UN human rights officials have raised “serious concerns” about the Morrison government’s ban on Australians returning from India, and the severe penalties attached to breaches.
The office of the UN high commissioner for human rights has questioned whether the controversial temporary measure – which can attract maximum penalties of five years’ imprisonment or $66,600 – is consistent with Australia’s human rights obligations.
“We have serious concerns about whether the Biosecurity Determination – and the severe penalties which can be imposed for its breach – meets Australia’s human rights obligations,” a spokesperson for the office, Rupert Colville, said early on Wednesday.
“In particular, article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is binding on Australia, provides that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”
In response to a request for comment from Guardian Australia, Colville said the UN human rights committee “has emphasised the narrow authority to refuse nationals’ return, and considers that there are few, if any, circumstances in which deprivation of the right to enter one’s own country could be reasonable.
“In assessing the issue of arbitrary deprivation, key factors to be taken into account are its necessity to achieve a legitimate end and its proportionality, including whether it is the least intrusive approach to accomplish its public health objectives.
“We note that the measure is scheduled to be reconsidered on 15 May.”
The determination – criminalising the return to Australia of anyone who has been in India in the past 14 days – was put in place by the health minister, Greg Hunt, late last Friday night, using existing biosecurity laws, but has triggered a backlash.
Amid mounting pressure over its hardline approach, including from within Coalition ranks, the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, is scheduled to meet community leaders on Wednesday to discuss the ban that is blocking 9,000 people, including 650 who are considered vulnerable, from returning to Australia.
Scott Morrison and senior ministers have said they are acting in the interests of keeping Australians safe and have played down the prospect that the harsh penalties would actually be imposed.
The deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said the prime minister had “made it quite clear yesterday that nobody’s going to be jailed”.
“Obviously, there needs to be a hardline taken as far as the overall act being in place, but nobody’s going to be jailed … at this time,” McCormack told ABC News Breakfast on Wednesday. “The prime minister made it clear.
“We have taken this pause. We have made it in the national interests. We have done it, based on the best possible medical advice. It’s until May 15. We review it constantly, as you’d expect us to do.”
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, described the government’s handling of the issue as “a shambles”, asking: “Why do you make an announcement in the middle of the night about threats of five years’ jail and considerable fines and then days later say that we won’t implement the law?”
In April the UN human rights committee requested that Australia promptly allow the return of two vaccinated citizens from the US, as the body prepared to consider their complaints about the impact of Australia’s strict caps on international arrivals.
Assisted by the leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, the citizens argue that the implementation of those caps clashes with the ICCPR.
Campaigners have previously described the situation as “dire” for a lot of Australians who were unable to return home, and say there is a sense of “losing hope”.