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India travel ban: citizenship comes a distant second place

  • 11 May 2021
  On April 15 this year, the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Committee ruled on the case of two petitioners of FreeAndOpenAustralia.org (formerly StrandedAussies.org) that the Morrison government had to ‘facilitate and ensure their prompt return to Australia.’

The petitioners had been represented by foremost defender of human rights Geoffrey Robertson QC. The central argument to the UNHRC: that Australia was in breach of Articles 12(4) and 2(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 12(4) enumerates the principle that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country; the second provides for ‘effective’ remedies to be granted to those whose rights and freedoms have breached under the ICCPR. The petitioners also freely admitted that they had no issue with quarantining for 14 days on returning to Australia.

The decision was coolly received in Australia. A measure of how seriously the Morrison government has treated it can be gathered by the temporary ban on flights from India as part of a Biosecurity Determination. India is currently facing a crisis of staggering proportions, with daily rates of COVID-19 infections soaring over 400,000.

Using measures available to it under the Biosecurity Act 2015, the government has also threated imposing fines up to $66,000 and potential prison sentences up to 5 years. ‘We have taken drastic action to keep Australians safe,’ explained the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg after the announcement. According to a statement from Health Minister Greg Hunt, it was ‘critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of COVID-19 cases in quarantine is reduced to a manageable level.’

The ban has been described as everything from being disproportionate to being unduly discriminatory. Former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane observed that no such ‘differential treatment’ was ‘extended to countries such as the United States, the UK, and any other European country even though the rates of infection were very high and the danger of its arrivals from those countries was very high.’ Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt was convinced that the ban had an overpowering smell of ‘racism’.

Internationally, the ban has not gone unnoticed. UNHRC spokesperson Rupert Colville expressed ‘serious concerns about whether the biosecurity determination and the severe penalties which can be imposed on its breach — meets Australia’s human rights obligations.’

While the ban is unique in its severity, it is not divorced from broader tendencies as to how citizenship has been appraised during