SYDNEY, Australia — Before the coronavirus pandemic surged, Drisya Dilin dropped her daughter off with her parents in India, expecting to bring her to Australia a month later. That was more than a year ago. Now, any attempt to get the 5-year-old to Australia, a permanent resident, brings a threat of jail time or significant fines. She’s one of about 8,000 Australians affected by an unprecedented travel ban that began on Monday, prompted by India’s record-breaking Covid outbreak. It is believed to be the first time Australia has made it a criminal offense for its own citizens and permanent residents to enter the country. “I never expected this to happen,” said Ms. Dilin, a hospital administrator. She has tried several times to repatriate her daughter to Australia, including a canceled charter flight this month.
“She is missing us badly,” she said of her daughter. “She’s still counting days, thinking she is coming.
Much of the world has decided to cut off travel to and from India as it grapples with an uncontrolled outbreak killing thousands of people every day. But Australia, a continent with a strong preference for hard borders, has pushed isolation to a new extreme. No other democratic nation has issued a similar ban on all arrivals. For example, Britain, Germany, and the United States have restricted travel from India but have exempted citizens and permanent residents, many of whom are rushing home.
Australia’s decision — announced quietly late Friday night by officials who said it was necessary to keep the country safe — has built into a medical and moral crisis. Indian-Australians are outraged. Human rights groups have condemned the move as unnecessarily harsh and a violation of citizenship principles. Other critics have suggested that the policy was motivated by racism or, at the very least, a cultural double standard. “It’s criminalizing the situation when intense empathy is required. It’s a very tough situation,” said Sheba Nandkeolyar, a marketing executive and national chair of Women in Business for Australia India Business Council.
Australia’s latest move fits a pattern. The island has maintained some of the strictest border measures in the world since the pandemic began. No one can leave the country without official government permission. Coming home, even from a country with declining infection rates, often seems to require government connections, celebrity status, or luck, along with $30,000 for a one-way plane ticket.
There are about 35,000 Australians overseas who have been unable to make the journey either because they have been unable to obtain seats on repatriation flights or because they have been unable to afford the tickets.
In the case of India, Australia’s already opaque, unequal, and selective policy — based in part on how many people can be moved through for 14-day hotel quarantine — has become absolute. It means keeping thousands of Australians in a place where coronavirus case numbers have skyrocketed, where hospitals have run out of beds, ventilators, and medical oxygen, and where crematories are burning day and night amid a deluge of bodies.