Australian citizens and residents who have been in India within 2 weeks of the date they plan to return home will be banned from entering Australia by Monday (May 3) and the ones who disobey will face fines and jail, government officials said.
The temporary emergency determination, issued late on Friday, may be the first time Australia has managed to get a criminal offence because of its citizens to come back home.
The move is part of strict measures to avoid travellers to Australia from the world's second most populous nation as it contends with a surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
The restrictions enter into effect from May 3 and breaching the ban risks civil penalties or more to five years imprisonment, Health Minister Greg Hunt said in a statement.
"The government will not make these decisions lightly," Hunt said." However, it is important the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the amount of COVID-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level."
The federal government will reconsider the restrictions on May 15.
India's coronavirus death toll passed 200,000 this week, and cases are nearing 19 million - almost 8 million since February - as virulent new strains have coupled with "super-spreader" events such as political rallies and religious festivals.
Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian surgeon with family in India said the decision to "criminalise" Australians returning from India was disproportionate and overly punitive.
"Indian-Australians are seeing this as a racist policy because we are being treated unique of persons from other countries who've had similar waves of infection just like the U.S., the UK and Europe. It is extremely hard to feel anything apart from targeted as an ethnic group."
Human rights groups also voiced indignation at the ban, suggesting the government's focus ought to be on enhancing its quarantine system, not on punishment.
"That is an outrageous response. Australians have a right of go back to their own country," Human Rights Watch's Australia director, Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
"The government ought to be looking for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning from India, rather than focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments."
Australia, which has no community transmissions, on Tuesday introduced a non permanent suspension of direct flights from India to avoid more virulent COVID-19 variants entering the united states.
However, some Australians, including cricketers Adam Zampa and Kane Richardson, returned via Doha.
Tuesday's move had left a lot more than 9,000 Australians stranded in India, 650 of whom are registered as vulnerable, officials said.
Australia has all but stamped out the coronavirus after closing its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020, recording just 29,800 cases and 910 deaths.