(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

The federal government’s move to ban Australian citizens returning from India is unprecedented. Despite an inability to get all Australians stranded overseas home, we’ve never threatened citizens with a criminal conviction — up to five years in jail — for trying to come home.

And while the government has claimed that its heavy-handed response to the situation is based on health advice, chief medical officer Paul Kelly told the ABC this morning he’d never recommended fines and jail time.

Morrison has defended the potential prison sentences, arguing that nobody has gone to jail under our Biosecurity Act in the last year. Still, the law is an incredibly tough deterrent. While sentencing judges get a fair bit of discretion, a five-year prison sentence wouldn’t be uncommon for a sexual assault or some drug dealing offences. A Sydney actor recently got five years for killing a man with a samurai sword.

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So why is the government potentially criminalising people returning from India, despite never restricting flights out of the US and UK when COVID-19 cases per capita were at similar levels? Foreign Minister Marise Payne says it has nothing to do with racism, as human rights organisations lined up to slam the new laws. Even Andrew Bolt of all people says the current restrictions “stink of racism”.

But even if the decision was based squarely on health advice, it reveals an uncomfortable truth: throughout the pandemic, Australia’s toughest restrictions have disproportionately impacted immigrant, non-white populations.

From Wuhan to Christmas Island

Back in January 2020, during the earliest days of the pandemic, Australian citizens being evacuated from Wuhan were quarantined on Christmas Island. The offshore detention centre, currently being used to house a single Tamil asylum seeker family, was not used for people coming from any other country at any other point during the pandemic.

The Christmas Island quarantine could be explained as the result of panic. It was enacted at the start of the pandemic before the government knew what was going on. But the racialised impacts of COVID-19 policies continued throughout the last year.

A key part of Australia’s success crushing the first COVID-19 wave was through tough stay-at-home restrictions. But those restrictions weren’t evenly policed. In NSW, more fines were doled out in poorer areas with high Indigenous and immigrant populations like Mount Druitt and Blacktown in Western Sydney. In Victoria, it was a similar situation with young men from Sudanese and Aboriginal communities over-represented in the fine data.

Tower lockdowns and flight bans

Perhaps one of the more egregious bits of pandemic overreach came last July, when Victorian Premier Dan Andrews abruptly locked down nine public housing towers as the city’s second wave started to get out of control.

People in the towers, many of whom are immigrants from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa were given little warning, no opportunity to shop for food and medical supplies, and were faced with busloads of police outside their front doors.

As Crikey reported at the time, people in the towers would have starved without armies of volunteers. Many also felt put off by the police presence, given the long history of tension between young African-Australian men and authorities in the area.

In December, the Victorian ombudsman found the state government’s tower lockdown breached human rights laws.

The tower lockdowns and the flight bans have all been justified based on the health advice, and the need to keep Australians safe. But by now, there’s a clear pattern to how those health-based decisions pan out, with immigrant communities bearing the brunt of the toughest restrictions.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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