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Australia mulling heavy fines, five years in jail for travelers circumventing flight ban from Covid-19 hotspots – reports

Australia mulling heavy fines, five years in jail for travelers circumventing flight ban from Covid-19 hotspots – reports
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 sweeping new powers.

If imposed, it would mark the first time it has been made a criminal offence for an Australian to enter their own country.

The development comes after two Australian cricketers who had been in India arrived in the country on Thursday after transiting 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 was said to be looking into criminalizing such repatriation dashes by people who had been in a Covid-19 hotspot in the past two weeks. The punishment could involve up to AU$66,000 (US$50,908) in fines or five years in prison, according to 9News Australia.

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Reports said Health Minister Greg Hunt would invoke the Biosecurity Act (2015) – previously used to close the borders in March 2020 – as soon as Saturday. Emergency powers under the act allow Hunt to determine any requirement deemed necessary to prevent entry or spread of disease.

“India is the first country to meet the threshold of a high-risk country,” Morrison said in a statement after his ministerial cabinet met on Friday.

The statement appeared to warn of “further measures to mitigate risks of high-risk travellers entering Australia” but did not explicitly refer to taking criminal action against returnees.

By the Foreign Affairs department’s count, as many as 36,000 Australians are stuck overseas – at least 9,000 of whom are in India with over 600 classified as vulnerable – and cannot go home due to strict quarantine limits on the number of people entering the country each week.

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Nearly 20,000 people have returned to Australia from India since March 2020.

Earlier on Friday, Morrison admitted there was a “loophole” in the travel restrictions, through which the India flight ban could be circumvented – as the cricketers did – by transiting through a third country. That gap was supposedly closed on Wednesday evening.

“That flight that those cricketers were on managed to get away just before that,” Morrison told Sydney radio station 2GB. “We had information on Monday that that wasn’t possible.”

Under biosecurity control rules, authorities can require an individual to provide contact information, regularly update an officer of their health status and remain at their place of residence for a specified period of time or be isolated at a medical facility.

People can also be compelled to undergo decontamination, provide body samples for diagnosis, undertake treatment or receive a vaccination and remain in Australia for up to four weeks. Failure to comply with a control order draws the same penalties as above.

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The opposition’s home affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, said Morrison owed an explanation to the 9,000 citizens “left stranded in India.”

“If he had kept his promise and got all the stranded Australians home by Christmas, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” Keneally told local media.

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