. The emergency powers provided by law allow Hunt to determine any requirements it deems necessary to prevent disease entry or spread.
“India is the first country to reach the threshold of a high-risk country”, Morrison said in a statement after his ministerial cabinet met on Friday.
The statement seemed to warn “Further measures to mitigate the risks of high-risk travelers entering Australia” but he did not explicitly refer to taking criminal action against returnees.
According to the Foreign Affairs Department’s tally, as many as 36,000 Australians are stranded overseas – at least 9,000 of whom are in India with over 600 classified as vulnerable – and are unable to return home due to strict quarantine limits on the number of people who they enter the country every week.
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Nearly 20,000 people have returned to Australia from India since March 2020.
On Friday, Morrison admitted there was a “Loophole” in travel restrictions, through which the ban on flights to India could be circumvented – as cricketers have done – by transiting through a third country. That gap would be closed on Wednesday night.
“That flight those cricketers were on got away just before,” Morrison told Sydney radio station 2GB. “We received information on Monday that this was not possible.”
Under biosecurity control regulations, authorities can require an individual to provide contact information, regularly update an official of their health status, and remain in the place of residence for a specified period of time, or be isolated at a medical facility .
People may also be forced to undergo decontamination, provide body samples for diagnosis, undertake treatment or receive a vaccination, and stay in Australia for up to four weeks. Failure to comply with a control order entails the same penalties as above.
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Opposition spokesperson for home affairs, Kristina Keneally, said Morrison owed an explanation to 9,000 citizens “Stranded left in India.”
“If he kept his promise and brought all the stranded Australians home by Christmas, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” Keneally told local media.
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