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Australia Melbourne mother stranded in India says she doesn't 'feel like an Australian at all'

22:26  04 may  2021
22:26  04 may  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Melbourne mum Afshan Begum has been stuck in India with her daughter, and now that the government has criminalised their attempts to return home, she doesn't "feel like an Australian at all".

"I should not have come here. It's so difficult," she told the ABC from Hyderabad, where she has been living with her five-year-old daughter Rida Fatima since March 2020.

"Being unable to come back is very bad – not able to go back to your own home, it doesn't feel like your home."

Ms Begum says she has been "crying everyday" since the government announced a temporary ban on travel from India, which has left her "very gutted".

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"Now, I don't feel like an Australian at all," she said.

The temporary ban, which began on Monday, comes as India continues to battle a COVID outbreak which has .

The death toll continues to surge past 215,000, but experts believe figures for both deaths and cases are undercounted.

Ms Begum and her partner Raees Ahmed, who is separated from his family and is back home in Melbourne, are both permanent residents in Australia.

Their daughter was due to start prep this year, but Ms Begum fears things won't be back to normal for a while.

They've already had two booked flights home cancelled, and the government's ban has added more uncertainty.

"I just want to go back so she can go to school and I can go back to learning and working," the 33-year-old said.

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Ms Begum said the threat of jail, under changes to the Biosecurity Act that mean Australians could face sentences of up to five years and heavy fines if they flee the COVID-ravaged country to return home, was a "humanitarian crime".

"That is really bad. They are totally discriminating against people," she said.

"It's so difficult, it's so disappointing."

She said there needed to be a plan to bring people who live in Australia home.

"Right now, they just don't have any plans, so this is the only good solution they could find," she said.

"They should have a long-term plan to let people, citizens and permanent residents at least, come back to their home."

'There has to be a way out'

A father who is stranded in India with his family says threatening Australians with jail for trying to return home is "a bit scary" and "harsh".

Mr Arora, who did not want to provide his first name, has tried to return home to Sydney with his pregnant wife and two-and-a-half-year-old son four times, but their flights have been cancelled every time.

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In the year and a half he has been stuck in Punjab, Mr Arora has spent his savings supporting his family, and has ended up having to borrow about $20,000 from friends to cover the cost of plane tickets and quarantine.

He is still uncertain when they will be able to travel home, but with his wife six months pregnant, he hopes it will not be too much longer.

"There has to be a way out, to make both the parties happy," he said.

"That is what I believe [the government] should figure out.

"Maybe having a remote quarantine facility, away from the cities, away from people."

Mr Arora had not heard of people using loopholes to fly back until reports emerged of Australian Indian Premier League cricketers rushing home via Doha.

He said imposing a threat of a heft fine and jail time was not a "great" decision and instead the government should have closed the loopholes to stop people trying to get back to Australia.

At the moment, Mr Arora and his family are booked on a flight scheduled to depart Delhi at the end of the month.

But he fears the ban will be extended, possibly into June.

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Government denies flight suspension is racist

The tougher restrictions have been labelled "immoral" and "un-Australian" by critics, while others have questioned the legality of banning citizens from coming home.

Former Australian cricketer Michael Slater, who was in India as a broadcaster for the Indian Premier League, has accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of having "blood on his hands" and said the ban was a "disgrace".

In a letter sent to Health Minister Greg Hunt on Friday recommending the ban, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly acknowledged it could, in the worst-case scenario, lead to the deaths of Australians in India.

Despite the announcement of possible jail time or fines, however, Mr Morrison doesn't expect anyone to be penalised.

"I think the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero," he said.

"These arrangements have always been dealt with responsibly and proportionately and that's what I'm expecting from Border Force officials.

"I've said the likelihood of any sanction, anything like that, is extremely remote, and that's what it is."

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the federal government had done a lot of work to bring Australians home from India, and the flight suspension was not racist.

"Absolutely not in any way," she said.

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"The decision, which has been made under the Biosecurity Act on the basis of the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, is a temporary pause on returns. And it is entirely founded in the advice of the Chief Medical Officer."

Ms Payne said recently 57 per cent of infected people in hotel quarantine had come from India, compared to just 10 per cent the previous month.

"The burden that that has placed on the health systems in the states and territories, including through particularly Howard Springs, is a very significant one," she said.

"And the decision to place a temporary pause, a temporary review on returning travellers from India has been to enable our systems to deal with that. Once we review that on May 15, we'll make further decisions."

Epidemiologist Michael Toole, from the Burnet Institute, said the decision to ban travel from India reflected the low level of confidence the government had in the quarantine system.

"To me it reflects a lack of confidence in the system, and I think that is a shame," Professor Toole said.

Melbourne GP and health commentator Vyom Sharma said the flight ban was disproportionate to the threat posed by returning travellers.

Ms Payne said the flight suspension did not prove the government was not confident about hotel quarantine arrangements.

"Pausing the returns process allows the system to manage those infections," she said.

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This is interesting!