Australians stuck in India for several months due to the COVID-19 induced travel restrictions have cautiously welcomed the announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison supplementing Australia’s quarantine capacity as “some good news,” but are quick to add that their sense of despair continues. “We were promised that we would be home by Christmas, did the Australian government mean Christmas 2021?” asks one person stranded in New Delhi for several months.
In an attempt to bring Australians stranded overseas due to travel restrictions to combat COVID-19, hundreds more will be able to use the Howard Springs quarantine facility in Northern Territory.
This will equate to an additional 200 stranded Australians per week being able to return home from India, United Kingdom and South Africa
What does this mean for Australians stuck in India?
Whilst more than 29,000 Australians still remain stranded overseas due to Australia’s inflight lockdown since March as part of its coronavirus strategy, the largest majority remain stranded in India.
Australia’s Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge had acknowledged their plight in an interview with SBS Punjabi this week, saying, “We understand the difficulty that they are under, we absolutely do and we want to ensure that they get back to Australia as quickly as possible.”
But Saurabh Jolly, a Melbourne businessman who remains in New Delhi despite several attempts at booking flights and losing thousands of dollars when they were cancelled at the last moment, is bitterly disappointed by today’s announcement.
“Yes I welcome the news that more people can come back to Australia but this is a drop in the ocean. Out of an additional 200 returning passengers per week, how many will be from India? Even if numbers are allocated proportionally, only 50 or 100 more people will manage to travel back per week, and it will take years to clear the backlog,” he told SBS Punjabi.
“Six months into the pandemic, I expected a transformational announcement from the Australian government so we could all be back home for Christmas as they had promised. But did they mean Christmas 2021, because I don’t see us returning home any time soon even with these new arrangements.”
“But my question is, will the flight bookings work on a lottery system or will some Australian government department decide who gets to travel first?”
He says the cost of the quarantine program at Howard Springs is also questionable.
“Are we being asked to pay $5,000 per family for a non-5 star accommodation in a remote part of Australia? It started as a free quarantine program, then it become $5,000 for a 5-star hotel quarantine, and now we’ll have to pay the same amount for a facility in Darwin.”
Deb Tellis, who is stranded in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru and has been trying to return to Australia since June says she is ‘gingerly optimistic” about today’s announcement.
“I don’t want to get too excited because I’ve been disappointed several times before, but I really hope this helps out the vulnerable women with little children who have been unable to travel back to Australia since the start of this year,” she told SBS Punjabi.
“I really hope that there are flights out of Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru and the mums with kids must get priority.”
As for myself, I am resigned to the fact that I won’t be home in Newcastle for Christmas. I just hope that the Indian government gives me a visa extension and I’ll just wait it out because I’m not in that vulnerable category.”
Around 398,000 Australians have returned to Australia since 13 March when border restrictions were first imposed. More than 4,100 Australians registered with DFAT have returned since 18 September, including over a quarter who were considered vulnerable.
Which airline carrier will bring Australians home from India?
Whilst the Prime Minister confirmed today that the flights from UK for the new arrangement at Howard Springs will be operated by Qantas, there is no official word if the same would happen for Australians stuck in India.
“I’m very apprehensive about the additional flights that will be announced, not knowing which carrier they might be and the fact that they may not even be on Qantas,” says Saurabh Jolly.
n July this year, Mr Jolly had paid over $5,000 for three Air India tickets to fly back to Australia with his wife and daughter.
“The flight got cancelled at the last minute and I am still awaiting a refund from Air India four months later.”
He said India’s national airline continues to announce flights but many of them get continue to get cancelled.
“I know that four Air India flights were scheduled in the first half of October, of which two were cancelled after they had been booked out.”
“People are so desperate that they line up at the Air India office at 8 am every morning hoping that the ticket counter will open and new flights will become available.”
Mr Jolly says he wouldn’t risk booking again, only to lose thousands of dollars more.
Deb Tellis in Bengaluru has had a similar experience in June this year.
“My daughter and I were meant to fly in late June, but we weren’t allowed due to a glitch. I’ve lost $7,000 on unused flight tickets and even the travel companies found a loophole not to refund the amount.”