Australian citizens returning home from India could face up to five years in jail and fines after the government temporarily banned travel from the coronavirus-stricken country.
The health ministry said the ruling had been made "based on the proportion of people in quarantine who have acquired a Covid-19 infection in India".
This will be the first time Australians have been criminalised for returning to their country.
From May 3, anyone who has been in India within 14 days of their expected arrival date in Australia will be forbidden from entering the country and risks civil penalties and up to five years imprisonment.
"The government does not make these decisions lightly," Health Minister Greg Hunt said in the statement.
"However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of Covid-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level."
The government will reconsider the restrictions on May 15.
India’s coronavirus death toll passed 200,000 this week, and cases are nearing 19 million.
Neela Janakiramanan, an Australian surgeon with family in India said the decision to "criminalise" Australians returning from India was unbalanced and overly punitive.
"Indian-Australians are seeing this as a racist policy because we are being treated different than people from other countries who have had similar waves of infection like the U.S., the UK and Europe,” Janakiramanan said.
“It is very hard to feel anything other than targeted as an ethnic group."
According to Reuters, a spokesman for the health minister "deeply" rejected the view that stopping arrivals from India temporarily was a biased measure, saying it was a difficult but necessary decision that applied "to all people no matter their nationality, race or religion."
Human rights groups voiced their concern about the ban, recommending the government’s focus should be on advancing its quarantine system, not on punishment.
"This is an outrageous response. Australians have a right of return to their own country," Human Rights Watch’s Australia director, Elaine Pearson said in a statement.
"The government should be looking for ways to safely quarantine Australians returning.”
The new ban has left over 9,000 Australians stranded in India, 650 of whom are registered as vulnerable, officials said.
Australia has been praised for their approach to coronavirus, after closing its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020 and recording just 29,800 cases and 910 deaths.