Stranded Australians in India feel ‘betrayed, abandoned’ by coronavirus travel ban
When Australian citizen Vikas Mahajan travelled to India in February with his wife and two small children to help look after his elderly parents, he did not expect to be caught up in the country's devastating second wave - or to be banned from returning home to Melbourne.
"We're feeling betrayed and unfairly targeted by the federal government's controversial decision. The Australian government has abdicated all its responsibility towards its citizens and left us all to die here," the 41-year-old entrepreneur said from Jalandhar in Punjab.
Mahajan is one about 9,000 Australian citizens stranded in India facing a hefty fine or up to five years in jail if they breach the country's coronavirus regulations by returning home. According to the Australian Associated Press, about 650 of them are listed as "vulnerable".
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With direct flights also banned, a Facebook page titled Australians stuck in India has attracted nearly 18,000 members, with many angry posts and pleas from desperate people to be evacuated from the country.
The move has been widely condemned and the government has been accused of racism and discrimination, while legal experts have questioned the legality of the unprecedented policy.
"There has been an inconsistency in the way the Australian government has treated arrivals from different countries during the pandemic," said Mumbai-based lawyer Shrikant Nahate, who specialises in immigration laws.
He pointed out that last year when Covid-19 was raging in the US, the UK and other European countries, "we didn't see a ban on arrivals of people from Europe, let alone criminal penalties being threatened to Australian citizens seeking to return home".
Due to this discrimination, "a legal challenge can be mounted by an aggrieved party on an infringement of constitutional rights for citizens to freely return to Australia", Nahate said, adding that the relative success of the hotel quarantine programme in restricting the spread of Covid-19 proved there was no need for the harsh policy.
The Australian government has defended the controversial measures, saying the border rules were designed to prevent the virus entering the country and ease pressure on the quarantine system due to the "unmanageable" number of citizens arriving from India with Covid-19. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison tried to address the criticism amid calls to overturn the restrictions, saying it was unlikely travellers from India would face the maximum penalties.